May 17, 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 federal government is offering $50 a month to tens of millions of families to pay for their internet connections. The $3.2 billion from the Emergency Broadband Benefits program (known as the EBB) flows through the Federal Communications Commission, which explains:

The Emergency Broadband Benefit will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands.

Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.

Here are the eligibility requirements. They are way more generous than you might have guessed, meaning millions of people who have never heard of this are eligible. Applicants qualify if a member of the household meets even one of these criteria:

  • Has an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline;
  • Approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

This is the application page. Before you apply, peck through this page to see if you qualify. So many people are using the website that it crashed the page on the first day it was up.

But duh! How can people apply if they do not have internet? The FCC will mail you an application:

Call 833-511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with copies of documents showing proof of eligibility to:

Emergency Broadband Support Center
P.O. Box 7081
London, KY 40742

Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler says:

For many, the EBB discount may make going online totally free. The money goes straight to your ISP, which will deduct it from your bill every month until six months after the pandemic is officially over — or, more likely, until the program runs out of money. That’s one good reason to sign up as soon as possible.

But before you can get the EBB, you have to prove you’re eligible. The good news: Many, many Americans are eligible for a range of reasons — so many, that not even the FCC has been able to figure out exactly how many people the EBB could affect or how long the money will last.

I went through the application process with some of the country’s largest Internet providers. For most people, signing up is a two-part process of proving your eligibility to the government, and then telling your ISP that you want the discount. It involves uploading (or physically mailing) some paperwork, but the FCC says the process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

You can find out if your local internet provider is on the list. It is an important detail, but the list is pretty inclusive. You should not have a problem finding a partner if you qualify for the benefit.

Nurses’ union says the CDC acted too quickly and we should be wearing masks

Everywhere I went this weekend — to the grocery, to the hardware store, to church and restaurants — I saw a wider range of people wearing and not wearing masks than I expected. In church, most people wore masks coming and leaving but sat without them, and most still did not sing out loud. It is going to take a while to get at ease.

No doubt states will be recalibrating their guidelines this week.

(The New York Times)

Meanwhile, over the weekend, the nation’s largest nurses’ union implored the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to change its ruling and go back to recommending masks to everyone, even people who have been fully vaccinated.

National Nurses United executive director Bonnie Castillo said, “Now is not the time to relax protective measures, and we are outraged that the CDC has done just that while we are still in the midst of the deadliest pandemic in a century.” She said the CDC’s guidance is “not based on science, does not protect public health, and threatens the lives of patients, nurses, and other frontline workers across the country.”

The union cited five concerns about dropping the mask guidance:

A continued high number of Covid cases in the United States, with more than 35,000 new detected infections reported each day, and more than 600 people dying from Covid each day. Yesterday, 780 people died from Covid-19.

Circulation of Covid variants of concern that are more transmissible, deadlier, and may already be or may become vaccine resistant.

Unanswered questions about vaccines. Nurses emphasize that it’s unclear how well vaccines prevent asymptomatic and mild Covid infections, how well vaccines prevent transmission of the virus, and how long protection from vaccines will last.

The CDC announced they would no longer be tracking infections among fully vaccinated people unless they result in hospitalization or death. This means that the CDC is no longer tracking data necessary to understand whether vaccines prevent asymptomatic/mild infections, how long vaccine protection may last, and to understand how variants impact vaccine protection.

The CDC “recognized” scientific evidence on aerosol transmission but refused to update guidance based on science. Nurses say the CDC needs to fully recognize aerosol transmission and update its Covid guidance accordingly to prioritize measures that prevent and reduce aerosol transmission (ventilation, respiratory protection, testing to identify asymptomatic cases).

Why April 13 is the day that COVID-19 vaccinations slowed

Empty vials of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

If you look for a singular reason why vaccinations slowed down in the United States, you might look to April 13 for a clue. That was the peak of America’s vaccination rate. That was also the day that the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration pressed pause on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over concerns about whether people who took the vaccine were suffering from unexpected side effects.

That pause lifted after 10 days, but the momentum behind the national vaccine program never regained its strength. A recent Kaiser Family poll found:

… (l)ess than half the public expresses confidence in the safety of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and concerns about potential side effects have increased among those not yet vaccinated, especially women. Hispanic women are particularly likely to say that the news of these blood clots caused them to rethink their vaccination decision.

The Kaiser polling occurred right after the pause began and continued in the field until after the pause was lifted, so it caught public attitudes during and after the CDC/FDA decision.

