February 5, 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.

Cold weather months are prime time for car thefts.

In Chicago, carjackings are up … way up. Chicago police data show carjackings increased by more than 280% last month compared to January 2020. Police in Washington, D.C., and Maryland say they are seeing more carjackings these days, too.

One problem is that people start their cars and let them warm up, or keep them running while they run into the coffee shop. WLS-TV in Chicago tells the story of one guy who started his car was shoveling snow when a carjacker hopped in and drove off. The station reports:

“About 58% of the total for motor vehicle thefts are unattended vehicles. With that, we’ve developed strategies to notify people who are leaving their vehicles running,” CPD Cmdr. Chris Papaioannou said. “We were actually ticketing cars just to let people know they will get their car stolen if they leave it running with the keys inside.”

WTOP radio in Washington, D.C., reports:

The close of 2020 saw carjackings up by 143% in D.C. compared to the year before, according to D.C. police data. In the first month of 2021, Montgomery County had 11 carjackings and attempted carjackings as compared with none in January 2020, said Montgomery County Police Sgt. Rebecca Innocenti.

“So we think, because of the pandemic, a lot of people were taking advantage of restaurants that were offering takeout, and you know, it was a perfect opportunity for these suspects to approach these people, as either they exited their vehicle or came back to their vehicles,” Innocenti said.

The OnStar company, which has 16 million customers in North America, has the ability to use satellite technology to slow down a car to a few miles per hour. OnStar says police request that help at least once a day on average. As WMAQ-TV in Chicago put it, that kind of software does not prevent a carjacking, but knowing your car won’t be lost forever does make it easier to hand over the keys to a carjacker.

Gun sales broke records in 2020

Signs point out quantity limits on certain types of ammunition after Dukes Sport Shop reopened, Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in New Castle, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Maybe it should not be a surprise that gun sales rose in the United States when a pandemic, racial tensions and a presidential election all occurred in the same year. The online retailer Tactical Gear (which serves law enforcement, military and the public safety community) combed FBI records and found that gun sales last year rose 60% over 2019.

Here is the data that the Tactical Gear folks used to produce their graphics.

A word of caution might be useful here. The federal government does not track gun sales, but it does provide a national criminal background check report. Sometimes those background checks are for concealed carry permits, and not every background check will result in a gun sale. At the same time, some guns are sold without going through background checks, such as if they are sold between family members or friends, for example. So these figures are more like estimates than solid transaction figures.

(Tactical Gear)

Mother Jones points out that gun violence also rose in 2020. Here is more data on that from The Trace.

The Catholic Church may be the biggest beneficiary of the Paycheck Protection Program

Lots of churches and other charities (including Poynter) were beneficiaries of the Paycheck Protection Program. The Associated Press says the biggest recipient of all may be the Catholic Church. The AP reports:

Overall, the nation’s nearly 200 dioceses, where bishops and cardinals govern, and other Catholic institutions received at least $3 billion. That makes the Roman Catholic Church perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the paycheck program, according to AP’s analysis of data the U.S. Small Business Administration released following a public-records lawsuit by news organizations. The agency for months had shared only partial information, making a more precise analysis impossible.

By using a special exemption that the church lobbied to include in the paycheck program, Catholic entities amassed at least $3 billion — roughly the same as the combined total of recipients from the other faiths that rounded out the top five, AP found. Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Jewish faith-based recipients also totaled at least $3 billion. Catholics account for about a fifth of the U.S. religious population while members of Protestant and Jewish denominations are nearly half, according to the Pew Research Center.

The financial resources of several dioceses rivaled or exceeded those available to publicly traded companies like Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House, whose early participation in the program triggered outrage. Federal officials responded by emphasizing the money was intended for those who lacked the cushion that cash and other liquidity provide. Many corporations returned the funds.

Airlines issue warnings for massive furloughs

Today’s unemployment figures don’t and won’t reflect the very troubling news lying ahead. Keep in mind the January figures were as of Jan. 12, just before the Biden administration took office.

Today, American Airlines will notify 13,000 workers that they might be out of a job next month. And they might not be alone. United Airlines sent furlough warning notices to 14,000 workers a week ago.

