January 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.

The insurrection by Trump-loving protesters will, once again, distract valuable attention from a pandemic and a disastrous vaccination rollout.  On the same day that reporters covering the U.S. Capitol wore flak jackets to do their jobs, the coronavirus gained even more ground and killed more Americans.

(New York Times)

You will — and rightfully should — cover the insurrection in D.C. But every minute of attention that this consumes, every column inch we have to devote to fake claims about a hijacked election is time, attention and resources that journalists and the government cannot devote to covering a pandemic that has killed 359,607 Americans and infected more than 21 million more.

And, let me point out, in those days back in March and April when we saw a 2% increase, it was disturbing. But now, as we mark a 2% increase in a caseload of 21 million, every increase should alarm us, and would, if we were not distracted.

COVID-19 dramatically lowered the federal prison population. Biden plans to do more.

The federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind., is shown Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

In 2013, there were 220,000 people in federal prisons. We just closed out 2020 with 152,184 in federal prisons. That is the lowest federal prison population in 15 years. The “decarceration” movement that aimed to get inmates out of COVID-infected prisons is largely behind the decline.

Sentencing Law and Policy, which follows prison trends, points out that the Federal Bureau of Prisons “still reports that more than 30,000 federal prisoners are over age 50, and that nearly 50% of persons in federal prison are serving time for drug offenses despite widespread acknowledgment of the many failings of the war on drugs.”

We will look at this very issue in our second session in a series of workshops that I will be leading starting next week. My friend Jamiles Lartey from The Marshall Project will explain what President-elect Joe Biden is promising for jail/prison/police/justice reform. It is a big list, some of which will be really newsworthy and hotly controversial:

We can and must reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country while also reducing crime. No one should be incarcerated for drug use alone. Instead, they should be diverted to drug courts and treatment. Reducing the number of incarcerated individuals will reduce federal spending on incarceration. These savings should be reinvested in the communities impacted by mass incarceration.

Decriminalize the use of cannabis and automatically expunge all prior cannabis use convictions.

Biden calls for the immediate passage of Congressman Bobby Scott’s SAFE Justice Act, an evidence-based, comprehensive bill to reform our criminal justice system “from front-end sentencing reform to back-end release policies.”

Create a new $20 billion competitive grant program to spur states to shift from incarceration to prevention.

Expand federal funding for mental health and substance use disorder services and research. People experiencing mental health problems and substance use disorders should have access to affordable, quality care long before their situations escalate and they interact with the criminal justice system.

Get people who should be supported with social services — instead of in our prisons — connected to the help they need. Too often, those in need of mental health care or rehabilitation for a substance use disorder do not get the care that they need. Instead, they end up having interactions with law enforcement that lead to incarceration. The same is true for homeless individuals. That’s not fair to those individuals, and it’s not fair to police officers.

Eliminate mandatory minimums. Biden supports an end to mandatory minimums. As president, he will work for the passage of legislation to repeal mandatory minimums at the federal level. And, he will give states incentives to repeal their mandatory minimums.

Eliminate the death penalty. Over 160 individuals who’ve been sentenced to death in this country since 1973 have later been exonerated. Because we cannot ensure we get death penalty cases right every time, Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example. These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.

Something Biden may do quickly: forgive some student debt

The stimulus bills are, by everybody’s definition, a quick temporary economic injection. Democrats are pushing President-elect Biden to sign an executive order quickly after he takes office that will have longer-lasting relief for some people.

While some Democrats are pushing for Biden to forgive $50,000 in student loans, he has balked at that. But he did say he could be open to something less, perhaps $10,000 in forgiveness.

43 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student debt right now. But is student debt forgiveness going to help the people who need it the most right now? The New York Times says there are lots of doubters:

Many economists, including liberals, say higher education debt forgiveness is an inefficient way to help struggling Americans who face foreclosure, evictions and hunger. The working poor largely are not college graduates — more than 70 percent of currently unemployed workers do not have a bachelor’s degree, and 43 percent did not attend college at all, according to a report by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

While many Black students would benefit greatly from even modest loan forgiveness, debt relief overall would disproportionately benefit middle- to upper-class college graduates of all colors and ethnicities, especially those who attended elite and expensive institutions, and people with lucrative professional credentials like law and medical degrees.

An October analysis by the Brookings Institution found that almost 60 percent of America’s educational debt is owed by households in the nation’s top 40 percent of earners, with an annual income of $74,000 or more.

Student debt load has tripled since 2006 and eclipsed both credit cards and auto loans as the largest source of household debt outside mortgages, and much of it falls on Black graduates, who owe an average of $7,400 more than their white peers at the time they leave school. Black borrowers also default at higher rates.

