March 26, 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.

Here is a story in which context may inform your reporting. The Washington Post put the current border migration story into useful perspective by showing that the “surge” of young people at the border is not really a surge at all. It is a predictable increase that happens every year at around the same time.

The Post points out:

We analyzed monthly U.S. Customs and Border Protection data from 2012 through February and found no clear evidence that the overall increase in border crossings in 2021 can be attributed to Biden administration policies. Rather, the current increase fits a pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020s coronavirus border closure.

Look at the blue line in this chart. It shows a familiar curve compared to 2019. Of course, 2020 was different because of the pandemic.

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection via The Washington Post)

The Post points out:

Migrants start coming when winter ends and the weather gets a bit warmer. We see a regular increase not just from January to February, but from February to March, March to April, and April to May — and then a sharp drop-off, as migrants stop coming in the hotter summer months when the desert is deadly. That means we should expect decreases from May to June and June to July.

This data in no way minimizes the extreme difficulties of housing minors and it does not minimize the desperation of the people who are trying to come into America. But, the Post says, it is too soon to pin the increase on juveniles making the border crossing on seasonal norms. Instead, border officials say, it may be that smugglers were selling the prospect of it being easier to enter the U.S. once Biden took office. The Post says:

This is supported by the literature that examines changes in the fees smugglers charge at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as a DHS report on the same subject.

The Posts’ analysis says what we are seeing now is the usual seasonal increase coupled with pent-up demand from people who might have tried to immigrate last year but didn’t because of the pandemic.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists just published a new edition of the Cultural Competence handbook to help you cover the border story.

Shipping costs skyrocket

This photo released by the Suez Canal Authority on Thursday, March 25, 2021, shows two tugboats next to the Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, after it become wedged across the Suez Canal and blocking traffic in the vital waterway from another vessel. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Globally, shipping container rates — the cost of moving a big container of stuff from here to there — have doubled in the last year. And the price is still rising.

You might think this is a story for big industry, and it is. You might think this is a story for cities with ports, and it is. It is also a story for every consumer and every business that imports or exports anything from anywhere, which is all of us.

Shipping containers, the kind on ocean-going ships, are in short supply globally. This is partly the cause for the delays in shipping everything from food and furniture to toilet paper and refrigerators. China is using a lot more containers these days, another reason for the interruption. Freight costs are rising as a result. Forbes reports:

Last month, the Port of L.A. saw an incredible 47% increase in container traffic compared to February 2020, representing the strongest February in its 114-year history. The port processed nearly 800,000 (Twenty-foot equivalent units) during the month, marking the seventh straight month of year-over-year growth. On the East Coast, the Port of New York and New Jersey saw not only double-digit container traffic growth in January compared to last year but also its highest January on record for volume. In China, volume at major Chinese ports were up 14.5% in the first half of March versus the same period last year.

(U.S. Global Investors)

Marketplace explains:

“People aren’t able to spend on going out, holidays, et cetera,” said Simon Heaney, senior manager of container research at the shipping consultancy Drewry. “Some people have built up quite nice disposable incomes, and it’s gone into physical goods that are generally shipped in containers.”

Clogged U.S. ports don’t have enough cranes or workers to handle everything, so containers are stuck in transit.

“It’s not so much a shortage,” said Doug Grennan, vice president of the agricultural supply chain company Scoular. “It’s more about capacity, or what I might call a velocity shortage within the actual supply chain.”

“There was a report I read this morning, from a very knowledgeable source, that 70% of vessels departing over the last two months out of Long Beach (California) were filled entirely with empty containers,” said Steve Kranig, director of logistics at the agricultural shipping services firm IM-EX Global.

All these hassles have raised shipping prices, causing a few toy factories in Asia to reportedly stop deliveries for now. And some food and grain firms have turned to bulk ships with loose piles of cargo rather than container vessels.

Then there is the blockage in the Suez Canal, which is causing even more shipping disruption. It will be more temporary but may still have repercussions months from now.

Evidence of a link between COVID-19 and diabetes grows

We are a long way from knowing what the link is, but a growing body of evidence is pointing toward some correlation and possible causation between COVID-19 and diabetes.

Dr. Francesco Rubino, a professor and chair of metabolic and bariatric surgery at King’s College London, told The Guardian, “We are now starting to think the link is probably true — there is an ability of the virus to cause a malfunctioning of sugar metabolism.”

The Guardian goes further:

Other studies have found a link between COVID-19 and diabetes.

For example, a review of eight studies, which included more than 3,700 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, showed that roughly 14% of these patients developed diabetes, Scientific American reported. A preliminary study of 47,000 U.K. patients found that 4.9% developed diabetes, The Guardian reported.

“We clearly see people without previous diabetes developing diabetes,” Dr. Remi Rabasa-Lhoret, a physician and metabolic diseases researcher with the Montreal Clinical Research Institute, told CTV News. “It is highly probable that COVID-19 is triggering the disease.”