The Kaiser polling found that the public had significantly less confidence in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine compared to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines:

(Kaiser Family Foundation)

The Kaiser polling does provide the context that most people either had not heard about the Johnson & Johnson concerns or were not affected by them when the polling occurred. But among some demographics — including Black men and Hispanic women, both already groups with lower vaccination rates — hesitancy grew.

Look at this chart in The New York Times and you will see the dramatic reaction after April 13:

(The New York Times)

But not so fast, says David Lazer, a professor at Northeastern University and a principal investigator at the COVID States Project. He says with or without the Johnson & Johnson pause, we were heading for a mid-April slowdown.

Derek Thompson at The Atlantic makes it more difficult to find a single vaccine villain, saying:

Vaccine hesitancy is not one single thing, but a constellation of notions about personal autonomy, safety, and science. At base, it is a highly personal cost-benefit analysis, in which individuals are weighing their feelings about the pandemic against their feelings about the shots. Before its reputation took a hit, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine offered skeptics a confidence booster. If we can’t turn back time and restore their confidence, we might have to pay them instead.

A big week in the auto world — Ford’s new electric pickup truck

The Ford company logo hangs over a row of 2020 F-150 pickup trucks at a Ford dealership Sunday, Oct. 11, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

When I was a kid, there was a weekend every year when auto dealers would have an open-house kind of event where we would eat free hot dogs and stroll around gawking at the new models of cars that we could not afford. The dealerships sometimes even had the new models sitting in the showrooms covered with tarps for a week before the big unveiling. Car and Driver would publish “spy pictures” of what was coming.

But as car companies stopped changing models from year to year and as makes and models became less and less distinctive, the big new car shows faded away.

But this week, something (potentially) big will happen in the auto world.

Ford is rolling out a new all-electric F-150 pickup truck. President Joe Biden will be there in Michigan for the announcement. The trucks will hit the market next year.

The F-150, introduced in 1948, is, without bravado, the most popular motor vehicle of all time. The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for 39 years and the best-selling pickup truck for 44 years.

It is big news for Ford to make a radical shift in its most important vehicle. The event might be a hook to examine:

The current popularity of electric vehicles. EVs make up 2% of the new car market and 1% of all cars, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks on the road. While overall sales are increasing and the percentage of new car sales that are EVs is increasing, gas-powered engines still dominate U.S. car sales by a wide margin.

And while ownership is increasing, Green Car Reports says that one in five EV owners goes back to gas-powered cars, often because of the hassle involved in charging and the limit on the number of miles you can go between recharges.

How much of a disincentive is it to be limited to a few hundred miles per charge?

What is the availability of charging stations near you now and what are the plans? How would the Biden infrastructure proposal fund new charging stations? Where should they go?

The Verge reports:

There are approximately 41,000 public charging stations in the United States, with more than 100,000 outlets. But finding one that actually works or isn’t locked inside a gated parking garage can be a bit of a scavenger hunt. The charging experience in the US is almost comically fragmented, especially for non-Tesla owners. While Tesla’s Supercharger network has been praised for its seamless user experience and fast charging ability, the opposite appears to be true for pretty much everyone else.

President Biden’s plan includes $174 billion of which is earmarked for electric cars. As part of that plan, Biden wants to build 500,000 new EV chargers by 2030 — 11 times the current number of stations.

One-third of those stations are located in one state: California, with a whopping 22,620 stations, according to a recent study by Pew Trust. Other states have few, bordering on none. North Dakota has 36 public chargers, Alaska just 26.

By contrast, there are about 150,000 gas stations in America.

Did the Colonial Pipeline interruption this week remind people of the benefits of an alternate fuel supply?

The popularity of pickup trucks.

CNBC reports:

Pickups accounted for five of the industry’s 10 best-selling vehicles in 2020 despite their increasingly higher prices and the coronavirus pandemic.

“Pickup trucks have been very successful. They have marched through this pandemic so well,” Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights for auto research firm Edmunds, told CNBC. “They have boosted up all of their respective companies. Particularly the Detroit companies, they have kept business afloat fairly well.”

As sales to commercial and other fleet customers came to a grinding halt during the coronavirus pandemic, automakers touted retail consumers purchasing pickups as quickly as they could produce them in 2020. The companies are still attempting to resupply inventories following a roughly two-month shutdown of their North American plants last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic.

FlexFleet says California has the most pickup trucks (4.7 million) while Texas is next (4.2 million) followed by Florida (2.1 million). In fact, California and Texas represent more than 40% of all of the pickups in the country (44%).

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,…
Al Tompkins

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