January 6, 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.

Here in Tampa Bay, judges have put jury trials back on hold because of COVID-19. One judge is also suspending in-person hearings.

I want to know what these delays mean to the victims and families awaiting justice and resolution. I want to know what they mean to the people who are sitting in jails awaiting trial. If you can’t “bond out,” you sit in jail. I wonder how many plea deals are being made as a result — pleas that would never be considered if the system was not stuck, dead in the water.

The Associated Press reports:

Court administrators expect an enormous backlog of cases in 2021 and perhaps beyond. Defendants are left locked up for longer periods in jail, waiting for their cases to get heard. And plaintiffs who have filed civil lawsuits claiming they’ve been harmed by a person or company can’t get them resolved any time soon.

Nearly every state suspended in-person jury trials in the early months of the pandemic, starting in March.

But by late summer and early fall, most courts had resumed in-person jury trials on a limited basis, (Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts director Paula) Hannaford-Agor said. Many required masks and temperature checks; some installed plexiglass barriers and reconfigured courtrooms and jury assembly rooms to allow for social distancing.

As COVID-19 cases have spiked, courts have pulled back. While some have held virtual jury trials, most haven’t, as there has been a lot of pushback from attorneys concerned that viewing evidence and testimony remotely might affect a trial’s fairness.

At least eight states have suspended in-person jury trials until February or March, according to the Center for Jury Studies. At least seven other states, including Maryland and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia, have halted them until further notice.

Even if we can get courts back in operation, the backlog that builds will take a long time to clear. In ordinary times, it can take years for a case to come to trial. Imagine what that means now. Consider this passage from the AP:

In Texas, pre-COVID-19, there were 186 trials a week on average, said David Slayton, administrative director of the courts. From March through the end of September, there were a total of 50.

“We’re going to continue to build a backlog because we don’t have the capacity to be able to fit enough people and try cases,” Slayton said.

Even if Texas courts get back to normal by April, they will have a backlog of around 10,000 cases that would have been tried by a jury, Slayton said.

“The bottom line,” he said, “is that it’s going to take a long time to dig out from that. I think it will be years before we are able to.”

The Texas Tribune dove into this story, as well:

In 2019, about 186 Texas jury trials were held in civil and criminal cases in an average week, according to the state Office of Court Administration. From March until June of 2020, that number went to zero. The backlog of cases, which has continued to grow, will likely take the state years to overcome.

“The court system in Texas has responded really well in everything except jury trials,” David Slayton, administrative director of the state’s court administration office, said in September. “It’s not really possible or feasible to have a lot of people in a room.”

And the Tribune points out that there are other stakeholders in this story. Bailiffs, deputies who transport prisoners and judges all have to be considered. In Texas, a judge had to declare a mistrial when the defendant tested positive for COVID-19 and the jury had to be told they may have been exposed to the virus. It raises questions about whether a potential juror should have a say about whether to serve jury duty in a pandemic. The Tribune reports:

For example, disproportionately white juries were already a problem before the pandemic. With the coronavirus disproportionally harming Black and Hispanic communities, many defense attorneys fear fewer people of color will show up to a jury summons, as at least one Texas study has already predicted. And masked jurors and attorneys shield one another not only from germs but also from facial expressions, often crucial in trials.

“There have been trials around the country where there have been COVID issues, but that’s only half of the equation. That’s the public safety part of the problem,” Grant Scheiner, president of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said last fall. “Nobody seems to be paying attention to the constitutional aspect.”

But as more cases fill stagnant court dockets, defendants wait in jail and victims hope for resolution, judges and attorneys are seeking ways to move forward.

“It’s awfully easy for lawyers in ivory towers to say we need to wait; it’s not easy for my guy sitting in jail,” said Carl Guthrie, an Austin defense attorney who represented the defendant in a first-of-its-kind Zoom jury trial in a criminal traffic case.

All of this, or some version of it, may well be unfolding in your community.

Justice in a pandemic will be a critically important story for all local journalists in 2021. Join us starting next week for an eight-installment, four-week workshop covering jails, police reform and the local justice system. We have a grant that covers your tuition. We only ask that you make an intentional effort to be with us for all eight sessions. We understand when news gets in the way, so we will record the sessions, but we want you to be with us as much as possible. Apply here, but do it now.

