July 21, 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.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which required health insurance companies to cover COVID-19 testing and vaccinations at no cost to members and covered all COVID-19 treatment costs for Medicare patients.

Insurance companies could afford to cover the costs because they were spending so much less on other treatments and hospitalizations that were delayed by the pandemic.

But health policy experts say it is only a matter of time before patients begin paying more COVID-19 medical costs out of their own pockets.

A new study by the Commonwealth Fund asked 5,450 working-age adults between March and June 2021 about how the pandemic affected their health insurance coverage and medical debt. The headline is more than a third of insured adults and half of uninsured adults struggled to pay medical bills during the pandemic. The study found:

People directly affected by the pandemic reported having medical bill and debt problems at higher rates than those not directly affected.

Among respondents with medical bill and debt problems

  • 35 percent used up all or most of their savings
  • 35 percent took on credit card debt
  • 27 percent had been unable to pay for basic necessities like food or rent
  • 23 percent delayed education or career plans.

(The Commonwealth Fund)

I wonder whether this financial insight might motivate unvaccinated people to reconsider their choice, although I am really surprised that the out-of-pocket average was not a lot higher.

USA Today reports:

Many health insurance companies waived copayments and other cost-sharing requirements for people with COVID-19, but a study by University of Michigan and Boston University researchers found even those with health insurance were hit with medical bills during the pandemic. Of 1,377 privately-insured patients hospitalized with COVID-19 last year from March through September, 71% were billed an average of $788 for out-of-pocket expenses not covered by insurance.

Apple delays its return to the office. Will others follow?

Let’s watch this one to see if it becomes a trend. Bloomberg reports that Apple is delaying its return to the office by at least a month as new COVID-19 cases rise worldwide. Apple planned to open its California offices in September. Now it will be at least October.

I make note of this because it was Apple that was among the first big companies to tell employees to stay home in the early days of the pandemic last year. Bloomberg also reports:

(Apple) Store workers, vaccinated or not, are being urged to start wearing masks again, other people familiar with the matter said. In regions where local authorities have reinstated mask mandates, retail workers must comply, the company told employees. Apple had dropped its internal mask mandate in June.

Corporations across the globe are grappling with how to adjust to shifting work demands in the post-Covid era. Apple’s decision comes as its own employees criticized the September deadline as too early. In an email to employees about the return delay, Apple cited Covid-19 rather than employee concerns about limited remote options.

When Apple employees are eventually required to return, they are expected to work from the office on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Wednesday and Fridays will be optionally remote for some staff members.

Fox Business says other big companies are considering whether they should delay a return to the office as well but, officially, their plans are to return as planned.

People at banks such as JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs say that so far, they’ve made no changes to their re-opening plans. JPMorgan and Goldman have already told employees to begin to return to the office after about a year of at-home working during the worst of the pandemic. While Morgan Stanley has said it expects employees to return to the office after Labor Day.

New COVID-19 cases have tripled in the last month. 83% are the delta variant.

Here are some facts that are related to each other:

  • Today, the delta variant makes up 83% of all new COVID-19 cases.
  • Nearly 1,600 counties across 40 states have vaccinated less than 40% of their populations.

In other words, two-thirds of counties in the U.S. have vaccinated less than 40% of their residents. On this map, they are the counties in orange. The orange counties also have recorded 100 new cases per 100,000 residents.


New study: Way more people died in India from COVID-19 than we know

A health worker tests nasal swab samples for COVID-19 in Gauhati, India, Friday, July 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

A new study of excess deaths — meaning the deaths that are not the normal expected number — shows the Indian government may have dramatically underestimated the number of people who died from COVID-19 last year. The new study says the real number may be between 3.4 and 4.7 million people. The government estimated the deaths at 414,000. The U.S.-based Center for Global Development says it relied on three data sources to come up with the new estimate.

What we need to know about the newest outbreak of COVID-19

We have a need for more data even while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not collecting what it once did. We do not know:

The whole ‘getting fat during COVID-19’ thing isn’t true

Once again, we learn today that common knowledge is wrong. Contrary to the widely held belief that most people gained the COVID-20 pounds, a closer look at millions of medical records from the last year shows no such thing.

Researchers got access to data from your medical records, the ones that your doctor keeps when you step on the scales during a doctor visit. Those records — all medical records, for that matter — get consolidated into massive databases, which sometimes can be used in research without using your personal info.

Here’s what the researchers found:

We evaluated weight change for adults during the pandemic compared to weight change for adults in the year prior to the pandemic. A weight loss or gain of 2.5 pounds, which we define as a normal fluctuation or “no change,” was most common, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. Nearly as many patients lost weight (35%) as gained weight (39%) during the pandemic.

That’s pretty much normal compared to other years.

(Epic Health Research Center)

Do not be mistaken, however. Americans are consistently packing on the pounds. We seem to be picking up and keeping a pound or so every winter.

(Epic Health Research Center)

The Washington Post takes a moment to remind us that this data flies in the face of polling:

In polling commissioned by the American Psychological Association, 42 percent of Americans said they gained more weight during the pandemic than they intended, putting on 29 pounds on average. Ten percent said they gained more than 50 pounds.

And in a small study published in March in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 7,400 participants reported gaining about 1.5 pounds per month from February to June 2020.

Yet both of those surveys relied on self-reported data, rather than measurements actually taken in a doctor’s office or hospital. And there can be some downsides from relying on how people perceive themselves.

A state fair with cows, pigs and no crowd

The first state fair I ever attended was the Ohio State Fair. It was, for a young boy, a wonder. But now the Ohio State Fair has opened with livestock but no spectators. County fairs are going full tilt but the state fair could not change plans to fully reopen fast enough.

It looks as though the magnificent Minnesota State Fair will open after being closed in 2020, which means there will be a new 2021 Butter Queen — which is a thing.

I looked at the lists of best state fairs and there is a general consensus on the top spots, in varying order, being Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, New York, Arizona and Kentucky. I have no idea how Florida’s state fair made anybody’s list. Other than the pig races and the cattle birthing barn. My wife and I cheer for the babies being born.

The most and least favorite Olympic events

Simone Biles and the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team arrive for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games at Narita International Airport Thursday, July 15, 2021, in Narita, east of Tokyo. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

I am not surprised the gymnastics are the most anticipated events in the Olympics, which begin this week. I correctly guessed that the newest poll would show Simone Biles as the best-known and favorite U.S. Olympian.

But I wondered what the least anticipated events would be. Before I looked at the results, I glanced at the list and figured archery might be a bottom-dweller. It actually scores fairly high compared to rugby, canoeing and rowing. Handball also is not a big draw.

(Morning Consult)

Field hockey is also not a big attraction, but I would still rather watch that than cornhole tournaments on ESPN … or curling. Please. Not curling. And the other day, I heard a radio broadcast of golfing. That was a thrill.

We’ll be back tomorrow 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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