April 30, 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.

Around the country, journalists are telling stories about people who are trying to use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 funeral assistance program but can’t. The program is designed to pay for expenses ranging from caskets to clergy time and other services.

To give you a taste of how interested people are in this, consider that a million people called FEMA in the first 90 minutes of the first day the program opened.

As you might imagine, scammers have moved in. CBS News reports:

“We have received reports of scammers reaching out to people offering to register them for funeral assistance. FEMA has not sent any such notifications and we do not contact people before they register for assistance,” the agency noted in a fraud alert.

WGLT public radio in Illinois reports that determining who qualifies is tricky:

The program through the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides up to $9,000 for funeral and burial expenses, including travel, for people who died from COVID-19 after Jan. 20, 2020. Those who lost multiple loved ones to COVID can apply for up to $35,500 total.

FEMA will consider — but not necessarily accept — cases where COVID-19 contributed to a death, but was not considered the immediate cause.

That is the case for many older adults.

CNN reports:

While FEMA has aided families with disaster-related burial costs in the past, the Covid-19 effort is the largest of its type. Some $2 billion was allocated as part of the $900 billion relief deal Congress approved in December, while the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion package last month bolstered it by providing the agency with an additional $50 billion to use for coronavirus-related costs.

Due to the sensitive nature of the program, FEMA decided to register applicants by phone rather than online. More than 5,000 agents have been contracted to take calls “with a commitment to spend as much time as is needed with each applicant,” the agency spokesperson said.

The Denver Post includes this passage:

“It’s a huge reimbursement,” said Kendra Briggs, CEO of Fairmount Funeral Home in Denver. “… I got a call from one woman who had lost her husband and she was so relieved. She had lost a spouse, so half the Social Security is gone now and the couple didn’t plan for life insurance.”

After Briggs first heard about it, her company sent a letter to past customers who had buried a loved one due to COVID. “They didn’t know about it. They were like, ‘What?’” she recalled.

“I couldn’t believe it wasn’t better advertised. Remember when everybody got the stimulus checks, how advertised that was? This is just like a secret,” Briggs said.

One customer of hers lost two people to COVID, making them eligible for $18,000. A woman whose husband died of the virus will now be able to afford a headstone, according to Briggs. But there are exceptions: One local family Briggs worked with cannot be reimbursed because they pre-planned a funeral through a trust.

FEMA says there is no rush or time limit to apply. CBS tells us what applicants will need:

  • An official death certificate that attributes a person’s death to COVID-19 and shows that the death occurred in the U.S. The certificate must indicate the death “may have been caused by” or “was likely the result of” COVID-19 or coronavirus-like symptoms.
  • Funeral expense documents that include the applicant’s name, deceased individual’s name, amount of funeral expenses and dates the costs were incurred. The documents may include items like receipts and a funeral home contract.
  • Proof of funds received from other sources specifically for use toward funeral costs. Funeral assistance may not duplicate benefits received from burial or funeral insurance, financial assistance received from voluntary agencies, federal/state/local/tribal/territorial government programs or agencies, or other sources.

For more information about the program, visit FEMA.gov.

After toilet paper shortages, wipes are clogging sewer systems

This Sept. 6, 2018 photo provided by the Macomb County Public Works Office shows a large fatberg in a sewer line in Clinton Township, Mich. (Macomb County Public Works Office via AP)

A year ago, when many could not find toilet paper, utility companies warned not to flush premoistened wipes down the toilet. The urgency of the warnings may have worn off, but people keep using and flushing the wipes.

One utility system that serves 1.8 million people says it dug 700 tons of wipes from its waste last year. The Washington Post says the problems recently sent sewage into a Maryland creek:

Utilities say the wipes twist into ropy wads, either in a home’s sewer pipe or miles down the line. They then congeal with grease and other cooking fats improperly sent down drains to form sometimes massive “fatbergs” that block pumps and pipes, sending sewage backing up into basements and overflowing into streams.

The word “fatberg” became big news in London when workers found a 40-ton wad of grease, wipes and other materials stuck in the sewer system. The collection was as big as a two-story bus.

Bloomberg reports that some cities report a 50% pandemic-era increase in sewer backups. The problems have cropped up from Detroit to Seattle.

With consumers cleaning everything from counters to doorknobs in hopes of thwarting the coronavirus, sanitary wipes are more popular than ever. In the 12 months through late January, their sales surged 75%, according to data from Nielsen.

But the blockages they create when flushed — dubbed fatbergs — have become a costly headache. The Des Moines, Iowa Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority has spent more than $100,000 over the past year and deployed specialized block-clearing trucks about 30 times, according to Larry Hare, manager at a wastewater reclamation facility in Des Moines.

Similar problems are plaguing cities and towns across the U.S., and they’re being forced to spend more and more on fixing the problem.

Last year, Washington became the first state to pass legislation requiring manufacturers to label their products with “do not flush” disclaimers, and states including California have also introduced bills that would mandate similar labels.

In a normal year, cities spend $1 billion clearing the wipes from sewer pipes and processing plants, according to the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. The group produced a video explaining the problem and blamed paper companies for convincing people to buy the product. The Great Lakes Water Authority also produced a video about the problem. Tim Carter at AsktheBuilder.com also produced a demo.