How will we pay for stimulus bills long-term?

The United States is borrowing money to pay for stimulus bills at rates we have never seen before — trillions of dollars that somehow, someday will have to be recouped.

The government does not literally print trillions of dollars. It sells U.S. government bonds. The biggest downside to doing that is the government is in competition with corporate bonds and investors may buy government bonds for their security, which increases the cost of borrowing money for the companies that use bonds to finance expansion and renovations and such. The Federal Reserve moves in to buy some of those corporate bonds to keep that market stable.

The experts keep assuring us that 1) we do not have much of a choice here, we need the stimulus to respond to a financial crisis that would be worse without it, and 2) we can manage this debt which amounts to a fraction of our economy.

The first $2 trillion stimulus amounted to about a 9% increase in federal debt. Add another almost $1 trillion for this new round and we end 2020 with about a 15% increase in debt just from those two measures.

That, the experts say, is manageable on its own, but we already had $23 trillion in debt that we did not reduce when times were much better. In fact, the nation’s debt has more than doubled since the 2008 economic crash that was fueled, in part, by the housing bubble and lending crisis. A third of that is money the government owes to itself, including Social Security. But foreign countries have increased their investments in U.S. debt in recent years and now foreign governments hold about a third of U.S. debt.

(The Balance)

As you can see, state and local governments hold a fair amount of federal debt by investing pension plans in federal government bonds. Your retirement funds also likely hold some federal bond investments.

The Treasury Department sells three main kinds of instruments; treasury bills, treasury notes and treasury bonds. It also sells something called Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS. To get paid interest on treasury bills (called T-bills) you have to hold them to maturity.

(The Balance)

One way to reduce debt is to grow the economy faster than the interest on the debt. That is a key reason why, beyond the health concerns, it is vital to get the pandemic under control and get the economy back on track.

By most accounts, that will require some significant alteration to our tax structure, tax rate and spending. President-elect Joe Biden is proposing major changes to the corporate income tax regime, including:

  • Raising the federal statutory corporate income tax rate from 21% to 28%
  • Offering a 10% “made in America” tax credit for qualifying investments that support domestic manufacturing
  • Replacing the current-law tax on global intangible low-tax income, or GILTI, with a 21% country-by-country minimum tax on foreign earnings
  • Introducing a 15% minimum tax on global book income

Even after the Biden administration reverses President Donald Trump’s 2017 corporate tax cut (which Biden has vowed to do), it would take a decade to pay back the more than $1.5 trillion in cuts made under that law.

The Tax Policy Center explains that “a 7-point increase in the corporate tax rate starting in 2022 would raise about $740 billion over the 10-year budget window (2021-2030). This would increase the average tax rate on corporations — the ratio of income taxes paid to total profits — by about 3 percentage points.”

Should you avoid pain relievers prior to your COVID-19 vaccine?

You know your COVID-19 shot might hurt a little for a day or two. Some people are asking if they could take acetaminophen or ibuprofen right before or right after the shot. We really do not know whether pain relievers affect COVID-19 vaccines, but we do know that they can reduce the effectiveness of other vaccines.

Why it is so difficult for journalists to get inside hospitals to document COVID-19 cases

Senior chaplain Nancy Many, left, prays with Rafael Lopez in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Dec. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

I would argue that a March 25 video by an emergency room nurse in Queens was one of the early wake-ups to the depth of the COVID-19 crisis that was about to befall us. Seeing is believing.

New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof took the public deeper into the crisis with a video essay that documented the desperation around shortages of emergency supplies and the exhaustion of hospital staff.

Why have so few hospitals allowed journalists closer access to the front lines, access that might have blunted doubt and misinformation? There are obvious answers: hospitals don’t want to expose outsiders to the virus, they are busy, HIPAA regulations protect patient privacy and COVID-19 patients are in no condition to wave those protections. All of that is significant and true.

But there is something else. The Intercept says the Trump administration, through Roger Severino, the head of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, issued guidelines on May 5 that made it almost impossible for hospitals to grant access to journalists. The guidance included this:

It is not sufficient for a covered health care provider to require the media to mask patients’ identities when airing recorded video (such as by blurring, pixilation, or voice alteration), after the fact. Prior, express authorization from the patient is always required.