College dropouts, especially those who attended for-profit schools, often end up trapped by debt they cannot afford to repay.

For people with OCD, the pandemic is a nightmare

To understand this story you have to keep in mind that we are all wired differently and that life experiences affect our perceptions of danger and safety. StatNews published an interesting piece about how people with obsessive-compulsive disorders have been affected by the pandemic, where health dangers may seem to be lurking on every doorknob, every faucet handle and every fork.

For many people with OCD related to a fear of germs and other contaminants, the pandemic justified their irrational fears and excessive precautions. “Reality matched the fears of many of my OCD patients, and they felt normal for the first time,” said psychologist David Yusko, who co-founded the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Therapy in suburban Philadelphia. “Suddenly, they saw the whole world putting on masks and gloves to be able to go into a supermarket.”

An estimated 1.2% of Americans have OCD, and another 2.3% have experienced the disorder in their lifetimes. Fear of germs is one of the more common manifestations, but by no means the only one. Symptoms typically begin in adolescence. But they can start at any time.

While the causes and mechanisms of OCD are poorly understood, it appears to have a genetic component, said Steve Tsao, the other co-founder of the Center for Anxiety and Behavior Therapy.

Roughly half of those with OCD are seriously impaired by it, and for them, a combination of drugs and behavior therapy, including a treatment called exposure and response prevention therapy, or EX/RP, has been shown to be most helpful. In EX/RP, therapists expose patients to a hierarchy of the thoughts, images, and situations that trigger their obsessions in the first place, starting with fears that evoke less anxiety, and progressing to more distressing ones. With repetition, patients are trained to use their conscious brain to suppress their compulsive rituals.

For remote work to work, remote areas need broadband

Barlow Mitchell sits outside the Lee County Public Library while using the public WIFI, in Beattyville, Ky., Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

Now that working from home is more than just a phase, it is way past time to get broadband coverage to rural America. A fourth of rural Americans have internet connections that are too slow to perform basic functions needed to connect for school or work. Fast Company explains three reasons:

High-speed internet is a game changer for rural economies for three reasons.

  • First, it enables next-generation farming capabilities, such as self-driving tractors and combines, greater data collection and utilization, predictive maintenance, and more.
  • Second, it can provide access to remote employment opportunities.
  • And third, lack of broadband is a deal breaker for remote workers looking to settle in more rural destinations.

“If broadband can be increased in rural areas, it would have a dramatic impact, both for people currently living in those areas and for people who are looking to shift their lifestyle away from the cities or the suburbs and move to a more rural location,” says Brie Reynolds, the senior career specialist at FlexJobs.

According to a recent study conducted by SatelliteInternet.com, two-thirds of remote workers are interested in moving out of the city in order to enjoy more living space and a lower cost of living. However, 67% indicate that internet availability affects their decision, and 36% said a lack of access to broadband internet is preventing them from making the move.

We are not talking about blazing speeds here. The Federal Communications Commission’s definition of “broadband internet” is a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 megabits per second. Just as a comparison, the home system I am typing this on now is 10 times that speed. Fast Company adds:

According to the FCC’s Broadband Progress Report, 19 million Americans—roughly 6% of the population—do not have broadband access. The vast majority of those, roughly 14.5 million, are based in rural areas. In fact, one-quarter of rural Americans and one-third of those living in tribal areas lack internet access that meets the agency’s minimum requirements.

The story goes on to explain that a fair amount of the country has speeds so slow that they cannot even handle a Zoom call. If telemedicine is the future, the people who need it the most need better connections.

By some estimates, this is about an $80 billion problem. Cable companies and phone companies are not going to fix this on their own because the cost of laying lines to sparsely populated areas is cost-prohibitive.

The FCC created this map of where there is and is not broadband coverage. Click on it and zoom in then go explore those parts of your state that never got connected to high-speed internet. Document the need and cost.


The Fast Company story does describe satellite technology that holds some promise and would not require connecting homes by wires.

Where broadband companies do not want to invest in rural community connections, some local governments have. They treat broadband like water or sewer services and make them municipal systems. Inc. reports in almost half the country, states do not allow cities to do that.

The Biden administration has stated that it will support cities and local governments that want to build their own municipally-owned broadband networks. There are more than 331 municipal broadband networks in the U.S. today, in cities including Ammon, Idaho, and Rockport, Maine, according to Broadband Now. But 22 states have outlawed municipal broadband outright, leaving residents with no alternative to corporate internet service providers.