American Airlines chief executive Doug Parker and president Robert Isom told employees, “We find ourselves in a situation similar to much of 2020.” They added that with the extension of the Payroll Support Program late last year, the company “fully believed that we would be looking at a summer schedule where we’d fly all of our airplanes and need the full strength of our team. Regrettably, that is no longer the case.”

This notice is something the airlines must do if they are going to furlough workers: give them 60 days’ notice that they might be furloughed. But it is also a way for airlines to light Congress’ fuse to come to some kind of agreement that would save these jobs. CNBC gives you some background:

The latest $15 billion Congress approved for U.S. carriers late last year required airlines to recall the employees they furloughed in the fall and maintain payroll through March 31. It was the second round of Covid aid for the industry; Congress gave airlines $25 billion last March to keep them from cutting employees through the fall.

Airline labor unions are now seeking $15 billion more in federal payroll support for the industry to keep jobs through Sept. 30 and American’s Parker and Isom said they back another round of aid.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines have averted layoffs mostly thanks to voluntary leave programs. But U.S.-based airlines lost a stunning $34 billion last year. Southwest Airlines alone says it is burning about $17 million a day every day from January through the end of March. What is beyond that is anybody’s guess.

Who is the spreader?

Science magazine published COVID-19 data that helps us see who is spreading the virus the most. As you’d expect, the biggest demographics are the biggest spreaders of the coronavirus, but the young adult demos spread the virus way more than they represent in the population. Axios made the data easier to read:


Which, of course, brings us to the Super Bowl this weekend.

‘Stay home for Super Bowl,’ even though many of you won’t

Dr. Anthony Fauci warns that Super Bowl Sunday could reignite the spread of the coronavirus in America.

The New York Times says there are reasons to believe Super Bowl weekend could be a “spreader” event:

Seton Hall University and one by the National Retail Federation — found that nearly 30 percent of adults said they would attend a gathering at someone’s home or watch the game at a restaurant or a bar.

If anything, this weekend may be more dangerous than most holidays. Super Bowl parties are usually indoors and can involve more households than a holiday meal. This year’s game is also happening when contagious new variants of the virus have begun to spread.

There is precedent for sporting events leading to outbreaks. Health officials in Los Angeles believe that gatherings to watch playoff games last fall involving the Lakers (who won the N.B.A. title) and Dodgers (who won the World Series) accelerated the virus’s surge in Southern California.

If recent holidays are a signal of what is ahead, you will see a rise in the case count followed by a rise in COVID-19 deaths in a couple of weeks, just as we have for other holidays. See the chart:

(The New York Times)

Just to give you a little encouragement, look at the national map, which is showing real improvement in the number of new cases this week.


Russia has a vaccine

The new Russian COVID-19 vaccine is reportedly showing a 91.6% efficacy rate, which is really good. It is a two-shot vaccine and will be helpful to Russia, which has had the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. The clinical trials say it has proven to be effective even among senior citizens.

There are many complexities around the globe that keep vaccines from moving freely where they are needed most. Ukraine, for example, cannot get the new Russian vaccine. Iran will not allow American-made vaccines into the country, and Taiwan won’t approve vaccines that come from China.

A note about medical and nursing school applications

Nationally, applications to medical and nursing schools are up about 18% and much more than that at some schools. The Association of Medical Colleges 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%.”

In my note yesterday I told you the Tulane number was a national number, but it is just specific to that school.

The times in which we live

Mildly horrifying. (Jeff Fusco/AP Images for Just Born Quality Confections)

Peeps, the marshmallow chicken things that hatch before Easter, are back after a pandemic disappearance. This is either good news or not, depending on your point of view.

The company that makes them is called Just Born. You may ask “But Al, why is the company named Just Born?” And since I took the trouble to open the company press release, I will tell you.

In 1923, the founder, Sam Born, opened a small candy-making and retail store in Brooklyn, New York, where he marketed the freshness of his daily-made candy with a sign that declared, “Just Born.” Together with Born’s brothers-in-law, Irv and Jack Shaffer, the company thrived in spite of the economic depression of the 1930s and, in 1932, moved its operations to Bethlehem, PA, which is still home to their iconic candy brands.

The company says the pandemic forced it to shut down production lines last year but now has figured out how to keep its peeps and Peeps safe.

We’ll be back Monday 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,…
Al Tompkins

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