August 18, 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 Department of Defense study found that close to one in five veterans who served in Afghanistan showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

Military Times reports:

“Veterans should be on the lookout for red flags if news of Afghanistan starts changing behavior,” Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ PTSD Consultation Program, said in a statement late last week. “These include isolating, using alcohol and drugs or any increase in unhealthy behaviors compared to normal.”

Even before the collapse of the Afghan government over the weekend, VA officials had been preparing for increased requests for mental health care and trauma assistance amid the ongoing U.S. military withdrawal from the country.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is running a series of articles on its website called “Afghanistan: How veterans can learn from Vietnam Veterans.” I want to include an important passage:

Because of the parallels, past lessons from Vietnam Veterans can help Afghanistan Veterans.

“It is likely that part of why Vietnam Veterans have struggled is because of their homecoming. That may have made it harder time finding meaning when that conflict ended,” said Dr. Sonya Norman, director of the National Center for PTSD Consultation Program.

A 2018 study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease said Vietnam Veterans had low homecoming support. Another journal study said negative homecoming experiences predicted warzone-related PTSD symptoms up to 40 years post-deployment.

Closure is a necessary part of managing PTSD symptoms, said Dr. Jennifer Vasterling, the chief of psychology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and affiliated investigator with the National Center for PTSD.

“The closure helps people demarcate how people feel about things,” Vasterling said. “Without closure, there’s just a lot more room for ambiguity.”

Veterans may have trouble adjusting because the conflict is not ending with victory parades, but with an announcement.

“People are looking for meaning,” Norman said. “What did it mean that I went there, what did it mean that I risked my life, what does it mean that I saw other people lose their life? In some ways, the celebration gives it some meaning, gives it a lens to look through for that experience. If you don’t have that, you’re left to figure it out on your own.”

Because of the similarities in the U.S. end to the conflict, Norman said Veterans need to address their PTSD issues.

It might help to put 20 years of war into perspective. Military Times built a website that collects the stories of the thousands who died in conflicts that bear names that may ring hollow today, like “Operation Enduring Freedom” and “Operation Infinite Justice.”

(Military Times)

You can search their database to find every name from your hometown or state.

(Military Times)

There was a time when news organizations honored the names of people who sacrificed their lives in these wars. Somehow that fell out of favor. Maybe it would be worth doing a while longer, lest we forget the cost of war.

Military contractors who died in Afghanistan

The forgotten patriots in modern wars are the people who go to war zones as contractors. In 2019, Americans learned that 3,814 contractors had died in Afghanistan — more than the number of U.S. troops who died there.

Contractors were hired to provide everything from building electrical grids to translating for the military to providing security. The Atlantic explains:

As America’s interventions abroad have become more complex and open-ended, the country has relied on contractors more and more for essential jobs like guarding diplomats and feeding the troops

The government has no data on exactly how many American contractors have died in the post-9/11 wars; in fact, it’s hard to get a full picture of how many contractors have been involved in those wars at all. The Defense Department publishes quarterly reports on how many it employs in the Middle East—close to 50,000 in the region as of last October, with about 30,000 spread through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Americans make up less than half the total, in a region where U.S. troop numbers fluctuate between 60,000 and 80,000. The contractor numbers fluctuate too, and the military’s data don’t include contractors working for other agencies, such as the CIA or the State Department.

The death toll is murkier still, though Brown University’s Costs of War Project gives a figure close to 8,000, counting Americans and non-Americans. “They are,” in the words of Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie, researchers who have studied contractor deaths, “the corporate war dead.”

Booster shots are more likely for everybody, and likely beginning next month

Maybe sometime this week, the Biden administration will announce that everybody — not just the immunocompromised among us — should get a third COVID-19 vaccine vaccination to boost our immunity into the winter months.

Multiple news sources say the decision has been made, except for what to tell people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Researchers are still collecting data on how long that vaccine stays at full protective strength.

The first Johnson & Johnson vaccines were not delivered until late February. That means if the tests show they act similarly to the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccines would be due for a booster shot in October.

Most likely, the first booster shots will go to nursing homes, seniors and health care worker,s since they got the earliest round of shots in late 2020 and early 2021.

After that, everyone will be urged to get an additional vaccine eight months after their last shot.

Politico reports that the decision to recommend added protection for everyone is based on new data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shared with the president over the weekend.

The U.S. has about 100 million doses of the vaccine on hand now and the administration has contracted for about 400 million more doses needed to continue delivering first and second doses and, now, the third doses.

Booster shots could begin for everyone after the CDC and Food and Drug Administration approve them. It could take a couple of weeks. Then clinics have to be set up and the government will have to once again lay plans to distribute and administer the shots to millions of people. The timeline is likely mid-September.

Two charts that tell a COVID infection story

These two charts from the Kaiser Family Foundation are based on data from 24 states.



Could 75% of all school children get infected in one semester? NC State researchers say yes.