While making broadband a public utility, in line with gas or electricity, has been a favored proposal of some local governments, it’s unlikely to happen on a national scale. Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council. 

noted that with a divided Congress, there likely won’t be enough consensus for a national plan to make broadband a public utility.

Inc. reports that President-elect Biden has rural broadband on his mind too.

President-elect Biden’s website listed universal broadband as one of its priorities for economic recovery. The Trump administration pledged to spend roughly $20 billion over 10 years on expanding broadband service to rural areas, and that will likely continue under the incoming administration. Biden’s plan for rural America specifically references spending $20 billion in expanding rural broadband infrastructure, tripling funding for Community Connect broadband grants to expand access in rural areas, and reforming the Lifeline program, which subsidizes internet and phone services for low-income participants.

Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, says the Biden administration could expand universal access by subsidizing service in underserved rural and urban areas and helping those without access purchase the connections they need. He noted that this should be a high priority because people cannot apply for jobs, make online transactions, or access government services without high-speed broadband.

A year or so ago, The New Yorker did a story on what happens when a small Kentucky town gets broadband. It went from being one of the nation’s highest unemployment areas to a town that landed high-tech jobs and had some of the nation’s fastest connections.

Cybersecurity takes center stage in 2021

When we moved our schools, health care, office meetings and even our core businesses online because of the pandemic, we created an ideal landscape for cyberattackers to cash in. And they did and are doing just that.

The FBI Cyber Division says it receives an average of 4,000 cyberattack complaints a day, “which equates to 1.5 cyberattacks and 16,000 records compromised per ‘computer minute.’” The FBI says the pandemic accelerated cyberattacks and local governments have to pay close attention to this issue right away. Cyberattacks cost Atlanta $17 million and, in 2019, Baltimore suffered an $18 million attack. The Baltimore Sun says other school systems around the country were attacked by ransomware soon after the Baltimore attack:

Experts say cyber-attacks on public school systems are on the rise around the country. Just days after the Baltimore County attack, schools in Huntsville, Alabama, were also shut down by a ransomware incident.

And after the Baltimore attack, Maryland auditors found lots of cyber-risks at school systems and even at the state’s department of education.

Even with this dramatic shift, cybersecurity has not been a priority for the education sector, Douglas Levin, founder of the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center said. Leaders are making decisions without “a security mindset,” and school systems lack the resources and support they need to adequately manage security risk. And many districts are not required to meet any cybersecurity guidelines.

FiscalNote reminds lawmakers:

The emergence of ransomware — cyberattacks that deny access to or “locks up” data until the victim pays an untraceable Bitcoin “ransom” — puts state governments, municipalities, utility districts, hospitals, critical infrastructure, and school districts in a vulnerable position. There were at least 1,000 ransomware attacks on public agencies and hospitals in 2019. School districts across the country were targeted at least 500 times.

During 2020 sessions, state lawmakers considered about 1,000 bills related to cybercrime with nearly 400 bills dealing directly with beefing up cybersecurity defenses against ransomware and malware attacks submitted in 35 states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Bills ranged from requiring government agencies to implement cybersecurity training, policies, and practices; increase penalties for computer crime; impose transparency requirements to ensure cyberattacks are reported; and create cybersecurity task forces.

The Florida Legislature, for example, has created the Florida Cybersecurity Task Force in 2019 and unanimously adopted at least two cybersecurity bills in 2020. At least four Florida cities, a sheriff’s department and a police department suffered 2019 ransomware attacks.

Backyard chickens … it is a pandemic thing

Members of the Abta family, from left, Allison, Violet, Eli, and Ariella hold hens in front of their backyard chicken run in Ross, Calif., on Dec. 15, 2020. The coronavirus pandemic is coming home to roost in America’s backyards. (AP Photo/Terry Chea)

The Associated Press reports that the very thing I hear down the street from my house is becoming more common.

Forced to hunker down at home, more people are setting up coops and raising their own chickens, which provide an earthy hobby, animal companionship and a steady supply of fresh eggs.

Amateur chicken-keeping has been growing in popularity in recent years as people seek environmental sustainability in the food they eat. The pandemic is accelerating those trends, some breeders and poultry groups say, prompting more people to make the leap into poultry parenthood.

Businesses that sell chicks, coops and other supplies say they have seen a surge in demand since the pandemic took hold in March and health officials ordered residents to stay home.

I was surprised when I looked up the regulations on backyard chickens here in Pinellas County, Florida. There are limits on flock sizes, you cannot have roosters (I assume to control the crowing) and you are not allowed to slaughter the chickens. They also regulate the breeds of chickens you can have and they warn you a chicken might live up to 10 years.

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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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