August 31, 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.

Years ago, a rescue worker told me, “Once the wind dies down, people start dying.” He was referring to the time after a storm when people pull out their chainsaws and fire up their generators.

At least 39 people have died after hurricanes from carbon monoxide poisoning since 2017.

NPR reports:

More deaths associated with Hurricane Laura were caused by the improper use of portable generators than the storm itself.

Eight of the 15 hurricane-related deaths confirmed by the Louisiana Department of Health are attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning from portable generators, which can provide life-saving power in emergency situations but also pose a deadly threat if used incorrectly.

Consumer Reports says, “More than 900 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning and thousands were injured while using portable generators from 2005 to 2017.” The warning adds, “Carbon monoxide can kill you in as little as 5 minutes if the levels are high enough, according to safety guidelines from the National Institutes of Health.”

After Ida, electricity, communications and oil/gas production interruption

Traffic diverts around power poles that hang over a road after Hurricane Ida moved through Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, in Metairie, La. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A million people who were in Hurricane Ida’s path are without electricity (see this constantly updated map). Wireless networks are down, too. All sorts of problems will follow.

Sewer pumps need electricity. 39 hospitals are running on generator power. Gas stations need electricity. 95% of Gulf of Mexico oil production was shut down ahead of Ida and we might know today if the rigs were damaged.

AAA estimates that oil companies took about 13% of the national refinery capacity offline before the storm hit. Nine refineries paused their work before the storm and may come back online soon.

One out of five gallons of gasoline used in the U.S. comes from Louisiana facilities. AAA says you may still see gasoline prices rise because of the interruptions, plus prices usually rise around Labor Day weekend anyway.

The first glimmer of hope in the latest COVID surge

A photojournalist I worked with would sometimes offer his assessment of our work on any given day as, “It doesn’t suck as much as I thought it would.” That was meant as a compliment.

The latest COVID-19 trend data does not qualify as bona fide good news, but it is less bad than the last few weeks. Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina says if you squint, you can see a tiny possible peak in the U.S. data.

(Our World in Data)

Let’s look a little closer at this data. Some of the states that had the roughest time with this surge, including storm-torn Louisiana, also are seeing a small trend decline. But Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country and, with many residents scattered by evacuations, we will find out in a couple of weeks if they took COVID-19 with them. In addition, there is no doubt that testing data from Louisiana and other storm-damaged states will run behind for at least a couple of weeks. That may mask a new surge.

Notice the Dakotas both are rocketing upward in new cases (likely thanks to Sturgis). We are getting close to our all-time peak for COVID-19 hospitalizations. Some states, including Florida and Kentucky, have hit new records for hospitalizations.

(Financial Times)

So it is not as awful as it was, and yet it is still awful. There is no room for celebration. Let’s pull back for this context: Every single state is still at a high-risk infection rate.

(CDC)

1,281 people are dying of COVID-19 each day. That is 53 people per hour. It means that one person dies from COVID-19 almost every minute in the United States.

Federal government opens civil rights investigations in states that ban face mask mandates in schools

The U.S. Department of Education just announced that it is opening investigations in five states where lawmakers and governors have banned mask mandates for schools. The federal government sent letters to officials in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. The Biden administration says banning mask mandates may prevent districts from meeting the needs of students who have disabilities and are at more severe risk of COVID-19 infection.

The move is a direct challenge to Republican governors in each of the states that banned mask mandates. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, “The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona also have bans against mask mandates but the state laws or governor’s orders in those states are not being enforced. In some cases, including Florida, courts ruled against the mandate bans.

It is time to adjust our expectations for vaccines

A year ago, we had hopes that vaccines could prevent us from getting sick from COVID-19 just as vaccines prevented us from getting polio or chickenpox. But we squandered the opportunity to get widely vaccinated before the virus morphed into something more infectious. Now we must realize that the very effective vaccines we have won’t prevent infections but will prevent deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19.

It is a different aspiration, and still worthwhile.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Céline R. Gounder put this thinking into an excellent essay for The Atlantic. Here are excerpts that journalists might consider while writing about vaccines and the pandemic:

Doctors and scientists need to have an honest conversation with the American people about what the goals of COVID-19 vaccination are and how the pandemic will end.

If we can’t prevent all infections, what’s the endgame?

Vaccines alone won’t prevent all infections or eliminate the coronavirus, but widespread vaccination could turn COVID-19 into something more like influenza. As a society, Americans have shown that we are willing to live with 12,000 to 60,000 deaths from influenza each year. COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu. Approximately 630,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus to date. But if we could cut the death rate by 90 percent or more, it would be on par with what we see in a bad flu season. We don’t shut down the economy for the flu. We socialize normally during flu season.

Americans have to recalibrate our expectations about what makes a vaccine successful. The public discussion of the pandemic has become distorted by a presumption that vaccination can and should eliminate COVID-19 entirely. Under such an unattainable standard, each breakthrough infection looks like evidence that the vaccines are not working. But in reality, they continue to perform extremely well.

What is it about hurricanes with the letter ‘I?’

Typically, the ninth named storm of the year arrives Sept. 15.

The 2021 hurricane season is significantly ahead of what we have considered the normal schedule of hurricanes and tropical storms. The yellow line below is where we are now. It’s typically about where we would be in mid-September.

(Brian McNoldy)

As a result of the naming system and the patterns of the season, storms starting with the letter “I” arrive when Gulf water is warm and hurricane season comes to full power. Ida will surely become one of a long list of “I” named storms that will be retired and never used again. It will join a remarkable list:

(First Coast News)

(Brian McNoldy)

Here is the rest of the story. The storms that will be known as the J-K-L storms are already forming. The J storm already played out. Kate is a tropical storm but appears to be spinning out to sea away from the U.S. Larry might be on the horizon this week. The makings of Larry are sitting off the African coast.

(National Hurricane Center)

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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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