February 23, 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.

President Joe Biden announced a two-week signup window (starting Wednesday) for businesses with fewer than 20 employees to get COVID-related help from the government. I suspect that some of you freelancers will want to pay attention to this.

The president said small businesses are the backbone of our communities and represent 90% of businesses in America. But he said when the Paycheck Protection Program began in 2020, those small businesses got muscled out by bigger companies.

The major parts of the president’s announcement include:

Businesses with fewer than 20 employees will have a two-week exclusive window to apply for PPP loans starting Wednesday, Feb. 24 and ending March 31.

Self-employed, sole proprietors and independent contractors will qualify for more money effective the first week of March.

The government will set aside $1 billion for businesses without employees in low- and moderate-income areas.

Sole proprietors, independent contractors and self-employed individuals will be able to receive more financial support by revising the PPP’s funding formula for these categories of applicants.

Exclusionary restrictions on PPP access for small business owners with prior nonfraud felony convictions will be eliminated.

PPP access restrictions on small business owners who have struggled to make student loan payments will be eliminated and student loan debt delinquency will no longer be a disqualifier to participating in the PPP.

Small business owners who are lawful U.S. residents but not citizens (like green card or visa holders) will be ensured access and can use their Individual Taxpayer Identification Number to apply for the PPP.

Business Insider explains that the loans are part of the $284 billion coronavirus aid bill that Congress approved in December. $150 billion of that is still available, but the current rules keep lots of people from applying.

New study shows Pfizer-BioNTech shot stops the spread of COVID-19

A new study from Israeli researchers shows the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine appears to have stopped the majority of recipients in that country from getting COVID-19.

It is the first convincing data showing the vaccine not only prevents infections, but also prevents transmission of the virus. This is spectacularly good news.

Bloomberg points out that this is:

… the latest in a series of positive data to emerge out of Israel, which has given more Covid vaccines per capita than anywhere else in the world. Almost half of the population has had at least one dose of vaccine. Separately, Israeli authorities on Saturday said the Pfizer-BioNTech shot was 99% effective at preventing deaths from the virus.

The J&J COVID-19 vaccine takes a big step this week

On Thursday, a Food and Drug Administration review panel will consider recommending Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency distribution.

The review panel has been looking over Johnson & Johnson data for 22 days, which led to some speculation there might be a problem. But it is not out of line with other reviews: The agency took 20 days to approve Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine and 17 days for Moderna’s.

Like the previous vaccine trials, Johnson & Johnson’s trial involved close to 44,000 people.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single-dose shot. A few million doses will be ready upon approval. The company is contracted to deliver 100 million doses by the end of June, but the White House says it appears most of the vaccines will be available more toward the end of the contract rather than the beginning.

In phase 3 results released last month, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine was “72% effective in the U.S. and 66% effective overall at preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19.” The vaccine also offered “complete protection” against COVID-related hospitalization and death at day 28.

Why property insurance costs will be going up soon for millions — and it is NOT the pandemic

A kayaker paddles out to check on a residence as the Tittabawassee River overflows, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, in Midland, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The federal government will unveil the new national flood assessment maps on April 1. It will cost money for a lot of people. Journalists should pay attention to these new flood maps because they will affect property values as well as insurance costs and, when property values fall, people lose money but so do governments that get taxes based on property values.

The Federal Emergency Management agency has been working on new flood modeling. FEMA is getting really specific this time, looking at individual properties instead of performing big, broad mapping and then generalizing threats.

The First Street Foundation, a nonprofit research and technology group that focuses on America’s flood risk, took a look at the newest available data and says whatever FEMA shows as a flood hazard area won’t tell the whole story. First Street says because of climate change, it estimates there are more than 4 million homes in the U.S. that are in flood hazard areas. And, First Street’s report says, we are not paying nearly enough into the national flood insurance program to cover the risks:

… if all of these homes were to insure against flood risk through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), the rates would need to increase 4.5 times to cover the estimated risk in 2021, and 7.2 times to cover the growing risk by 2051.

FEMA has been careful to say that its data does not necessarily agree with the First Street estimates, but we won’t know for some weeks how far apart the numbers land. The new risk rates were to have gone in effect last fall but the Trump administration delayed action that would have been really unpopular right before the election.

