November 10, 2021

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

During the pandemic, Americans increased their savings and lowered credit card balances. That is ending as people pay record prices for cars and houses. Credit card and student loan balances are climbing, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. But credit card balances are still lower than they were in 2019.

“As pandemic relief efforts wind down, we are beginning to see the reversal of some of the credit card balance trends seen during the pandemic, namely reduced consumption and the paying down of balances,” says Donghoon Lee, a research officer for the Fed, “At the same time, as pandemic restrictions are lifted and consumption normalizes, credit card usage and balances are resuming their pre-pandemic trends, although from lower levels.”

(Federal Reserve Bank of New York)

Even with all of this new debt, the New York Fed survey says foreclosures remain low and probably will stay that way into 2022. “The share of mortgage balances 90+ days past due remained at 0.5%,” the Fed report says. In fact, all of the categories that the report tracks show fewer people behind on payments compared to a year ago.

New EEOC guidance for employers and workers: How to know if a religious vaccine exemption is valid

The deadline for federal workers to get vaccinated or risk losing their jobs is this week and thousands of federal works are seeking an exemption based on their religious beliefs. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission just issued new guidance for how the exemption will be considered. The guidance comes under Title VII, the federal employment discrimination law. Title VII “requires employers to accommodate employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances absent undue hardship.”

The EEOC’s new guidelines try to separate religious beliefs from secular beliefs. EEOC says “objections to COVID-19 vaccination that are based on social, political, or personal preferences, or on nonreligious concerns about the possible effects of the vaccine do not qualify as ‘religious beliefs’ under Title VII.”

What qualifies as a religious belief? The San Diego Union-Tribune mined Supreme Court decisions to get to the main qualifications for a religion:

In a 2002 ruling, the California Court of Appeal identified three attributes religions tend to have. First, a religion “addresses fundamental and ultimate questions” addressing “deep and imponderable matters.” Second, a religion is a comprehensive belief system rather than “an isolated teaching.” Third, a religion often has such “formal and external signs” as services or holidays. The appellate court held that an employee’s veganism was insufficiently comprehensive to be characterized as anything more than a personal philosophy.

In 2017, the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a hospital worker’s objection to a flu vaccine mandate was medical, not religious, in nature. The employee asserted in writing that he believed the vaccine would do his body more harm than good. The employee believed that “if he yielded to coercion and consented to the hospital mandatory policy, he would violate his conscience as to what is right and what is wrong.”

Said the court: “It does not appear that these beliefs address fundamental and ultimate questions having to do with deep and imponderable matters, nor are they comprehensive in nature. Generally, (the employee) simply worries about the health effects of the flu vaccine, disbelieves the scientifically accepted view that it is harmless to most people, and wishes to avoid this vaccine.” His refusal to get vaccinated because he believes it may harm him “is a medical belief, not a religious one.”

The EEOC’s new guidance warns employers to take requests for religious exemptions seriously and not to “assume that an employee is insincere simply because some of the employee’s practices deviate from the commonly followed tenets of the employee’s religion, or because the employee adheres to some common practices but not others.” The EEOC guidance says:

The sincerity of an employee’s stated religious beliefs also is not usually in dispute. The employee’s sincerity in holding a religious belief is “largely a matter of individual credibility.”

Factors that — either alone or in combination — might undermine an employee’s credibility include: whether the employee has acted in a manner inconsistent with the professed belief (although employees need not be scrupulous in their observance); whether the accommodation sought is a particularly desirable benefit that is likely to be sought for nonreligious reasons; whether the timing of the request renders it suspect (e.g., it follows an earlier request by the employee for the same benefit for secular reasons); and whether the employer otherwise has reason to believe the accommodation is not sought for religious reasons.

Employers do not have to undergo “undue hardship” to accommodate a person’s religious beliefs. For example, an employer would not have to grant paid leave for the length of the pandemic for people who do not want to get vaccinated.

Americans are ‘over’ COVID-19

The newest Axios/Ipsos Coronavirus Index shows Americans have had it with COVID-19 and are returning to pre-pandemic habits.

