October 27, 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. 

Bargain hunters will have to look a lot harder this holiday shopping season because industry analysts say everything from athletic shoes to handbags will be selling at full price. You can thank the interruptions in the supply chain, which keep store inventories tight. The Wall Street Journal found:

The number of out-of-stock messages online is up 172% compared with January 2020, according to Adobe Inc., which tracks visits to retail websites and product categories. Of the 18 categories tracked by Adobe, apparel currently has the highest stock-out levels, followed by sporting goods, baby products, and electronics.

Adobe expects holiday-season discounts of 5% to 25%, less than the historical range of 10% to 30%.

“This year’s promotional levels have been lower than historical levels, and we’ve been thoughtful about the categories that need promotion,” Adrian Mitchell, Macy’s Inc.’s finance chief, told investors in September.

Retailers are relieved that this holiday season may interrupt customers’ habits of waiting until after Christmas to buy steeply discounted items.

Your Thanksgiving meal will cost a lot more this year

The New York Times calculated the cost of Thanksgiving feast ingredients.

Nearly every component of the traditional American Thanksgiving dinner, from the disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan to the coffee and pie, will cost more this year, according to agricultural economists, farmers and grocery executives. Major food companies like Nestlé and Procter & Gamble have already warned consumers to brace for more price increases.

Granted, last year the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner for 10 was the lowest it had been since 2010, according to the American Farm Bureau, whose annual survey of large dinners will be released Nov. 18. But because of the pandemic, fewer people bought for big gatherings, and turkey prices were kept low to entice shoppers. This year, turkey prices are likely to hit record highs, and the cost of many foods has jumped sharply.

The cost of turkey may hit record highs by the end of the year. That’s partly because the price of corn, which is in turkey feed, doubled from last summer to this summer. Some price increases have nothing to do with the stuff inside the package. The price of cranberry sauce, for example, is higher because the steel cans cost so much more. The price of steel is up 37% this year.

I just heard from a friend who runs a local food bank that demand is steadily increasing as food prices increase. Keep an eye on this. Call your local food banks. A small price increase means mega expenses for them.

It seems everyone (but you?) is getting a pay raise

I suspect it chaps you journalists a bit to do stories about how seemingly everybody else is cashing bigger checks these days. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says average earnings are up 4.5% over last year. Industries like hospitality and construction raised pay even more. Construction pay is up 7.1% and leisure and hospitality pay rose 11.2%.

Axios says that the majority of workers in one survey report higher wages:

According a new quarterly survey by the National Association for Business Economics, a record high 58% of respondents increased pay at their firms during the third quarter — and nearly the same share expects to do so again in the coming months.

The Conference Board, a large business research group, says 3% raises are the norm across most businesses and will be again in 2022. Remember that a 3% raise will not keep up with the current rate of inflation. In other words, those who got a 3% or 4% raise this year are losing ground.

(The Conference Board)

I have never seen as many open TV producer jobs that I see today. LinkedIn lists more than a thousand. Recruiters tell me they can’t fill the jobs as fast as people are leaving them. There may be a connection to this Bureau of Labor Statistics table that shows how much journalists earn.

(Bureau of Labor Statistics)

That puts reporter pay at about a third lower than mining, logging and construction. It is above hospitality (think waiting tables.) But there is job security and the public loves you.

Volunteer fire departments desperate for volunteers

To city folk, volunteer fire departments may sound small-town quaint. But in much of the country, volunteers make up the backbone of first responders.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports:

70% of Virginia’s firefighters are volunteers and 552 fire departments rely on them, but their ranks are thinning here and elsewhere.

Nationally from 1984 to 2018, there has been an approximate 17% drop in the number of volunteers, while the number of fire calls went up 209% during roughly the same time period — from 11,890,000 in 1986 to 36,746,500 in 2018, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

The Times-Dispatch says there are lots of theories about why volunteer departments are in trouble. The story says we may have lost our “sense of community,” and our “increased mobility” may also be a factor. And The National Volunteer Fire Council says volunteer forces are getting older.

Pandemic drinking increased and so did the need for liver transplants

Bottles of alcohol lay on a table as they are to be positioned behind the bar of the Prince of Peckham pub in London, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Be careful about drawing too straight of a line between these facts, but they are happening at the same time and might be connected. (Emphasis on might.) CNN reports:

The number of people who got a liver transplant or were put on a waiting list due to alcoholic hepatitis was 50% higher than what was forecast based on pre-pandemic trends.

The results published in JAMA Network Open showed a positive correlation between the increase in the number of people on the waiting list for a liver due to alcoholic hepatitis and the increase in retail sales of alcohol during the pandemic.