Don’t get the notion that floods are just the results of hurricanes or other catastrophic events. No doubt, coastal floods are a big risk, but river flooding causes way more damage in the United States. The National Resources Defense Council says, “According to one study, approximately 41 million U.S. residents are at risk from flooding along rivers and streams. More than 8.6 million Americans live in areas susceptible to coastal flooding.”

Last year, First Street made news when it published a report that said there are at least 6 million households that are unaware that have a 1% chance of flooding in each year — putting them within a “100-year” flood zone. Look at these two maps of where First Street says we are now and where floods will grow worse soon.

(First Street Foundation)

(First Street Foundation)

Why has kindergarten enrollment dropped in the pandemic?

Students sit in a distanced pattern from their classmates during the coronavirus outbreak in a kindergarten class at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y. on Oct. 20, 2020.(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

USA Today rounded up a series of studies from around the country to document how parents are holding children out of kindergarten during the pandemic.

Although national statistics aren’t available, one NPR survey last fall of more than 60 districts in 20 states found that enrollment dips have been especially pronounced in kindergarten – on average, these districts have 16% fewer kindergartners than they did during the 2019-2020 school year.

A separate analysis of 33 states by Chalkbeat and the Associated Press found that kindergarten opt-outs have been the biggest driver of the overall K-12 enrollment decline, accounting for 30% of the total reductions.

In some school systems, from the Columbus, Ohio-area Groveport Madison district to the Nashville, Tennessee, district, the kindergarten populations have dwindled by roughly 40 percent, reports suggest.

While most states do not require kindergarten, we will see soon enough if our education system will need to make adjustments in what they expect a first grader to know if the child has not had a kindergarten experience. Typically, about 5% of children enter kindergarten one year late, especially if they are born in the later part of a calendar year.

As you cover school board plans, including budgeting for the school year ahead, pay special attention to whether the schools are making plans to address this issue.

Amtrak is steadily losing money during the pandemic

An Amtrak rail car sits empty as a worker pushes a cart during boarding, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Providence, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

No matter how many people are on the train, about 70% of Amtrak’s employees have to show up every day. There is a certain level of expenses that go with running a rail service even when ridership is 24% of normal ridership, as it is now.

CEO William Flynn said Monday that from July to September, Amtrak still expects ridership to be less than half of normal and the rail expects to keep losing money along the way. Flynn says Amtrak is asking Congress for $5 billion in relief.

Flynn says rail ridership is growing compared to commuting by plane. He says leisure travelers are going to make up a greater percentage of riders in the future.

What do copper prices have to do with the economy?

Last week, copper prices hit $4 per pound, the highest price in a decade. Copper is used in all kinds of manufacturing, from wiring to electronics. Like everything, its prices are driven by supply and demand, and when prices go up it is a signal that mining is not meeting demand.

Higher copper prices could just be a sign of speculators doing what they do, but it also could be a signal that the economy is chugging along.

Along with higher copper prices comes an incentive for copper thefts. This can not only cause a lot of damage, but can be deadly.

We have seen it happen before that when prices rise, thieves start stealing wiring from homes under construction. Some years ago, tornado sirens in Mississippi didn’t work because somebody ripped off the wiring. People steal wiring from farmers’ irrigation pumps. Recently, thieves stole copper downspouts from a Lynchburg, Virginia, church. In Gilpin, Pennsylvania, police caught thieves who they said tore $30,000 worth of copper from an idled factory. And in Heber, Utah, police found a guy who they said had taken $50,000 in copper wire from a utility company.

The Oklahoma legislature is about to pass a bill cracking down on copper thefts. It named the bill the Sergeant Craig Johnson Metal Theft Act, after a police officer who died in the line of duty and worked hard to combat copper wire theft.

The city of Tulsa has lost miles of street lighting to thieves.

“If you talk to our utility companies — you know, PSO, ONG, OG&E — they’re all at the table because it costs them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year when you go have to replace the copper in a lot of their units,” said Oklahoma state Rep. Carol Bush.

The legislation will also make it more difficult for thieves to sell copper to recyclers.

When disasters hit, crime goes down

A new study says that when disasters hit, we tend to behave ourselves and even become more philanthropic.

The study is based on the decade between 2004-2015 and looks at 10,000 individual “disasters,” big and small. It found that when bad things happen, there is a drop in looting and other such crimes.

Then there is this: The study says outside of the disaster area, crime goes up. At the same time, outside of the disaster area philanthropy goes up.

Maybe people are stealing to give it to others? I just thought I would offer the possibility.

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,…
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