August 24, 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.

In Nashville, more than a thousand students and staff are in quarantine. Schools in Tampa have 10,000 in quarantine. How will schools handle the thousands of students who are out of classrooms for the first couple of weeks of the school year?

You might think that, given the extensive use of virtual learning, it would be a quick adaptation this semester. But that is not happening. The Palm Beach Post reports:

Virtual classes, a staple of the last school year, are not permitted this year at traditional public schools. But as coronavirus cases once again surge, hundreds of school district students are expected to contract the virus in the coming months, triggering mandatory quarantines of at least 10 days.

Students on quarantine will have excused absences and a chance to make up all missed schoolwork. But the prospect of hundreds of students missing weeks of classroom instruction has many educators worried about the long-term impacts on student achievement.

I have seen some instances of schools, like this one in Oklahoma, making a quick switch to virtual again. The same story is unfolding in suburban Atlanta. And several Dallas area schools are offering virtual classes for kids who are too young for vaccines.

Bloomberg reports New York City is making no such plans:

New York City schools, the largest district in the country, are set to reopen Sept. 13 fully in-person, five days a week, without the remote offering provided to kids last year. (New York Mayor Bill) De Blasio has said the city will not offer a remote option and does not have a Plan B to offer virtual schooling in case rising coronavirus cases shutter schools again.

“We are dealing with an evolving pandemic, and we have younger students currently ineligible for the vaccine,” said Mark Treyger, chairman of the City Council education committee, who is is leading the effort to push the mayor’s office on a more flexible alternative.

CNN reports that in the Texas town of Iraan (pronounced “Ira-Ann”), “during a two-week span this month, 119 people were tested for the virus and 50 tested positive, according to Iraan General Hospital CEO Jason Rybolt. That’s a 42% positivity rate.” The story continues:

The nearest medical centers to Iraan that offer ICU care are in Midland-Odessa and San Angelo, Texas — each about 100 miles away.

“It could be 12 hours. It could be 36 hours, you just never know how long it’s going to take,” Rybolt said of the time necessary for a bed to open up.

At least one Iraan resident has been airlifted out-of-state for care because of the lack of available ICU beds in Texas, Rybolt said.

Last week, the school district shut down after only five days of classes because about a quarter of the staff and 16% of the students got infected or were exposed to Covid-19, according to Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District Superintendent Tracy Canter.

“In the last week, we’ve seen more Covid cases for staff and students than we did the entire year, last year, during school,” Canter said.

For right now the closure is due to last until August 30, depending on the situation. In the meantime, there’s no virtual or remote learning, the superintendent told parents in a letter. She also asked everyone to pitch in to slow the spread of the virus.

The FDA’s full approval for Pfizer’s vaccine will be felt right away

As everyone expected, the Pentagon says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine means the Department of Defense will require troops to be vaccinated.

Now we will find out if colleges will require COVID-19 vaccines. Some schools like the University of Minnesota system and Louisiana State University said they would not require vaccines until there was a full FDA approval. The Chronicle of Higher Education points out:

The approval will remove yet another roadblock for administrators weighing whether to issue a mandate. The legal landscape has been favorable to such requirements even under the current emergency-use authorization, with a legal challenge to Indiana University’s mandate being rejected by several courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

But some campus leaders have hesitated. The president of Eastern Oregon University previously told The Chronicle that administrators had made their requirement contingent on full approval because they believed it would help alleviate hesitancy around getting the shot.

The approval may come at an opportune moment for college leaders hoping for an uninterrupted, in-person fall semester. The more students who are vaccinated on campus, the lower the risk of transmission, experts have said, although some have cautioned that other mitigation strategies may be necessary even with high levels of vaccination.

Bestcolleges.com has a long list of schools that require vaccinations.

The University of Virginia says it “disenrolled” more than 200 students who did not comply with the school’s mandatory vaccination policy.

What happens when a college student’s roommate refuses vaccination?