“While we cannot confirm causality, this disproportionate increase in association with increasing alcohol sales may indicate a relationship with known increases in alcohol misuse during COVID-19,” the researchers wrote. “This study provides evidence for an alarming increase in (alcoholic hepatitis) associated with increasing alcohol misuse during COVID-19 and highlights the need for public health interventions around excessive alcohol consumption.”

EMS depts. are losing up to a third of staff per year

The American Ambulance Association and the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians say the system that you depend on in your hour of need is in peril. The two groups recently issued a report saying that some departments have a complete staff turnover every four years.

The most sweeping survey of its kind — involving nearly 20,000 employees working at 258 EMS organizations — found that overall turnover among paramedics and EMTs ranges from 20 to 30 percent annually. With percentages that high, ambulance services face 100% turnover over a four- year period. Staffing shortages compromise our ability to respond to healthcare emergencies, especially in rural and underserved parts of the country.

The pandemic exacerbated this shortage and highlighted our need to better understand the drivers of workforce turnover. There are many factors. Our ambulance crews are suffering under the grind of surging demand, burnout, fear of getting sick and stresses on their families. In addition, with COVID-19 halting clinical and in-person trainings for a long period of time, our pipeline for staff is stretched even more.

Maine Public Radio reports:

EMS crews have been busier than ever this year, as people who delayed getting care during the covid-19 pandemic have grown progressively sicker.

But there’s limited workforce to meet the demand. Both nationally and in Maine, staffing issues have plagued the EMS system for years. It’s intense work that takes a lot of training and offers low pay. The requirement in Maine and elsewhere that paramedics and emergency medical technicians be vaccinated against covid is another stress on the workforce.

Despite a pandemic slowdown, CO2 in the atmosphere keeps climbing

In this Oct. 15, 2021 file photo, smoke rises from the Feyzin Total refinery chimneys, outside Lyon, central France. The World Meteorological Organization says greenhouse gas concentrations hit a new record high last year and continued to increase at a faster clip than the average rate in the last decade, despite a temporary blip downward amid coronavirus-linked lockdowns. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani, file)

There is a big international climate conference in Scotland next week and carbon dioxide levels will be a topic of conversation. We have heard time and again that because we were not driving and factories were not running full tilt during the pandemic that we produced a lot less greenhouse gasses. The notion that the atmosphere might be getting a little healthier was a little bright spot in a dark time.

The World Meteorological Organization now says carbon dioxide levels rose last year. In fact, it says, levels rose more than the 10-year average in 2020. And there is more. Two other greenhouse gasses, methane and nitrous oxide, rose as well. The report shows levels would have gone even higher without the pandemic interruption in driving and working.

The report provides a backdrop for Congress’ negotiations over President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better proposal that includes the Clean Electricity Performance Program. Biden wants that program to reduce U.S. emissions to about half of 2005 levels by 2030.

Cutting off unemployment did not send more people back to work

States that cut off extended unemployment benefits did not see people suddenly dive back into the workforce, as some predicted. Instead, states that continue to pay extended benefits saw the fastest return to work. There are lots of reasons this happened. For example, some workers said the extended unemployment benefits helped them pay for child care. Without child care, some adults said they could not afford to go to work, especially at low-paying jobs.

The Associated Press found:

In states that cut off the $300 check, the workforce — the number of people who either have a job or are looking for one — has risen no more than it has in the states that maintained the payment. That federal aid, along with two jobless aid programs that served gig workers and the long-term unemployed, ended nationally Sept. 6. Yet America’s overall workforce actually shrank that month.

An analysis of state-by-state data by The Associated Press found that workforces in the 25 states that maintained the $300 payment actually grew slightly more from May through September, according to data released Friday, than they did in the 25 states that cut off the payment early, most of them in June. The $300-a-week federal check, on top of regular state jobless aid, meant that many of the unemployed received more in benefits than they earned at their old jobs.

Some examples from AP’s reporting:

(The Associated Press)

The (inexperienced) health officials around America

Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press have counted at least 300 health leaders around the country who resigned or retired from their jobs leading health departments. Many said they were weary of verbal abuse and threats during the pandemic.

Kaiser followed up on the story to check in with the people who are taking those jobs and the report finds that the new blood tends to be far less experienced and they are increasingly given significantly less authority than their predecessors. KHN reports:

At least 26 states have passed laws or regulations limiting the powers of public health officers this year, meaning these replacements have fewer tools and less authority than their predecessors to enforce their orders and recommendations.

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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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