The big question is why, and scientists have several theories.

It may be that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, directly attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, Scientific American reported. Alternatively, the virus may damage these cells indirectly by infecting other parts of the pancreas or the blood vessels that supply the organ with oxygen and nutrients. Still another theory suggests that the virus infects other organs involved with blood sugar regulation, such as the intestines, and somehow undermines the body’s ability to break down glucose, more generally.

Hospitals are hiding their prices from Google searches

You may be wondering why you cannot find the price schedules that hospitals were supposed to disclose under a new federal rule. The way we imagined it would work is you could visit a hospital’s website — or, more likely, google something like “gall bladder surgery cost” with a hospital’s name — and easily find how much a procedure would cost.

The Wall Street Journal looked at 3,100 websites and found that the hundreds of hospitals are using an embedded code on their websites to keep Google from being able to find and display price lists. The Journal includes this passage:

“It’s technically there, but good luck finding it,” said Chirag Shah, an associate professor at the University of Washington who studies human interactions with computers. “It’s one thing not to optimize your site for searchability, it’s another thing to tag it so it can’t be searched. It’s a clear indication of intentionality.”

The Journal says hospitals that are hiding the data include big names like facilities owned by HCA Healthcare and NYU Langone Health.

Gizmodo reminds us of what was supposed to have happened:

As part of these new rules, hospitals are required to post these prices online in a “machine-readable format” that can be easily uncovered by a healthcare-conscious consumer while they’re researching procedures online.

Aside from that, this data file needs to be displayed “prominently” on the hospital’s consumer-facing public website, and the hospital needs to ensure these pages “are easily accessible and without barriers.”

It’s worth noting that some hospitals claim that not all of these search-blocking code snippets were left intentionally. In some cases, after being contacted by the Journal, hospitals pulled the snippet from their site, saying it was a piece of “legacy code” that was no longer needed. Others said that the code was left on their website “in error.” In some cases, the code could’ve been left as the hospitals worked to tighten up these pricing pages as a way to prevent the drafted document from being indexed in search — and whoever was responsible for the page simply forgot to take the snippet off.

Health care workers say they feel underappreciated and may quit

Registered traveling nurse Patricia Carrete, of El Paso, Texas, takes a rest while looking out a door during a night shift at a field hospital set up to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Cranston, R.I. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The University of Washington in Seattle has been speaking with health care workers — including 300 doctors, nurses and other front-line health care workers — and the conversations show that after a year of COVID-19, they are frazzled, even disillusioned. Stateline reported on the study. Pay attention to the stunning figures in this passage:

Before the pandemic, one doctor died by suicide every day in the United States, the highest rate of any profession including the military and twice the rate of the general population, according to a review of research presented at the 2018 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Part of the reason, researchers found, was untreated depression.

According to data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 28% of medical residents experience a major depressive episode compared with 7%-8% of similarly aged people in the general population.

“Health care workers already were on the edge of burnout and exhaustion before the pandemic,” said Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and public health professor at Brown University in Rhode Island. “Now, many of us are physically and emotionally exhausted. We’ve never seen as much consistent death and hopelessness as we have in the past year.”

The study also shows that health care workers are disillusioned by how many people are refusing to take basic preventative measures to control the pandemic. They say it creates a sort of “moral injury” that compounds the pressures of the job.

The experts say that the trauma of the last year will not end when the pandemic ends. The effects of what these health care workers have been through will come out for years to come.

What Virginia’s abolition of the death penalty means nationally

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, looks over the electric chair in the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center with Operations Director, George Hinkle, center, and Warden Larry Edmonds, right, prior to signing a bill abolishing the penalty in Jarratt, Va., Wednesday, March 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia just became the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty. Virginia executed more people than any other state — 400 people were executed in the last 400 years.

Gov. Ralph Northam said the death penalty is “fundamentally flawed” and with that, Virginia became the 23rd state to stop executions — nine days before the next one was to take place. Three states have a governor-imposed moratorium on the death penalty.

(Death Penalty Information Center)

The Virginian-Pilot notes, “296 of the 377 people executed in Virginia in the 20th century were Black, and a defendant was three times more likely to get the death penalty if a victim was white as opposed to Black.” And, “45 Black men were executed for rape between 1908 and 1948. Of the 808 white men convicted of rape during that span, not one was put to death.”

Time reports:

Studies show race still plays a role in modern day capital cases. A 2015 University of North Carolina and Georgetown Law Center study of U.S. executions between 1976 and 2013 found that the race of a crime’s victim is the “single most reliable predictor of whether a defendant in the USA will be executed.” Defendants were rarely executed if their victim was Black, the study found, while several other studies found that defendants who killed white Americans were more likely to receive a death sentence.

The movement that changed the Virginia death penalty law is decades old but gained new momentum last year during the Black Lives Matter protests.

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,…
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