February 4, 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.

A year into this pandemic, the American Psychological Association checked in to see how you are doing. The answer, you said, is “not great.”

A fourth of you said you are feeling a “great deal of stress.”

Arthur C. Evans Jr., APA’s chief executive officer said, “Without addressing stress as part of a national recovery plan, we will be dealing with the mental health fallout from this pandemic for years to come.”

January 2021 survey data (APA)

Because you are journalists and I know you want context, let’s dive into the first of these polls. You will see the 5.6 level is higher than any of the stress levels that APA polling measured in all of 2020.

January 2021 survey data (APA)

My first reaction is, “Well, a .2 increase doesn’t sound like much.” But when I ran these figures by my wife, who is a licensed mental health counselor, she said it concerned her a lot more that the figures have held steady for so long with so little change. I wish we had a pre-pandemic baseline to know how stressed people might have been prior to the pandemic.

The pollster also tried to find out what is concerning people (and keep in mind this poll was taken Jan. 21 through 25, so some time had passed since the mob invaded Capitol Hill). Among stressors that people said concerned them most:

January 2021 survey data (APA)

I am struck by the finding that more than one in 10 people say they don’t feel much unusual stress right now. The other words that struck me are “numb” and “guilty.”

Almost a fourth of people said they feel they cannot trust anybody. That one was new for me. I wonder how much of that is tied to misinformation about everything from vaccines and the virus to politics.

January 2021 survey data (APA)

One way to look at this is to feel a little reassured that if you feel any of these feelings, you are not alone. You might just be normal (as unlikely as that is that you journalists are normal). But the numbers also may tell you that there is a lot swirling around you and that you have to take better care of yourself.

I can also imagine that Chiefs fans are feeling justifiable anxiety about this weekend.

When is it time for hospitals to end no visitations policies?

I point you to this compelling opinion piece from Dr. Trisha Pasricha, who was barred from being at the bedside of her dying grandmother. She writes:

Each day at work, I saw my loss repeat itself in devastating variations: a sick wife whose partner, but not parents, could visit her. An elderly father going into surgery by himself. Patients who would vanish into thin air like my grandmother. As their physician, I often had to explain to patients the policy I found so cruel. Of every mistake we’ve made in the pandemic, there is perhaps none I regret more than having inflicted this pain on families in their darkest hours.

Pasricha argues that visitation improves patient outcomes and reduces medical errors and that, to this point, most in-hospital COVID-19 outbreaks have been from unmasked health care workers or patients. Of course, one might argue that the low number of outbreaks might also be because so few visitors have been allowed in.

This is a story close to the heart of hundreds of thousands of people who have loved ones in hospitals, hospice and nursing homes.

The virus is in the air, not so much on surfaces

In this July 2, 2020 file photo, a contractor cleans a subway car in New York to control the spread of COVID-19. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority has embarked on an aggressive cleaning and disinfecting program that will wind up costing it more than $1 billion, according to MTA officials. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

It might be a good time to refocus on what is important. There are so many products for sale that keep you from touching surfaces to avoid the coronavirus. But let’s remember, the virus is mostly transmitted through the air. The medical journal Lancet puts it plainly:

A year into the pandemic, the evidence is now clear. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted predominantly through the air — by people talking and breathing out large droplets and small particles called aerosols. Catching the virus from surfaces — although plausible — seems to be rare.

Last May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance to say surface transmission is “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

Still, there is nothing wrong with taking sensible precautions. The World Health Organization says, “Avoid touching surfaces, especially in public settings, because someone with COVID-19 could have touched them before. Clean surfaces regularly with standard disinfectants.”

So why is deep-cleaning and disinfecting such a big business? The science journal Nature points to two issues. First, the fact that no study outright proves that you cannot get the virus by touching objects leaves open that possibility. Also, cleaning surfaces gives us something we can do when there is so much out of our control. Nature reports:

But it’s easier to clean surfaces than improve ventilation — especially in the winter — and consumers have come to expect disinfection protocols. That means that governments, companies and individuals continue to invest vast amounts of time and money in deep-cleaning efforts. By the end of 2020, global sales of surface disinfectant totaled US$4.5 billion, a jump of more than 30% over the previous year. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which oversees subways and buses and lost billions of dollars in passenger revenue in 2020, spent $484 million last year in its response to COVID-19, including enhanced cleaning and sanitization, according to a spokesperson.