Russell Rakestraw II hugs his fourth-grade son Russell Rakestraw III in front of his elementary school while dropping off on the first day of classes in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. Despite Texas Gov Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates by local officials, the Richardson Independent School District and many others across the state are requiring masks for students. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

A group of scientists in North Carolina is modeling the scenarios we may see in the weeks ahead. The models are concerning. The researchers say:

  • Without masking and testing, more than 75% of susceptible students become get infected within three months in all settings. Without interventions in place, the vast majority of susceptible students will become infected through the semester.
  • Universal masking can reduce student infections by 26-78%, and biweekly testing along with masking reduces infections by another 50%.
  • To prevent new infections in the community, limit school absences, and maintain in-person learning, interventions such as masking and testing must be implemented widely, especially among elementary school settings in which children are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

You can read the research here. It has not yet been peer-reviewed.

You can also see the presentation deck that researchers used to present their findings.

Prison suicides are rising and COVID is a factor

The Marshall Project leads its latest story about prison suicides with these two sentences:

Prison suicides have been rising for years. Experts fear the pandemic has made it worse.

Marshall, as it always does, digs deeper:

Nationwide, prison suicides have been increasing for years, and some experts worry worsening conditions and staff shortages brought on by the pandemic may accelerate that rise. Delays in data reporting, though, make it difficult to tell: The most recent national figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed an 85% increase in state and federal prison suicides from 2001 to 2018, but 2020 data won’t come out until next year.

In Texas, there were 50 prison suicides in 2020, the highest number in at least 20 years, even though the prison population fell by 20,000. By late July, 2021 was on track to exceed that.

Experts say there are two questions to consider when looking at an increase in suicides behind bars: Are more prisoners attempting suicide? Or are more of those attempts resulting in death?

Keri Blakinger reports that staffing is especially important in a pandemic because the intervention that might have prevented a suicide “would be less likely to happen today. Lockups are struggling with staffing shortages exacerbated by the pandemic, which makes it difficult to supervise prisoners. Several Texas prisons are less than 50% staffed, Michigan is several hundred guards short, and the federal prison system has so many vacancies that cooks and teachers are working as guards.”

The big pandemic job shift — people are considering quitting and changing jobs in droves

I hear all the time from local TV news directors that there is a dramatic movement underway. They tell me they have zillions of job openings. They may just be a pent-up backlog of people who would have moved anyway but put it off during the height of the pandemic. Others may have just needed a change. Whatever it is, journalists are not alone in their wanderlust.

A new Washington Post-Schar School poll says about one out of five people are at least considering a career change, and 17% have already made the move. The poll involves people in and around Washington, D.C., though I have seen other polling that tracks fairly closely to this.

The Post reports:

Applications for new businesses exploded in 2020 and 2021, census data shows, presumably fueled by people who were laid off or who wanted a change. In May, the share of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs hit the highest level the Labor Department has recorded, yet another sign that U.S. workers are rethinking what they want to do in their careers and are confident they can find something else. Retail workers have been quitting at an especially rapid pace this year; resignations in the retail industry hit an all-time high in June.

“People want work-life balance,” said Angela Muhwezi-Hall, co-founder of QuickHire. “A woman I was speaking with yesterday said she worked at a restaurant and she would get home at 3 a.m. sometimes and she doesn’t want to do that anymore. She wants to be able to see her kids, especially after having a year at home with her kids. She still really wants flexibility.” Line cooks have been especially hard to hire, Muhwezi-Hall said.

What states can do to help recruit and hold on to health care workers

Governing, which focuses on state government issues, includes this subheadline: “State spending on key public health activities has been flat or in decline since 2008 and salaries lag behind the private sector. Stakeholders are exploring strategies to meet the need for these essential workers.” Keep in mind that during the pandemic, we have relied on health departments and state departments of health like no time in recent memory, going back to the start of the AIDS crisis. Since the beginning of the pandemic, health department workers have quit or been fired because they did not comply with political agendas.

The story documents how states have continued to, at best, flatline state spending on public health care.

(Health Affairs)

And then there is this:

As is the case in other government sectors, public health jobs pay less than private-sector jobs requiring similar skills. The fact that the great majority of these jobs require post-secondary education, or even advanced degrees, means that college loans factor heavily in the decisions of candidates.

Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO), recalled a recent conversation with a health official in Nassau County, N.Y. “He explained that a brand-new nurse out of nursing school can make in the $30,000 range to come to the public health department, or in the $90,000 range at a local hospital.”

Killings involving police in rural areas

The Marshall Project’s Alysia Santo and R.G. Dunlop, a wonderful reporter at the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, worked together to document and investigate the hundreds of shootings involving police that happen every year in rural America. They found:

  • In rural areas, police have fatally shot about 200 people a year since 2015. These deaths have drawn little national attention and no comparable call to action.
  • Most of the people shot were men, and two-thirds were armed with guns.
  • A majority of those killed had drug addiction or mental health problems, including some in crises that troopers did little to de-escalate.
  • And many of the shootings occurred in the state’s poorest counties.
  • Most people killed by police in rural areas were White.
  • Shootings in these isolated areas were rarely captured on video: there are few bystanders.
  • Many rural officers don’t wear body cameras.
  • Working alone is one of several challenges the state police face.
  • Another factor is methamphetamine use, which was involved in about half of the 22 deaths for which toxicology reports were available.

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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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