January 15, 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.

Pandemic models show the United States topping 400,000 deaths and rocketing toward a half million sometime in February. It is not just one pandemic model showing the situation getting worse. All of them say that.


California just passed 30,000 COVID deaths. 30,000 Texans have also died from COVID-19. And, in the weeks to come, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, the United States will see 30,000 COVID-19 deaths a week.

That is what our current rate of 4,000 deaths per day will bring.

The CDC says 92,000 COVID-19 deaths are possible and probable in the next three weeks in the United States.

In the past week, deaths are up by at least 10% in half of all states. Daily fatalities are rising in 33 states and up by more than 10% in more than 25 states. In Alabama, deaths rose by 203% over the past seven days.  Alabama has administered the lowest number of COVID-19 vaccines in proportion to their population.

We all have become inured to these numbers and these charts.

(Daily Mail)

Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, talks about the concept of “psychic numbing.

A National Geographic story explains why these numbers may not be sinking in:

In a 2014 study that looked at charitable giving, Slovic found that people’s concern for those in distress didn’t increase as the number of needy cases did. “Our feelings are very strong for one person in danger, but they don’t scale up very well,” he says. “If there are two people, you don’t feel twice as bad. Your attention gets divided, and you don’t have as strong an emotional connection.”

Slovic suggests our brains evolved this way as a coping mechanism. Millions of years ago, humans weren’t even aware of distant people’s plagues, conflicts, or disasters, so we naturally focused on protecting ourselves, our families, and our small communities.

In addition, the long duration of the pandemic, combined with the absence of a clear end, can dull people’s sense of shock, other experts say. Simply put, some brains have gotten used to hearing about COVID-19 deaths to the point where higher numbers no longer register emotionally.

(National Geographic)

The National Geographic story points out that we are quite good at going on social media and expressing our outrage at news events, like a mass killing or last week’s riot at the Capitol. But, unlike images of a memorial, there is no single unifying image of hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 deaths.

By contrast, the coronavirus is everywhere, and people don’t have a way to process their amorphous, long-haul grief. No single iconic photo that conveys the gravity of the pandemic has emerged and prompted mass indignation. Due to restrictions on social gatherings, many family members of victims cannot even attend funerals, let alone visit memorials that haven’t been built.

And, experts say, checking out emotionally is a human way to deal with uncertainty. But that numbness does us no good.

That is why journalists have to keep telling close-up stories of loss, recovery, discovery, success, fear and determination. We do not have the luxury of getting tired of covering this story. The numbers say it is going to get worse.

Drug trials need teens to volunteer to take vaccines

A screener registers a person for a second COVID-19 vaccine in the post vaccine observation area at the New York State Nassau drive-through vaccination site in Jones Beach State Park, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Wantagh, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Moderna says it needs at least 3,000 teenagers to sign up to take its COVID-19 vaccine in drug trials so we can find out the right dose(s) needed to protect young people.

The first drug trials did not include teens or children and did not include pregnant or nursing mothers. Now that we have approved vaccines for most adults, we have to refine the recommendations for such subgroups.

USA Today reports:

Moncef Slaoui, the scientific head of Operation Warp Speed, the government’s vaccine effort, said Tuesday that while a vaccine trial in adults is accruing 800 volunteers per day, the teen trial is getting only about 800 per month.

Vaccines are important for young people, even though they tend not to get as ill as older folks, because we still do not know for certain how often infected children spread the virus to adults. NBC News profiled some of the young volunteers who have already signed up.

Here is the National Institutes of Health portal to sign up for drug trials.

USA Today points out:

More than 2 million minors were diagnosed with COVID-19 in 2020, and many more probably contracted the disease but were never diagnosed.

This fall, U.S. counties with large colleges or universities that held in-person classes saw a 56% increase in COVID-19 cases after classes started, and college students fueled the 19 hottest outbreaks in the U.S. during the fall semester.

At least 172 American children had died of COVID-19 as of Dec. 17, compared with 166 who died of the flu during the 2019-2020 flu season.

So how does a teen sign up? USA Today says:

Even if parents want their kids to participate, it may be tough to get a busy adolescent to participate in the two-shot process.

“It’s a pretty recalcitrant group in general,” noted Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease and global health expert at Stanford University School of Medicine, the mother of three, now grown.

Legally, children over age 7 must agree to take part in a trial, even if their parent signs off on it.

Trial volunteers are given two shots of the vaccine 3-4 weeks apart and their blood is drawn several times.

