March 22, 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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opened the door to relaxed social distancing standards for schools. But schools could make classrooms safer fast by opening the windows, even just a little.

The New York Times worked with a leading engineering firm to understand just how easy and effective opening windows could be in making classrooms more COVID-safe. The models show that in a typical, closed classroom, about 3% of the air students inhale was exhaled by somebody else in the room.

To become a “healthy room,” the air in a room should be exchanged six times per hour, running through a filtration system. In one simulation, just opening a single window would allow four of the six air exchanges needed to make the classroom “healthy.” By adding an inexpensive box fan or air cleaner with a HEPA filter, the classroom became much “healthier.”

By the way, in New York, classrooms must have at least one window that will open. Is it the same where you are? I wonder how many classrooms have unopenable windows that have been painted shut, are stuck or somehow locked because of security concerns. I ask because teachers, like this sixth-grade math teacher in Boston, recently posted photos of the windows in their classrooms.

Other teachers told The Boston Globe that somebody dropped a fan off to their classrooms but didn’t include an extension cord to get the fans near windows. That’s what passed for the school’s COVID-19 ventilation solution.

Education Week reports:

A government study found more than 2 out of 5 U.S. districts need to update or replace the heating, air conditioning, and ventilation systems in at least half of their schools. The report found some 36,000 schools had outdated HVAC systems or those in need of repair or replacement — making it by far the most common infrastructure problem in schools. Federal researchers estimated high-poverty school districts spent on average $300 less per student on capital projects like HVAC upkeep and replacement than did low-poverty districts, $719 per student versus $1,016 per student.

The latest COVID-19 relief bill included $170 billion for schools — from grade schools to colleges — to install ventilation systems and make other COVID-related improvements. Journalists should stay on top of how and where this money will be spent, who lands the contracts and whether the work gets done properly. Watch closely, especially when that much money is spent quickly.

Schools continue to be connected to COVID-19 cases across America. WBZ in Boston documents a new jump in cases connected to schools there. KUSA reports that 19 of the 59 new “outbreaks” in Colorado are connected to schools. A new outbreak in a Minnesota school system sent kids home to learn remotely. Philadelphia teachers say we need much better tracking to know which schools are hotspots.

But in Ohio, cases connected to schools fell to “a new low.”

(NBC4i)

The pandemic’s toll on funeral homes and burial rituals

Friends and family of Larry Hammond who were among only 10 mourners allowed sit in chairs spaced for social distancing, during his funeral at Boyd Funeral Home in New Orleans, Wednesday, April 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The Detroit News gives us a look inside the funeral industry that has, at times in the last year, been overwhelmed and possibly transformed. Morticians scrambled for protective gear and disinfectants. They worked around the clock and have had to tell families they were at capacity.

The Detroit News story includes a mortician who says he is getting calls several times a week about people who have been found dead after they “bunkered in their homes and no one checks on them. They’re just kind of forgotten about.”

This passage sums up the changes the funeral industry has faced:

For those permitted to attend, mourning attire included face masks and plastic face shields complemented, at times, by rubber gloves. Some families, out of fear of potentially spreading COVID-19, canceled funerals altogether. Some of those services are still on hold.

“One sad thing is that some may never be memorialized,” said Karla Cole, the owner of James H. Cole funeral homes, which has two locations in Detroit. “I fear there is going to be a lot of unresolved grief.”

While accommodating fewer people per service, Metro Detroit mortuaries were conducting many more funerals as virus deaths ramped up.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, when the volume was so overwhelming, we reluctantly had to do something we had never done in our 100-year history, and that was to have to tell people that we were at capacity and could not pick up their loved one or they would have to wait four or five days to pick them up from the hospital or morgue,” Karla Cole, the owner of James H. Cole funeral homes said. “Overnight, our volume had tripled.”

