February 24, 2022

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 trucker convoy that hoped to attract a thousand vehicles and claims to have raised nearly a half-million dollars launched Wednesday with about two dozen 18-wheelers and about 50 pickups and recreational vehicles. Organizers hope to pick up supporters along the way.

The convoy is in protest of vaccine mandates. There are various social media posts tracking its journey. Social media posts vary wildly on their reports of how many vehicles are involved.

Once they get to Washington, D.C., they will be met — and may be outnumbered — by 800 or so National Guardsmen who have been deployed to help with traffic but will be alert to other problems if they arise.  There are some whispers that protesters might attempt to disrupt President Joe Biden’s March 1 State of the Union speech.

TSA screenings hit a pandemic-era high mark

Here is a number that will tell you something about how Americans are feeling about travel. The Transportation Security Administration said it screened 2,241,123 people Friday — the most since the Sunday after last Thanksgiving, when more than 2.4 million people were screened.  Screenings have topped 2 million twice this week. That is more than double airport screenings a year ago. Those figures rival where airport travel was in 2020 at this time of year, just before all heck broke out. See the daily figures here.

A new phrase is emerging. “Revenge travel” implies we should travel extra in 2022 to make up for not traveling in 2020 and 2021.

An ambulance ride will cost you more

During the pandemic, Advanced Life Support ambulance service prices rose fast. Fair Health is just out with a new report that found that even while insurance companies increased how much they reimburse for ambulance care, patients are left paying significantly more.

  • ALS emergency ground ambulance services increased from an average charge of $1,042 in 2017 to $1,277 in 2020—a 22.6 percent increase.
  • The average allowed amount (by insurance companies) for the same services rose 56 percent from $486 to $758 during the same period.
  • The average charge for BLS (Basic Life Support) emergency ground ambulance services increased 17.5 percent from $800 in 2017 to $940 in 2020.
  • The average allowed amount for the same services rose 39.9 percent from $373 to $522 during the same period

Let’s visualize the data to make it easier to understand. The purple bar is the cost of Advanced Life Support, the green bar is Basic Life Support.

(Fair Health)

The difference, as the name implies, has to do with the level of care provided by each and the skill level of the techs on board. For each year you will see the amount charged, the amount insurance covers and the amount Medicare covers, which is important because seniors are key users (10%) of emergency transportation.

You know that Congress passed a “no surprises” act that prevents health care providers from hitting patients with sky-high medical bills because they didn’t use an in-network emergency doctor, for example. But there is no such protection against a dispatcher sending a patient to an out-of-network ambulance that charges a lot more than their insurance will pay.

Fair Health said, “Currently, no federal law protects consumers against ‘surprise’ bills from out-of-network ground ambulance providers. The federal No Surprises Act, signed into law in December 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, includes provisions to protect consumers from surprise bills, including air ambulance bills. These protections, however, do not apply to ground ambulance services.” Read more about that issue here.

Axios points out:

Some states — such as Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Vermont and West Virginia — have protections against surprise ground ambulance billing, a columnist in the Deseret News pointed out earlier this year.

But in California, Florida, Colorado, Texas, Illinois, Washington state and Wisconsin, more than two-thirds of emergency ambulance rides included an out-of-network charge for ambulance-related services that posed a surprise bill risk in 2018, according to a Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker brief.

The Biden administration has said it’s working on the problem.

One other interesting finding in the Fair Health report might make you wonder if our ambulance services are designed to handle one of their most frequent calls.

Among patients aged 19-35, mental health conditions were the most common diagnosis associated with emergency ground ambulance in the period 2016-2020.

(Fair Health)

The report also noted, “Women are transported more often than men except for the ages 0-18 and 51-64.”

FBI warns local governments and businesses: Russian ransomware cyberattacks possible

Journalists might find it useful to ask local government agencies what they are doing to respond to FBI warnings this week that, as tensions escalate between the US and Russia, ransomware cyberattacks have the potential to disrupt essential services and business.

A Russia-based attack on an oil pipeline interrupted gasoline supplies in the eastern U.S. last year. In January, Russia announced it arrested the leaders of the group REvil, which is a prolific criminal ransomware group based in Russia. The U.S. said it welcomed the enforcement and for a time, it appeared that there might be an effort to do something about Russian cybercrime’s global disruptions.

FBI cybersecurity official David Ring told business and local government leaders this week that there is no specific credible threat but that, as the U.S. tightens sanctions against Russia, a cyber threat response is possible.

The BBC recently reported that “74% of all money made through ransomware attacks in 2021 went to Russia-linked hackers. Researchers say more than $400 million worth of crypto-currency payments went to groups ‘highly likely to be affiliated with Russia.’”

Renaming 600 derogatory geographic site names in 37 states

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

In case you missed it back in November, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland formally declared the term “squaw” to be derogatory. It is worth pointing out that Haaland is the United States’ first Native American cabinet secretary and is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

From now through April, the public can comment on proposed changes to the names of hundreds of geographic sites in three dozen states that contain the offensive word. In fact, from today forward, the Interior Department will replace a full spelling of the derogatory term with “sq___” on all future government communications.

Here is the list. You will see many of the sites are in Arizona, Colorado, California, Idaho, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. Under Secretary’s Order 3404, the U.S. Geological Survey task force will produce five possible replacement names for each one on the list containing the offensive word.


Haaland said, “Consideration of these replacements is a big step forward in our efforts to remove derogatory terms whose expiration dates are long overdue.” She said the task force working on renaming the sites will be consulting with tribal leaders as well as the general public. “

The Guardian reports this kind of name change has precedent in history:

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Board on Geographic Names took action to eliminate the use of derogatory terms related to Black and Japanese people. Over the past two decades, the board has received 261 proposals to replace geographic features with “squaw” in the name, according to the interior department.

The board also voted in 2008 to change the name of a prominent Phoenix mountain from Squaw Peak to Piestewa Peak to honor Army Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Indigenous American woman to die in combat while serving in the US military.

The Arizona Senate recently passed a memorial asking the federal government to replace the names of geographic features in the Grand Canyon region with Indigenous American names to promote an understanding of and appreciation for the “unique and significant cultures and heritage of the Grand Canyon’s tribal peoples”.

Lawmakers in that state also are considering a measure that would require the Arizona board on geographic and historic names to rename anything that includes the offensive word.

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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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