September 7, 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.

If there was ever a time for local journalists to pay attention to what their members of Congress are up to, it will be in the weeks ahead.

This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will take up the biggest expansion of social spending in six decades and the biggest expansion of spending on infrastructure since World War II. The two bills have both cleared the Senate — but don’t take that to mean that there is widespread agreement on key issues.

Over the next four weeks, the House will consider legislation that involves $4.5 trillion. That is in addition to needing to approve a government funding bill before Oct. 1 to avoid a government shutdown.

You will recall several times when Congress could not even pass a federal budget, much less take on such large-scale historic reforms.

The Hill puts the schedule in some context:

House leadership has set a Sept. 27 deadline to vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill as committee chairs rush to finish drafting their portions of the larger spending package by Sept. 15 to hold a floor vote shortly thereafter. Progressives have threatened to block the bipartisan bill if it comes to the floor before the Democratic-only measure that focuses on issues such as health care, climate change and education.

Neither the House nor Senate has passed the 12 annual appropriations bills necessary to fund the government starting Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year begins. That increases the odds that Congress will pass a continuing resolution, allowing the government to keep funds flowing at current spending levels as lawmakers carry on with negotiations over a longer-term spending bill.

These budget bills will, no doubt, become packed with a ton of other special-interest issues that need scrutiny. For example, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees just added a provision to their budget bills to require women to register for the military draft. There has not been a military draft for five decades, but young men must still register with the Selective Service.

This is one of those moments when it would be worthwhile to have regular, deep, local stories about how these big issues before Congress affect your audiences. Don’t just leave them up to wire services and cable news bloviators.

Congress will consider a $3.5 trillion bill that will touch every American for decades

President Joe Biden calls his social spending plan the American Families Plan.

The Senate has approved the plan. The House will take it up now, and then begins the difficult and complex reconciliation process to bring House and Senate bills into alignment.

The legislation would affect every American from cradle to grave. It involves everything from Medicare coverage for seniors to family leave policies for young families. It includes free/affordable child care that is premised on the idea that nobody pays more than 7% of their income for child care. There would be at least two years of prekindergarten learning for every child and two years of free post-high school education.

The plan also would expand the Affordable Care Act to make health insurance more affordable. Millions of people would see lower health insurance costs and states would get federal incentives to increase Medicaid coverage for the poor.

The family leave provision came into sharper focus during the pandemic when parents struggled to find a way to work and care for children who were home and not in classrooms. Here’s what the Biden plan calls for:

  • The program will ensure workers receive partial wage replacement to take time to bond with a new child, care for a seriously ill loved one, deal with a loved one’s military deployment, find safety from sexual assault, stalking, or domestic violence, heal from their own serious illness, or take time to deal with the death of a loved one.
  • It will guarantee twelve weeks of paid parental, family, and personal illness/safe leave by year 10 of the program, and also ensure workers get three days of bereavement leave per year starting in year one.
  • The program will provide workers up to $4,000 a month, with a minimum of two-thirds of average weekly wages replaced, rising to 80 percent for the lowest wage workers.

Democrats say they will pay the tab for this social safety net by increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations. But as the New York Times points out:

Passage of the bill, which could spend as much as $3.5 trillion over the next decade, is anything but certain. President Biden, who has staked much of his domestic legacy on the measure’s enactment, will need the vote of every single Democrat in the Senate, and virtually every one in the House, to secure it. And with two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, saying they would not accept such a costly plan, it will challenge Democratic unity like nothing has since the Affordable Care Act.

How would a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan prevent devastating power outages from hurricanes, tornados, wildfires and winter storms?

A twisted tower that carried crucial electrical feeder lines to the New Orleans metro area lies collapsed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida in Bridge City, La., Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021. Power out, high voltage lines on the ground, maybe weeks until electricity is restored in some places _ it’s a distressingly familiar situation for Entergy Corp., Louisiana’s largest electrical utility. Entergy is hardly alone. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The infrastructure bill is especially interesting right now, with hundreds of thousands of households waiting for utility crews to rebuild and untangle downed power lines in Louisiana and New England.

The to-do list includes fixing 216 electrical substations sub-stations and more than 2,000 miles of transmission lines just in Louisiana. Californians know, too well, the routine of wildfires forcing utility companies to shut off electricity to prevent live downed lines from sparking more fires.

Instead of focusing just on the cleanup, journalists should also ask what would have prevented such devastating power outages.