During the height of the COVID-19 surge, Howe-Peterson was performing 45 funerals a week at its two locations — the number it handled in a typical month before the pandemic, Steve Kemp Sr., owner of Kemp Funeral Home said.

On Tuesday night on PBS, “Frontline” will include a pandemic-related story called “Death Is Our Business.” Filmmaker Jacqueline Olive takes viewers into two of the oldest Black-owned funeral homes in New Orleans to spotlight the devastating impact of coronavirus on the Black community there and its cherished cultural funeral rituals and practices. Here are a trailer and a press release with details.

I read the promotional material just after I saw a really big cemetery gathering not far from where I live. It was so striking because it has been a year since I have seen a gathering like that.

The documentary promotion says:

While revealing the racial disparities of the virus’ toll, the film goes inside two of the oldest Black-owned funeral homes in the city, offering an intimate look at rituals that are specific to how many Black Americans funeralize their loved ones and the troubling ways that the pandemic has impacted them — forcing once in-person church services, packed and overflowing, into virtual Zoom, Skype, and Facebook Live spaces.

Some within the funeral industry wonder if the traditions are forever changed. Will we, in the future, not gather for wakes or memorials? Are virtual funerals here to stay? WBBM radio explored that story.

Why 40% of health care workers have not been vaccinated

The Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post provide us with some head-scratching survey data showing almost four out of 10 health care workers still have not gotten a COVID-19 vaccine. Around 30% of doctors and nurses surveyed have not gotten vaccinated and, in some cases, do not intend to.

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

The survey found:

A large majority of unvaccinated health care workers who either have not decided if they will get vaccinated, or say they do not plan to get vaccinated, say that worries about potential side effects (82%) and the newness of the vaccine (81%) are major factors in their decision making. These are the top concerns across the different demographic groups of unvaccinated health care workers including Black health care workers, Hispanic health care workers, and White health care workers.

Among frontline health workers, half of Black workers, 45% of workers without a college degree, and four in ten Republican and Republican-leaning workers say they are not confident the COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. have been properly tested for safety and effectiveness. About 1 in 5 of each of these groups also say they will definitely not receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Access to a COVID-19 vaccine from an employer is a key aspect of vaccination rates among frontline health care workers. 6 in 10 health care workers who are not self-employed say they were either offered or received a COVID-19 vaccine from their employer (including 84% of vaccinated health care workers). Reflecting the overall vaccination rates among frontline health care workers, the share of workers who were offered a COVID-19 vaccine from their employer was much lower among those working in patients’ homes (34%).

Will states follow the IRS’s lead on extending the tax deadline?

Axios’ Felix Salmon raised the interesting issue of whether states will extend their income tax deadlines as the federal government has. Salmon also points out, “Tax season also might be the first time that people find out they’ve been the victim of unemployment fraud.”

Hurricane season may begin earlier

This Wednesday, May 27, 2020 satellite image made available by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Tropical Storm Bertha approaching the South Carolina coast. (NOAA via AP)

The official start of the hurricane season is June 1, but for the last five years, the storms have not been playing by the rules. Year after year we have had named storms form in May. Seven named storms have formed before June 1 in the last nine years, and they killed 20 people and caused $200 million in damage. Two named storms, Arthur and Bertha, hit the Carolinas in late May.

Next week, the World Meteorological Organization committee will discuss moving the start of hurricane season up a couple of weeks. The National Hurricane Center isn’t waiting for that decision and will start issuing tropical weather outlooks for the Atlantic on May 15.

The times in which we live — here they come again!

In May, the cicadas will be back from their 17-year slumber. If you are new to the region shown in the map below, or if you are of such an age that you do not recall such a thing, are you ever in for a loud and obnoxious treat.

(USA Today)

Let me just say to you reporters who work outdoors, you might want to rethink any plans for an outdoor event in the time of the invasion. The noise is … never mind, I will link to a video for you to hear it for yourself.

Anyway, at least they are not murder hornets.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? 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,…
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