For example, a covered hospital may not allow media personnel access to the emergency department where patients are receiving treatment for COVID-19, without first obtaining each patient’s authorization for such filming.

One of the most important provisions here is that permission must be granted prior to recording or photographing. You don’t have that kind of preadmission access in a COVID-19 crisis. People show up in the emergency room sick and get worse.

The Intercept continues:

The media guidelines announced by Severino in May reinforced HIPAA’s restrictions and warned hospitals that violations could bring fines in the millions of dollars. The announcement was not reported by general-interest publications, but news outlets for the health care industry noticed what had happened. The headline of one of those industry stories was blunt: “Patient Privacy Prevails Over Covid-19 Media Coverage.”

Severino’s guidance, little known outside the health care industry, may help solve one of the mysteries of the pandemic: Why have Americans seen relatively little imagery of people suffering from Covid-19? While there is a long-running debate over the influence of disturbing images of death and dying — whether they actually move public opinion — the relative paucity of videos and photographs of the pandemic’s victims might help explain why Covid-19 skepticism has thrived as the death toll in America reaches the level of a 9/11 every day.

The story tells of the extraordinary efforts that journalists made to document the unfolding story in New York:

Lucas Jackson, a senior photographer for Reuters, recalls that at the start of the pandemic in March, he worked with a team at Reuters that called nearly every hospital and trauma ward in New York City. They created a spreadsheet of the hospitals and whether they had been contacted and what their response was. Only a few responded, and none granted access, even though Reuters offered Guantánamo levels of control to hospital staff, agreeing to get releases from patients and allowing hospital staff to look at all photographs to make sure no names or identities were disclosed. “If that’s what it takes, we were willing to do it,” Jackson told The Intercept.

The photography director at Getty Images says for every thousand calls his agency makes to get access, they might get three yeses and, even then, before access is granted, hospitals pull back. The result is predictable. The Intercept says its audit of big-city newspaper front pages showed few images from inside hospitals. Even when they did, the images were most often of doctors and nurses. The Intercept notes:

Because it doesn’t happen often, when a powerful photo from inside a hospital happens to emerge — such as Go Nakamura’s photo of a doctor embracing a Covid-19 patient last month — it gets an enormous amount of attention.

A Seattle area physician put it this way:

To be sure, hospitals that want to be seen as places of healing and comfort might not want to be sending out messages that people in the hospital are dying and that staff are not adequately protected. It might be, as they say, “off message.”

But it is unfair to issue a blanket accusation that hospital public relation departments are trying to silence COVID-19 coverage because you have to consider the threat of mega-fines they face for violating the government orders.

The Intercept offers this thoughtful insight into the pressures that hospitals have to measure against your requests for access:

Adam Greene, an expert on HIPAA and a partner at the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, said it comes down to the amount of legal risk a hospital is willing to assume and the amount of time it is willing to devote to figuring that out. A hospital has to wade through a lot of regulatory questions before deciding to let a journalist inside, and that means tapping into legal resources that might be scarce or expensive. And if a decision is made to grant access, there’s always a chance that something could go wrong and a privacy breach could happen. “When you look at the incentives for hospitals, it is much easier to decline the request and avoid any risk of penalty,” Greene said. “There is not much in it for them to spend the time and resources to navigate HIPAA to find a way to do this.”

This might be a good time to remind ourselves that HIPAA applies to health care providers, not journalists.

What transparency looks like

A reader of this column, data journalist and science writer Betsy Ladyzhets, dropped me a note and a link to a blog she keeps on COVID-19. I really dig the way she not only posts COVID-19 updates, but she builds directories of her sources.

It is a one-stop for anybody who wants to dig down to some original data or research on:

  • Featured sources: A repository of all 80+ COVID-19 data sources featured in the newsletter since its first issue, on topics ranging from remdesivir allocation to COVID-19 in prisons and jails.
  • Source finder: An interactive widget to help you find the best COVID-19 data source for your story.
  • Vaccination data: All the major national and state sources of U.S. COVID-19 vaccination data in one place, including annotations on what each source offers.

Betsy also pointed me to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new vaccine tracker since I said just yesterday that the government still did not have a vaccine tracker.

The CDC data is interesting. Look at how many doses have been sent to each state so far:


Then look at how many people have been vaccinated:


We should look at some of these states that are way ahead of others (per capita).

We’ll be back tomorrow 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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