February 9, 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, I am seeing coverage of how, despite there being much less traffic on the roads in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, traffic fatalities held fairly steady in a lot of places.

In Boston, for example, The Boston Globe reports nearly as many people died on Massachusetts roads in 2020 as in 2019.

“We were noticing that we were having a sharp influx of fatalities when we had less than 50% of the volume,” said Neil Boudreau, a state Department of Transportation official. “That was shocking, but also trending along with the fact that perhaps people were driving faster than they had been.”

In Florida, Fort Myers saw the same thing. Less traffic but no drop in traffic fatalities.

The News-Press reports:

“We changed our behaviors began wearing masks, frequently washing our hands and practicing social distancing, yet drivers continued to engage in dangerous and unsafe behaviors while operating a motor vehicle,” said Jay Anderson, of Fort Myers and the executive director of Stay Alive….Just Drive! Inc..

The Seattle Times reports a similar trend.

In Baton Rouge, traffic fatalities didn’t just stay steady, they rose. The Advocate reports:

The year 2020 saw Baton Rouge’s highest number of traffic deaths in almost a decade, despite the coronavirus keeping people indoors for much of the year.

There were 88 accidental motor vehicle deaths in the parish in 2020, according to Dr. William “Beau” Clark, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner. It’s the highest number of traffic deaths since Clark began tracking the fatalities in 2012.

The Baton Rouge Police Department’s Traffic Homicide division has older data for fatal wrecks within city limits, and officials said their numbers for 2020 are the highest since at least 2001.

Oregon Public Broadcasting finds:

In 2020, Portland saw its deadliest traffic-related year since 1996, despite a pandemic that reduced road use for a few months and the city’s continuing effort to make its streets safer.

And in Nevada, traffic fatalities rose 3.3% last year. One reason, experts there say, is that people were not wearing seatbelts. Fatalities among unrestrained drivers and passengers rose 20% in Nevada last year.

Cities and counties struggle with pandemic-era budgets

Governing, a news service that city and county leaders read, offers a sobering assessment of the months ahead. You will be hearing all of these things in some detail as your city and county starts drafting a 2021-22 budget.

Downtowns have turned into ghost towns across the country. The occupancy rate for Minneapolis office towers is 16 percent. In Honolulu, it’s 14 percent. In Dallas-Fort Worth, 9 million square feet of office space is available for sublease.

Nearly a year into the pandemic, some employers are telling workers they’ll remain virtual through Labor Day, or even permanently. It’s quite possible that most people will return to the office, but doubtless some sizable percentage will work from home permanently, if only a few days a week.

That means less office space rented out — translating eventually into lower property taxes — and fewer people downtown buying lunch or getting their hair cut.

All of that trickles down to municipal budgets:

Lots of cities face enormous budget holes.

-Detroit is projecting a revenue loss of $434 million over two fiscal years.

-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced a budget shortfall of $1.2 billion for 2021.

-In Pittsburgh, where the budget year coincides with the calendar year, the city fell $57 million short last year and expects to be down $55 million this year. If federal aid is not forthcoming, Kevin Pawlos, Pittsburgh’s budget director says, Pittsburgh will need to lay off or furlough 600 employees starting July 1 to save $26 million. “We have anticipated layoffs in pretty much all the citywide departments,” he says.

– “We cut a couple of hundred positions last year,” says Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio. “This year, we will not have a police or fire class.”

– James Wagner, finance director for the city of Tulsa notes that sales tax revenue has declined for 11 straight months, compared to the previous year’s receipts. Like other places, Tulsa is now seeing a bump from use taxes from online sales, but those remain small relative to the broader sales tax and aren’t on a straight upward trajectory.

All of this is one reason that President Joe Biden is pushing to help cities and counties in his proposed stimulus package. Governing points out, “The federal CARES Act last March provided $150 billion in direct aid to states, plus localities with populations over 500,000. Many cities and counties never saw a dollar. States and localities have been left out of congressional legislation since then, including the $900 billion package passed in December.”

SIRVA is the vaccine injury you have never heard of — and there’s a ‘court’ for it

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims (more popularly known as the “vaccine court”) was established under the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 to consider claims that come from people who say they were injured by vaccines.