Restaurant and hotel workers can’t catch a COVID-19 break

Steve Olsen, left, owner of the West Bank Café, sends a to-go order to the kitchen as Janet Momjian works at the bar in the empty restaurant, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Just when it appeared that restaurant and hotel workers might be on more secure footing, the December job figures showed us their job security is anything but secure. A half-million service sector workers lost their jobs in December. Remember, that is usually a busy month, with holiday parties and celebration dinners. Not in a pandemic.

A Washington Post story says:

Restaurant and bar workers comprised the bulk of those losses, roughly 3 in 4, an onslaught that disproportionately affected women and workers of color. Overall employment in the sector has fallen 23 percent during the pandemic, outpacing every other industry, federal data shows.

With new rounds of state-mandated restaurant and bar restrictions, and winter weather limiting outdoor dining, food services accounted for 372,000 job losses in December. That backslide obliterated significant hiring gains in industries like professional services, retail and construction, and the United States recorded a net loss of 140,000 jobs in December — its first negative showing since April.

“A lot of these places were only just holding on, and a lot of people were crossing their fingers and hoping for the best,” said Martha Gimbel, a labor economist and senior manager of economic research at Schmidt Futures. “But December was an important reminder that there are industries that will not be recovering until this public health crisis is over.”

There is some help on the way. The Payroll Protection Plan that restarted this week is aimed directly at small businesses like restaurants, but analysts say the help may only delay the inevitable business closures.

As soon as they take control of the White House and Senate, Democrats say they will try to get more help for restaurants with a bill called the Restaurants Act. It would bring $120 billion of additional help and would provide grants to businesses that have annual revenues of less than $1.5 million a year.

You might not realize that there are about a half-million independent restaurants in the U.S. They account for almost three-quarters of all restaurants and bars in the country. 11 million workers depend on those businesses.

Everywhere you look, you will find stories about restaurants feeling the pressure of trying to operate in the pandemic.

In Chicago, about a dozen businesses were cited for violating local dining laws. Michigan restaurants hoped to reopen for indoor dining today but got delayed again. Kansas City relaxed restrictions but still advised against going to bars and restaurants.

The Berkshire Eagle gives you a glimpse into why restaurants are a target for restrictions:

At least seven COVID-19 cases have been linked to one North Adams (Massachusetts) restaurant, as dining venues appear to be driving virus spread throughout the city.

The city has about 50 active cases, with as many as 20 new positive tests over the past week, according to data shared with the board. A majority of the cases are coming from restaurants, said Heather DeMarsico, the city’s health director.

61 members of Congress have tested positive for COVID-19

I want to be careful with this headline because it would be easy to jump to a conclusion that those who have been infected somehow did something reckless. They might have, but we would have to know a lot more to be able to say that.

Some of the cases (four Democrats and two Republicans) seem to be linked to last week’s attack on the Capitol, although even that claim would have to be proven through contact tracing — if it could be proven.

The New York Times provides this graphic:

(New York Times)

Mortgage rates are rising

They really can’t go down much further, so when mortgage rates move now, there is only one way for them to go, and that is up. This rise is predictable because long-term bond yields, which are an influence on mortgages and other consumer loans, are rising. As I explained last week, bond rates are rising partly because of another $900 billion stimulus bill.

Even with a rise, the rates for both Treasury bills (1.18%) are still really low. But they remain higher than they have been since March of last year. All of this means that home mortgage rates are likely to rise but not rocket. ABC News has some context.

Bankrate, which constantly tracks home mortgage rates, adds:

The rate for a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage is 2.94 percent, climbing 8 basis points over the last week. A month ago, the average interest rate on a 30-year mortgage was more favorable, at 2.86 percent.

As I read that paragraph, I think back to 1980, when I bought a home with a 13.5% mortgage rate because we were convinced the rate would not go lower anytime soon. We went out to dinner to celebrate our great deal. A year later, the rates were more than 18%.

Covering news while staying safe

The days ahead will test our ability to cover news calmly and accurately while not understating the level of fomenting threats. We know that when you show up with cameras, it can attract protesters and demonstrators and rioters like moths to flames. So, part of your challenge will be to cover what is happening while limiting speculation about what might happen.

Right after police killed George Floyd, I drafted some guidelines for journalists to think about while doing their essential work. Lots of you helped refine the guidelines and no doubt we will continue refining our thoughts together.

We’ll be back next week with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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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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