November 12, 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.

Far from being over, some experts are looking at new COVID-19 outbreaks and forecasting a winter surge. In fact, they say, the surge may already be here. NBC News included this:

“We see increasing evidence in the Northern Hemisphere that the expected winter surge has started to unfold,” Director Dr. Christopher Murray said in his latest update.

Dr. Murray lists three reasons for the new surge:

  • Winter seasonality
  • Waning immunity for those vaccinated
  • Decreased mask use and increased mobility levels

“The third factor that’s fueling these winter increases is the fact that people are much less cautious than last winter, as mask use is much lower,” Murray said.

Murray says the winter surge is a “relatively modest surge, nowhere near as large as last year but still enough to put great pressure on hospitals when they have the combination of expected flu cases as well as COVID-19 (but much less than last year).”

But, he says, the predictions may be more concerning when he issues his next forecast. By then, he says, we will know more about how the first vaccinations, which face waning effectiveness, are or are not protecting people. He said, “Many forces are at play that may make our modest winter surge larger than we suggest, or it may come out to be as we see in the current set of models.”

This is Murray’s current forecast for intensive care unit bed needs:

(The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation)

Cases are rising in highly vaccinated states like Vermont and Colorado and the ICU bed need is growing. Bloomberg says:

Intensive-care unit beds occupied by Covid-19 patients are climbing in 12 states from two weeks earlier, with most of them in a contiguous strip running from Arizona and New Mexico, through the Great Plains and into Minnesota. In several Western states, many doctors and nurses haven’t caught their breath from the last round of infections.

(Bloomberg)

Former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said this week that we may be near the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the latest maps of new infections make it clear that COVID-19 is still with us and may not go away.

The next couple of weeks — including how careful we are over Thanksgiving — may make a big difference in how we begin 2022: in a full-blown winter surge or on the backside of the pandemic.

Why inflation can be good

Headlines this week screamed that inflation was running at 6% year over year. That is naturally a big concern when fuel and food prices rise in ways we have not seen in recent years. But headlines that say things like, “Prices climbed 6.2% in October compared to last year” could make it sound like prices rose 6% in a month, which they did not.

But all of us, in one way or another, count on inflation. Homeowners expect the value of their home to rise, you expect your salary to increase and stock market investors expect stock values to rise. In fact, if it was not for inflation, your employer might well cut your pay if the prices for their goods and services fell without an increased demand.

When we make more money, we see inflation as a positive. Moderate inflation helps boost consumer demand and consumption, driving economic growth. The key word here is “moderate.”

In that way, as The Intercept points out, inflation that is not wildly hot is good for debtors.

First, inflation lessens the real value of debt. In 2020, American households had around $14.5 trillion in debt from their mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and other sources. Inflation of 6.2 percent means that the real value of that $14.5 trillion is now just $13.65 trillion in last year’s dollars.

In other words, the inflation over the past year has effectively transferred $850 billion in wealth from creditors to debtors. That’s a lot of money.

Most people are a mixture of creditors (e.g., you have a bank account) and debtors (you have a mortgage and student loans). But overall, this $850 billion has generated a big check written by the tippy-top of the income scale to everyone else. And as you’d expect, the people at the tippy-top don’t like this.

CNBC puts it this way:

Someone holding a low-interest bond or CD with a 10-year (or longer) time horizon may be stuck with a paltry return and watch from the sidelines as other investors jump into higher-yielding bonds.

On the other hand, a homeowner who locked in a fixed mortgage at a low interest rate is in a good position — their home value would likely inflate but their monthly loan payments would stay the same.

And inflation is usually a sign of an economic boom. When stuff is selling and factories are running, salaries rise. Jon Schwarz’s Intercept piece points out:

As prices increased 6.2 percent over the past year, wages for regular people went up 5.8 percent. In other words, inflation barely touched their purchasing power. And with almost 300 labor strikes in the U.S. so far this year, workers are leveraging their power to demand better compensation at historic rates. So, while inflation can be a significant problem for workers if they don’t get it back in higher paychecks, that seems unlikely today.

Then add to higher paychecks the fact that the median American recently had about $65,000 in debt. Inflation has reduced the real value of this debt by almost $4,000 over the past year. With that added to pay increases, most people have come out significantly ahead.

Inflation becomes problematic when higher wages and profits go right back out the door to cover higher prices for the stuff you need and want. Right now, inflation is outrunning wage increases. The Labor Department says average hourly earnings increased 0.4% in October.

Let’s look at the inflation rate in two charts. First, the one-year look, which is mostly what the headlines of this week reflected:

(Trading Economics)

That’s like a “whoa the economy is going nuts” kind of graphic. Now let’s pull back to see what is normal:

(Trading Economics)

Interestingly, when inflation is making headlines, somebody profits. This month, discount retailers are doing well. Financial Advisor reports:

Spending at discount stores was up 65% last week compared with 2019, and 21% from the prior week, according to Facteus, a firm that tracks credit and debit card transactions. The discount-stores category, which includes Dollar Tree Inc. and Five Below Inc., had the largest increase by far among all types of retailers, Facteus data show.

Even amid all of the chatter about cyber currency, when inflation figures rise, so does the price of the most old-fashioned of all investments: gold.  Gold prices just broke a 15-month price drop but are still below 2020 highs.

Road salt is a lot more expensive this year. Road crews worry, plow drivers hard to find

A front loader works at a large pile of road salt, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Chelsea, Mass. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

The Wenatchee (Washington) World reports that white road salt is going for about $148 per ton this year, which is $24 more expensive due to issues in supply and demand. That town is going to switch to a new blue road salt to cut costs.

The Detroit News says the state department of transportation needs plow drivers — lots of them.

“We have been struggling finding people,” said Mark Geib, administrator of MDOT’s Transportation Systems Management Operations division, adding that the department and its country contractors were still looking to hire over 100 temporary drivers, mostly in the southwest, to help clear snow and ice through the winter.

DOT officials said warmer than usual weather means construction workers who might have been laid off by this time of year have stayed on the job longer than usual. And county road supervisors say a lot of experienced drivers retired during the pandemic. I see the same stories in Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where they want 500 more drivers.

States warn if they can’t find drivers, it may take longer than usual to clear roads this winter.

Look what’s getting pageviews

When Taboola looked at what was driving web traffic in October 2021, it could not be more different than a year ago.

(Axios)

Axios adds:

On the day of and the day following the House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, there were more Google searches for Aaron Rodgers than Joe Biden, according to Google Trends data.

Interesting that all of this sports content is making a comeback at just the time local newsrooms are reducing sports staff and coverage.

We’ll be back Monday 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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