The majority of Americans say they consider gathering with family and friends, dining in a restaurant and shopping in a mall as low- or even no-risk activities now.

If you just read social media or watched local news you would think the public is about to set fire to state capitals, school board offices and city halls over local COVID-19 policies. But the newest polling shows people are fairly happy with how governors, local governments, schools and especially local businesses handled the pandemic.


Six in 10 Americans represented in the Ipsos survey support employers making vaccines mandatory, but the survey found we are not of one mind when it comes to what to do about people who refuse vaccinations:

  • Support for firing employees who do not comply remains low (14%).
  • Americans are torn on whether nothing should happen (25%),
  • Employers should place them on unpaid leave (23%), or
  • Require them to work from home or an alternate location (20%).

The plastic pandemic waste floating toward beaches

Science Daily points us to a new study that pinpoints 8 million tons of pandemic-era plastic gloves, face masks and other junk and projects where it is heading. Most of it comes from Asia.

In Singapore, unvaxxed people will pay their own medical bills

Starting Dec. 8, people in Singapore who choose not to take the COVID-19 vaccine and who get sick will pay their own hospital bills. Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said, “We have to send this important signal to urge everyone to get vaccinated if you are eligible.”

A Vermont Halloween party spread COVID-19. Is this what winter 2021 looks like?

Over the last week, Vermont has set new state records for COVID-19 cases and a Halloween party at Saint Michael’s College helped fuel it, state officials claim. 77 students tested positive after the party. The school’s website shows the sudden spike in cases from regular testing on campus:

(Saint Michael’s College)

New cases in Vermont are up 51% in two weeks and hospitalizations are rising, too. Experts worry that what is happening there may happen around the country as the weather cools and people move inside for the winter.

(The New York Times)

Was March Madness a superspreader event?

The Dallas Morning News reports that researchers looked at counties with schools that did and did not participate in March Madness. When participating teams and spectators came home from the basketball tournament, COVID-19 cases rose in their counties in ways that didn’t happen in counties in the same states that did not have attending schools. There is no way to know if the tournament had anything to do with the spread of the virus, or whether it was travel or the parties. While cases rose among spectators who attended out-of-town games, levels declined back to rates similar to surrounding counties within a few weeks.

As used car prices rise more, even insiders are surprised

Just look at this chart from an industry index on used car prices:

(Cox Automotive/Manheim)

Used car prices are up more than 9% in just one month and prices have risen a jaw-dropping 38% in the last year. The Manheim Index, which is used by financial and economic analysts, says, “Midsize cars and vans had the largest year-over-year performance, while the pickup and luxury car segments lagged the overall market. On a month-over-month basis, no segment saw declines, with compact cars outpacing the market and remaining segments.”

Look at this chart and see how much used vehicles in each category have increased in price.

(Cox Automotive/Manheim)

The Manheim Index found that used car sales are down 10% in the last year while new car sales dropped by 23% in the last year.

Police hurt teenage Black girls

The Marshall Project produced an important investigation that I wanted to be sure you saw to follow up on yourselves. The report said:

A review of data from six large police departments around the country reveals that nearly 4,000 young people ages 17 and under experienced police violence from 2015 through 2020. Almost 800 of the children and teens — roughly a fifth of the total — were Black girls. White girls were involved in about 120 cases, representing only 3% of use-of-force incidents involving minors.

Marshall’s investigation looked at racial disparities in use-of-force cases in Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus, and Portland, Oregon. Marshall said, “Several of these departments declined to comment.” So perhaps you should press them for a response.

The story added some other points of clarity:

As Black communities are painfully aware, and researchers have detailed, Black boys bear the brunt of police violence against minors. That was true in our data, too. More than 2,200 Black boys were involved in use-of-force incidents in the six cities we examined.

But Black girls also accounted for a significant share of the cases. In New Orleans, every girl in use-of-force data was Black; two-thirds of the girls who live in the city are Black. A spokesman for the police department emphasized that all but one of the incidents “involved lower levels of force (Hands, Takedown, Firearm Pointing, etc.).”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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