Bradley Sharp, of Saratoga, New York, gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from registered nurse Stephanie Wagner, Friday, July 30, 2021 in New York. Sharp needs the vaccination because it is required by his college. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

As students move into their dorm rooms over the coming weeks, some are learning their new roomie is not vaccinated and does not plan to be. The Philadelphia Inquirer says schools are mostly telling students that they can apply to get new roommates. But that means living with an unvaccinated person for a month while the reassignment process considers the request:

Area universities said that they also have received requests from parents of vaccinated students to have their children with the same but that the number has been low. For the most part, they are telling students they must go through the same process for a roommate change as those who want them for other reasons.

“For those students who have expressed concerns, we have encouraged them to talk with their roommates about how they will address the issue,” said Temple University spokesperson Steve Orbanek. “Any student who wishes to make room changes will be able to do so when the room change process opens at the beginning of September.”

So why not just put all unvaccinated student together? Health authorities say that would be a bad idea. The Inquirer story reports:

“Our best guidance from our medical professionals, taking into account CDC guidelines, is that housing unvaccinated students together in one setting could increase the chances of an outbreak should an individual test positive for COVID-19,” Orbanek said. “Also, from an equity and inclusion perspective, we are concerned that housing unvaccinated students in separate spaces could stigmatize that population.”

The American College Health Association isn’t recommending that vaccinated and unvaccinated students be housed separately either.

“It’s safer to mix the populations than it is to segregate a whole residence hall or even a whole entire floor filled with unvaccinated students, unless you could keep everybody in a bubble, which we know is impossible on a college campus,” said Dr. Jean E. Chin, associate professor of medicine at the Augusta University/University of Georgia Medical Partnership and former cochair of the association’s COVID-19 task force. “Otherwise, there’s going to be an explosion of cases, if one student in that unvaccinated population comes back into that unvaccinated residence hall.”

An entire police force is infected with COVID

KMOV-TV points us to a story outside of St. Louis that may be playing out in a less dramatic fashion near you:

Every officer with the Venice Police Department has tested positive for the coronavirus. This is forcing surrounding departments to respond to emergencies within the city. The small town has six full-time officers and the mayor says the department is already short-staffed and now they’re dealing with this.

“We think about another eight days before these guys can come off quarantine and of course I’ve been a little slow getting information because my chief even has COVID-19 and he’s sounding terrible,” Mayor Tyrone Echols said.

The Miami Herald reports that essential workers, including bus drivers and police, are calling in sick with COVID-19. The Dade County transit system said a supervisor and a bus technician died from COVID-19 in the last couple of weeks. The Miami-Dade police and fire departments are starting to feel the strain of absences.

If you are unvaxxed, hospitalizations are going to cost a lot more soon

If you are vaccinated, you are far less likely to get sick enough to be hospitalized. And hospitalization due to COVID-19 is about to cost people a lot more.

I have mentioned that this is coming and now it is here. The Kaiser Family Foundation finds, “Most private insurers are no longer waiving cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment.”

Let’s be clear; federal law requires your health insurance to cover the cost of “medically appropriate” COVID-19 testing. Vaccinations are still free. And in a few states, all out-of-pocket covid treatment costs are covered. You might know these costs as “deductibles.” But in most states, that is changing … and fast. You are about to start paying your deductible for COVID-19 care if you are not vaccinated.

Kaiser has been monitoring this issue for some time and found that nearly all health plans covered nearly all COVID-19 treatment costs early in the pandemic. Health insurance companies were fairly profitable then because so many people were putting off medical procedures that would have been covered. But now, Kaiser found, the insurers are saying if you are not vaxxed, your COVID-19 care out-of-pocket costs (deductibles) are on you:

In the last few months, the environment has shifted with safe and highly effective vaccines now widely available. In this brief, we once again review how many private insurers are continuing to waive patient cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment. We find that 72% of the two largest insurers in each state and DC (102 health plans) are no longer waiving these costs, and another 10% of plans are phasing out waivers by the end of October.

(Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker)

Across the two largest health plans in each state and D.C. (102 plans), 73 plans (72% of 102 plans) are no longer waiving out-of-pocket costs for COVID-19 treatment. Almost half these plans (50 plans) ended cost-sharing waivers by April 2021, which is around the time most states were opening vaccinations to all adults.

Of the 29 plans still waiving cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment, 10 waivers are set to expire by the end of October. This includes waivers that tie to the end of the federal Public Health Emergency, which is currently set to expire on October 17, 2021, though may be extended. Another 12 plans state that their cost-sharing waivers will expire by the end of 2021. Two plans specified end dates for COVID-19 treatment waivers in 2022 and 5 plans did not specify an expiration date.