SIRVA, which stands for “shoulder injury related to vaccine administration,” is one such injury. In 2017, more than 2,000 people made SIRVA-related claims.

But in the closing days of the Trump administration, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar removed shoulder injuries from COVID-related claims that “vaccine courts” would consider. Instead, such claims will be handled by the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program, which rejects about 90% of such claims.

The so-called “vaccine court” was much more likely to side with the consumer.

USA Today says it may have unintended consequences:

Attorneys who represent consumers who file vaccine claims warn Americans might choose to sue nurses, pharmacists or other vaccine administrators in civil court for such injuries if they’re shut out of vaccine court.

“Of all times to give less protections to the vaccine injured, now’s not the time,” said Anne Carrión Toale, a Florida attorney who specializes in vaccine-injury cases “It’s the worst possible time.”

The government built a webpage that compares the “vaccine court” and the CICP and explains how the system works and what is covered. The funds are paid by a tax on vaccines.

(Health Resources & Services Administration)

Many of the ways people try to fight zoombombing don’t work

Most of the ways people try to prevent zoombombing don’t work very well. The most commonly used countermeasures include protecting meetings with passwords and using waiting rooms so that conference organizers can vet people before allowing them to participate.

But ArsTechnica reports some quotes from a study by researchers at Boston University and the State University of New York at Binghamton:

Our findings indicate that the vast majority of calls for zoombombing are not made by attackers stumbling upon meeting invitations or bruteforcing their meeting ID, but rather by insiders who have legitimate access to these meetings, particularly students in high school and college classes.

This has important security implications, because it makes common protections against zoombombing, such as password protection, ineffective. We also find instances of insiders instructing attackers to adopt the names of legitimate participants in the class to avoid detection, making countermeasures like setting up a waiting room and vetting participants less effective.

Based on these observations, we argue that the only effective defense against zoombombing is creating unique join links for each participant.

Can’t get new plates but can get a ticket for having old ones

Let’s take a trip out to Denver for a story about people who have expired car tags. The COVID-caused backlog to get new plates is months long, but if you drive around with your old plates, the cops can give you a ticket. KUSA says thousands have been ticketed already.

The station got the story because reporter Marc Sallinger got a ticket. He had been waiting four months for the new plates he paid for. He made some calls and found out that when COVID-19 shut down prison industries in Colorado, the backlog for new license plates grew.

California, West Virginia and North Carolina had license plate backlogs for the same reason.

U.S. Customs found millions of fake N95 masks; lots more likely go through

Ray Bellia holds up N95 personal protective masks, used by medical and law enforcement professionals, in the warehouse of his Body Armor Outlet store, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Salem, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it has seized 15 million counterfeit face masks since the pandemic began. One of the biggest seizures was the haul of a half million masks spotted in Chicago that was headed for New Jersey.

Customs agents also intercepted 180,000 prohibited COVID-19 test kits and more than 38,000 prohibited chloroquine tablets.

CBS News reports:

Any mask that claims an N95 approval rating must have been rigorously tested by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Respirators approved by the agency bear labels either on the respirator or within its packaging and includes an abbreviated approval on the face piece itself. Approval numbers can be cross-checked against NIOSH’s certified equipment list.

Counterfeit or unapproved N95s typically lack the required NIOSH markings. Occasionally, NIOSH or the mask’s purported brand name will be misspelled. Any decals like sequins indicate a mask is fake. Additionally, N95 masks that claim to be approved for children are counterfeit, according to the CDC. Avoid masks with ear loops, as opposed to elastic headband straps, as they do not provide the tight seal around the face that N95s require.

(NIOSH)

The costs/benefits of a $15 minimum wage

The Congressional Budget Office said Monday that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour would lead to the loss of 1.4 million jobs by 2025. At the same time, the CBO said, around 900,000 workers would be lifted out of poverty.

A few notable passages in the report:

“Higher wages would increase the cost to employers of producing goods and services.”

“Employers would pass some of those increased costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices, and those higher prices, in turn, would lead consumers to purchase fewer goods and services.”

“Employers would consequently produce fewer goods and services, and as a result, they would tend to reduce their employment of workers at all wage levels.”

The way we work now

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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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