Part of the problem is that specialists can’t rule out the possibility of fomite (surface) transmission, and the guidance from many health agencies about how to deal with surfaces has been unclear as the science has changed. In November, Chinese authorities introduced guidelines requiring disinfection of imported frozen-food packages. And the CDC directs people to a comprehensive list of agents that kill SARS-C0V-2 and says: “Frequent disinfection of surfaces and objects touched by multiple people is important.”

But the most important prevention is what you have been hearing for a year. Wash your hands, increase ventilation and wear a mask.

How COVID-19 sparks domestic debates

Let’s start with this CDC data that says men do not take COVID-19 as seriously as women and are less likely to follow safety measures even though, globally, 70% of COVID-19 deaths are men. (In the U.S., about 57% of COVID-19 deaths are men.) The data says men wash their hands less often and are less likely to social distance or wear masks.

Once you know that, what USA Today found might not be so surprising:

Jessica Calarco, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, surveyed Indiana mothers as part of a Pandemic Parenting Study and found nearly 40% of respondents report increases in pandemic-related frustrations with their partners. Those frustrations were twice as common among mothers with partners who were less supportive of steps they took to reduce COVID-19 risks.

Experts say while COVID’s political divisions have dominated headlines, the pandemic’s gender divide is just as significant, with consequences for public health — CDC data shows more men have died from COVID than women as the virus continues to spread — as well as for relationships.

As the nation wages war against the deadly virus, many women are fighting their own private battles at home.

I have seen so many stories over the past year about how divorce filings were rising or going to rise in the pandemic. But then I have also seen stories saying that divorces typically do not rise in an economic downturn.

Have you gone back to find out the truth? Did your community actually see a big increase in pandemic-era divorces after people were locked in together a good bit of the year? Is there anything to the notion that divorces might be down because the pandemic slowed court proceedings?

Applications to medical and nursing schools are way up

Medical student Bryan Delgado puts on PPE inside the coronavirus unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Association of American Medical Colleges says applications to 155 U.S. medical schools are up 35% and traditionally underrepresented populations are contributing to that increase. One notion is that the pandemic and our related honoring of people in the health care field makes the training more attractive.

Preliminary data from AAMC says:

At Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, applications for admission to the class of 2025 are up more than 35% compared to the same time last year. At Boston University School of Medicine, they’ve risen by 26%. And at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, admissions officers have seen applications increase by 27%.

“This large of an increase is unprecedented,” said Geoffrey Young, the AAMC’s senior director of student affairs and programs. ”We can’t say for sure why so many more students have applied this year. Some students may have had more time for applications and preparing for the MCAT exam after their college courses went online. Some may have been motivated by seeing heroic doctors on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Newsday reports:

On Long Island, Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine received 700 more applications this year than last year, a 14% increase, said its dean, Dr. Ken Kaushansky.

“This is my 11th year and I don’t remember us going up by 14 percent in any year,” he said. “More typical is a 3 to 4 percent increase year over year.”

Kaushansky said the reasons behind the surge were likely “complex and multifactorial,” from the inspiration of the pandemic to a desire for financial security during a time of job loss and unemployment.

Applications to The Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell are up 25% over last year, the medical school said.

And they are up 27.4% this month compared to a year ago at the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, said the school’s dean, Dr. Nicole Wadsworth. With a March deadline, almost 10,000 applications are already in for 295 spots at the college’s campus in Old Westbury, along with 115 at its campus in Arkansas.

Nursing school applications are up, too. Newsday says at one school, “nursing degree applications are up nearly 13%, respiratory care, public health and pharmaceutics, for example, saw double- and triple-digit percentage increases.”

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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