All of the 102 plans we reviewed (two largest plans in each state) had waived cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment at some point since 2020. (These health plans represent 62% of enrollment across the fully insured individual and group markets).

How much could this cost you? Kaiser finds the average deductible is a little more than $1,600 for hospitalization costs.

Under the Biden budget plan, could you get Medicare at age 60? Would every senior get dental, hearing and vision care?

President Joe Biden greets Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., as Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts watches as Biden arrives to speak to a joint session of Congress Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

I understand that most journalists are young and their bosses may want them to cover stories that appeal to younger audiences. Fair enough. But this story not only affects millions of seniors, but also younger people who care for parents and worry about how they will pay for essential medical care in the years ahead. In short, this is a big cross-generational deal.

Journalists really should dive deeper into the zillions of details in this mammoth infrastructure and budget plans. They are so big that they would change significant hunks of all of our lives. For example, how many people would stop working at age 60 if they could get Medicare health care coverage that, right now, kicks in at age 65?

Medicare, which began 56 years ago under President Lyndon Johnson, does not automatically include coverage for vision, hearing and dental care. It really is something of a surprise that so little has changed in this essential federal program in nearly six decades.

That is just one of the ideas in President Joe Biden’s $3.5 trillion budget plan. When he was running for office, Biden said he wanted a lower Medicare age. Younger journalists should not underestimate how big this idea is. Already 62.8 million Americans are enrolled in Medicare.

Medicare Part A covers hospital care and Medicare Part B covers outpatient care, like visits to a doctor’s office. Most people have to buy additional coverage for dental, vision and hearing. But Biden’s plan, rolled out by Democrats last week, suggests that the new Medicare would not only cover millions of additional people but would widen coverage. This would be hugely popular with seniors.

NPR explains why you might already think those benefits are already covered by Medicare, thanks, for example, to the nonstop commercials featuring people like football star Joe Namath.

Namath’s commercial is hawking private Medicare Advantage plans, which frequently do offer benefits traditional Medicare does not — in exchange for being limited to certain doctors and hospitals. “Traditional” Medicare does not cover many of these benefits its beneficiaries rely on, including most vision, dental and hearing care. And drug coverage is available only by purchasing a separate, additional Medicare insurance plan — Medicare Part D.

But Democrats in the House and Senate are planning to try to change that as early as this fall. On Monday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer released an outline of a coming budget bill that includes a directive to the Senate Finance Committee to expand Medicare “to include dental, vision, hearing benefits.” The catch — all the Democrats in the Senate and almost all in the House will have to agree on the entire budget bill for Schumer’s proposal to become law.

And NPR reminds us how difficult it can be to change Medicare, partly because it is vital to so many people. Mess with Medicare and you could be signing your resignation letter from Congress:

Other efforts to expand benefits have not gone so well. In 1988, a bipartisan effort in Congress produced the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, which would have added drug coverage to traditional Medicare and also would have plugged a gaping hole: the fact that there is no limit on the amount patients can be charged for their share of covered services. That law, however, was repealed just a year later after seniors rebelled against being asked to foot most of the bill for the new benefits via a new income “surtax.” Today, Medicare beneficiaries still face the risk of unlimited expenses.

Think about it, younger journalists. How would you pay for your health care when you hit 65 if you retired and there was no Medicare? How will you pay drug costs? Remember, Medicare does not cover nursing home or retirement center costs. This is one of those life-and-death issues that politicians know is a red-hot button. And yet practically nobody lifts a finger to make any changes when the cost of expanding coverage comes up.

In the past, rather than cutting services to control costs, Medicare has given payments to caregivers. Medicare pays hospitals about half of what private insurers pay.

In fact, there is one big group that will not want to lower the age at which people would be eligible for Medicare. Hospitals know that if more people are covered by Medicare, that prime group of patients would be worth less money to them because their needs would not be covered by higher-paying insurance companies.

One last reason to pay attention to this: The Kaiser Family Foundation says about 85% of Democrats and 69% of Republicans favor allowing those as young as 50 to buy into Medicare.

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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