Now is a great time to ask that question as America is on the cusp of investing $11 billion (over five years) to try to make our power grid more storm resilient. (Although that bill may not be moving as soon as President Biden hoped.) The infrastructure bill is not just aimed at hurricane and tornado-prone states but also would help protect western states’ power lines from wildfires and northern states’ power lines during ice storms.

The spending is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act still pending in Congress. It includes a billion dollars for something called The Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities Program, or BRIC. Pew explored the goals of the programs that you probably have never heard of:

This bill would not just pay for projects; it also would fund research aimed at improving understanding of the threats of extreme weather and the best means of making infrastructure resilient to future risks.

This includes studying how well permeable pavements can combat flooding and developing best practices for incorporating resilience when repairing transportation assets such as roadways and bridges.

The part of the bill that aims to prevent the kind of massive outages they are suffering now in Louisiana is called Section 40101. You can read about it in some detail here.

A nonprofit group called GridForward (which supports the bill) says hardening the electrical grid should be a national priority. The group points out:

In 2020 alone, over 20 $1B+ events occurred impacting our lives and communities deeply, so this is a starting point for proactive investment to address the downside of these events.

A company called Qualitrol says there are examples of how system hardening can pay off. In fall 2017, Hurricane Irma knocked out power to nine out of 10 customers of Florida Power and Light in 35 counties throughout the state. Ten million people were without power. But Qualitrol, which offers expertise in power grid monitoring, says the power restoration in 2017 was four times faster than similar damage from Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Utility companies had replaced vulnerable wooden utility poles with sturdy concrete poles, strengthened 600 main power lines and buried 450 main lines. Importantly, the utility companies also installed smart monitors that enable them to pinpoint the source of outages and shut off systems.

By the way, I applaud WWL-TV in New Orleans for trying to explain how the city’s electrical grid works. Maybe all journalists should spend a little time learning about it since it is a constant source of news stories.

(Department of Energy)

Vaccine opposition fades

A new Ipsos poll shows that hardcore opposition to COVID-19 vaccines is fading.

Parents are also more likely now to have their children vaccinated compared to a month ago.

(Ipsos)

Ipsos found:

  • Majorities of Americans continue to support policies requiring the use of masks in schools (70%) or public places (66%).
  • Working Americans also continue to support vaccine requirements by their employer (57%).
  • About one in five (19%) working Americans report that their employer currently requires vaccination but over half (54%) report masks being required in the workplace.

Do you need a COVID booster shot? European Health authorities say no.

The Biden administration begins this week backtracking on its plan to get booster shots starting with immunocompromised and senior Americans. President Biden wanted the shots to start this month but now is saying that the schedule will be “guided by science.”

And the science is still uncertain.

The European Center for Disease Protection says there is no compelling evidence yet that people who have been fully vaccinated need a booster shot. The exceptions are for people who are immunocompromised or who did not get proper antibody protection from the vaccines. But the ECDP said it would be more effective to send vaccines to countries that need them rather than administer boosters.

On Sept. 17, Pfizer is set to present its latest data on why or whether booster shots are needed. If the Food and Drug Administration is convinced, then booster shots for people who got the Pfizer vaccine could begin around Sept. 20, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci. That would be about eight months after the first vaccines were distributed in the U.S.

People who got the Moderna shots will likely be encouraged to get a booster starting sometime in October.

Epidemiologists explain that the booster shots are not a reflection of how effective the vaccines are. Instead, because we were in a rush to get people as immune as possible, we told people to get their second shot faster than we might have under nonemergency conditions. If we could have waited longer and given our bodies time to produce more antibodies from the first shot, then two shots would have likely done the job, they say.

Let’s celebrate good people

Last week, a local BBQ restaurant owner here in St. Petersburg, Florida, decided he could not sit back and watch the suffering in Louisiana. He rented a big U-Haul truck and announced that he wanted to fill it up and take it to the people who need it. And 48 hours later, my neighbors filled it from cab to tailgate with water, food and diapers.

Volunteers at Smokin’ J’s BBQ fill a rental truck with donations Sunday (Photo: Al Tompkins)

These pop-up helpers do not take the place of the big essential charities, which can efficiently feed thousands and rise to every challenge.

In fact, I wonder if there is a useful story to be told about how a $100 donation of water and diapers to a person with a rental truck compares to what the same $100 donation could but in the hands of a group like the Cajun Navy or the Red Cross. I suspect we would find that it feels like we are doing tangible good when we drop off our donation to a truck we can see and that pecking out a donation on a phone app feels less fulfilling.

Here’s a story about the indomitable spirit of good people who see needs and fill them.

My wife, a retired minister, was often confronted with questions from parishioners when she would push to collect donations for this emergency or that one. She would quote John Wesley:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

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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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