The same issue has arisen in Australia, according to a video from The Guardian, and New York City has also launched a battle against flushable wipes.

The city of Charleston, South Carolina, recently spent an additional $100,000 to clean “disposable” wipes from the sewer system after workers pulled a 12-foot wad of wipes from three pumps. The city is trying to collect for the damages. The Washington Post reports:

The Charleston utility recently filed a federal lawsuit against Costco, Walmart, CVS and four other companies that manufacture or sell wipes labeled “flushable,” alleging they have caused “massive” damage to sewer systems. The lawsuit seeks to prohibit wipes from being marketed as “flushable” or safe for sewer systems until the companies prove they disintegrate into pieces small enough to avoid clogs.

Bloomberg reports:

The Charleston Water System has faced some of its worst bouts with fatbergs in the last year. Pre-pandemic, crews only saw about two clogs per month in its pump stations. That jumped to an average of 16 clogs per month from April to June 2020, and the contractors and specialized trucks used to clear them out added an extra $110,000 to the agency’s costs, said Baker Mordecai, Charleston’s director of wastewater collection. The problem has persisted.

“We would have thought we’d see a huge drop because people are starting to go back to work,” he said. “But we haven’t really noticed any major decrease in the amount of wipes that we’re taking out of the system.”

Rental car shortage linked to computer chip supply

I might as well add this to your list of things to be concerned about. FOX5 Las Vegas reports:

A shortage of semiconductor computer chips is leading to a lack of rental car availability, according to rental car experts.

When the pandemic hit in spring 2020, a lot of rental car companies sold off entire fleets of cars due to a huge dip in travel and the need for money in order to stay afloat.

“You need computer chips to control all the major systems in the car. Engine management, climate control, entertainment systems,” said Jonathan Weinberg, CEO of Autoslash. “Now they are facing shortages of these semiconductors which is causing problems all across the industry. Namely, that rental cars are sold out all over the place.”

Yahoo Money says:

“The strain has contributed to a dramatic price increase in places like Hawaii where any available cars are as much as $500 a day. Car rentals in other sunny destinations like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and several cities in Florida also are increasing.”

I have seen stories about people who can’t find rental cars so they rent U-Haul vehicles instead.

Slow down the vitamin C intake

I have seen this story in various incarnations coming up around the globe. People are taking huge amounts of vitamin C to stave off COVID-19 and, in some cases, are ingesting so much that the vitamin is causing health problems. In Uganda, just as an example, the health authorities say they have had patients with kidney damage caused by too much vitamin C.

Whether supplements of any kind really do much to lessen COVID-19 is still unproven.

New MIT study: Why 6 feet is sometimes not enough separation

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have produced a new risk-assessment calculator to help us see why, depending on where we are, six feet of separation is not enough to be safe from the coronavirus.

The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The researchers said social distancing is not useless, but preventions such as mask-wearing, improved room ventilation and increased filtration (in that order) provide more reliable benefits.

India turns to online volunteers to find COVID-19 emergency info

People wait to receive COVID-19 vaccine in Mumbai, India, Thursday, April 29, 2021. India set another global record in new virus cases Thursday, as millions of people in one state cast votes despite rising infections and the country geared up to open its vaccination rollout to all adults amid snags. (AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade)

To get a taste of the desperation in India as it faces a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, look at this passage from RestofWorld.org:

Online resources, such as volunteer-run Google Sheets and apps, have become crucial sources of life-saving information. On Twitter, posts sharing critical Covid-19 resources are retweeted thousands of times within hours, while users rush to apps with any hope of a solution.

Covid Resources is an online app that makes navigating statewide contact information for individuals who can provide medicine, oxygen, food, and beds easy and accessible for anyone who accesses it.

Curated lists of distributors who sell Tocilizumab, a drug used in Covid-19 treatment that has been in short supply, are being shared hundreds of times over on apps like WhatsApp. The desperation is unprecedented, and the shortage of life-saving resources like oxygen is forcing Indians to cut out hospitals and middlemen and purchase oxygen cylinders from wholesalers directly. Some hospitals are even being forced to source oxygen supplies from the black market.

A face on the cost of COVID-19 in prisons and jails

The people who run our prisons and jails have paid a heavy price during this pandemic. I want to tell you about one such person.

Correctional officer Alexey Aguilar died a few days ago from COVID-19. He was 42 years old. He was a husband and father of three girls.

Just in the Dade County Corrections and Rehabilitation Department, the figures reflect South Florida’s surge after surge of cases:

1,883 incarcerated people tested positive

Currently 4 imprisoned people are COVID positive

857 staff have tested positive

Currently 51 staff are positive

Even though prisons and jails were some of the hottest COVID-19 hot spots in America, the people being held there and the people running those facilities were not given priority access to vaccines. The Marshall Project’s journalists, who have considerable expertise in justice stories, estimate that 395,915 people in prisons have been infected. At least 2,572 prisoners have died. Prison staffs have been infected, too:

(The Marshall Project)

Since we ask people like Officer Aguilar to run our prisons and jails, I want you to see his face, and know something about him and the family he leaves behind.

We’ll be back Monday with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? 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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