July 27, 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.

The U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Labor put figures on what you probably already know. From June 29 to July 11, 3.9 million Americans reported not working because of COVID-19, up from 1.8 million during the same period a year earlier. Those taking vacation rose during one week in June, to 4.8 million from 3.7 million the year before and 3.1 million in 2020, which was toward the start of the pandemic. Typically, July is peak vacation month in the United States, so we will see soon how 2022 compares, but it will likely be the highest since the pandemic began and comparable to pre-pandemic levels. Of all of the people leaving on vacation, nearly as many are missing work right now because of COVID-19.

Look at this chart by Axios:


The Wall Street Journal says the effects of so many people being off work are showing up everywhere. The Journal reported, “At some companies, bosses say, staffing is harder now than at any previous stage in the pandemic.”

Alison Green wrote for Slate:

American workers, who historically have been offered five to 10 paid sick days per year—if they’re allotted sick time at all—have found, unsurprisingly, that’s just not adequate right now. A single bout of COVID can knock out all of someone’s sick days for the year. That leaves many more months to get through where other illness or injury might arise (to say nothing of time people might need for long COVID, or kids who are sick with COVID or quarantined from day care). The latest COVID variants, which are driving a wave of reinfections, will only make things worse. But many employers haven’t adjusted their sick leave policies to fit that reality.

The problem is further compounded for the large number of people who switched jobs this year, which often means they don’t yet have sick leave accrued when they need it.

Even more frustrating, people who have been exposed at work are finding their sick time completely wiped out by COVID even when they contracted it in the course of doing their jobs.

Green pointed to one case of an employer who sent an employee to a superspreader event, then the employee got infected and used up all of their sick time recovering. I wonder how often that has happened to you journalists who have been covering COVID-19 for 2 1/2 years.

400 Americans die every day from COVID-19

Forty people die from COVID-19 each day in California. Florida is averaging 62 COVID-19 deaths each day. Nine people die from COVID-19 each day in Mississippi and seven die each day in Alabama.

(The New York Times)

And even with a 38% increase in COVID-19 deaths in the last two weeks, barely half of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana residents are fully vaccinated. But 84% of Californians are fully vaccinated and even there the COVID-19 deaths are up 16% in the last two weeks.

Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina wrote this week:

With the combination of low booster rates, a heatwave (i.e. people headed inside), little BA.2.12.2 wave, low Paxlovid uptake, and little-to-no testing, severe disease may sneak up, just like we saw with Delta last summer.

On a national level, hospitalization trends continue to steadily increase. And this will continue as hospitalizations lag case trends. More than 43,000 people are in hospitals with COVID-19 on an average day.

We do not have a great picture of hospitalizations “with” vs. “for” COVID-19, but some jurisdictions, like Massachusetts, have been tracking this since January 2022. Today, of all COVID-related hospitalizations, about 30% are “for” COVID, and the percentage has steadily declined since January 2022 (when they started tracking this).

It’s important to note that this doesn’t mean the 70% “with” COVID-19 hospitalizations are irrelevant to the pandemic. COVID-19 could be complicating health issues, causing people to be in the hospital. Also, people bring COVID-19 to the hospital; hospital-acquired COVID continues to be steady.

NABJ/NAHJ conventions meet, but with strict COVID-19 rules

I hope to see a lot of you readers next week in Las Vegas for the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists conference. The conference organizers say the registrations have stretched them “past capacity” and they even expanded their planned space at the conference hotel to accommodate the demand.

I have not seen any journalism gathering enforce COVID-19 protection rules as strictly as NABJ/NAHJ intends to. The letter sent out yesterday by NABJ President Dorothy Tucker says there is no on-site registration, they require proof of vaccination and mask-wearing will be enforced. The conference is offering free refunds to people who are concerned about the rise in COVID-19 cases.


Is your COVID-19 test expired?

We have been fighting COVID-19 so long now that even our tests are aging out, so before you use your at-home test, check the expiration date. But don’t stop there. The FDA extended the shelf life of some tests.

The Cincinnati Enquirer rounds up the list:

  • BinaxNow AG Card Home Test (extended from 12 to 15 months).
  • BinaxNow Antigen Self Test (extended from 12 to 15 months).
  • CareStart Antigen Home Test (extended from 9 to 12 months).
  • Flowflex Antigen Home Test (extended from 12 to 16 months).
  • Celltrion DIaTrust AG Home Test (extended from 12 to 18 months).
  • Detect COVID-19 Test (extended from 6 to 8 months)
  • iHealth Antigen Rapid Test (extended from 9 to 12 months).
  • SCoV-2 Ag Detect Rapid Self Test (extended from 10 to 13 months).
  • Pilot At-Home Test (extended from 6 to 9 months).

Expiration dates for these tests remain the same, according to the FDA.

  • BD Veritor At-Home Test (6 months).
  • Cue Test for Home and Over the Counter (4 months).
  • Ellume Home Test (12 months).
  • Genabio Rapid Self Test Kit (18 months).
  • Lucira Check-It Test Kit (18 months).
  • MaximBio ClearDetect Antigen Home Test (6 months).
  • Inteliswab Rapid Test (9 months).
  • OHC Antigen Self Test (8 months).
  • Indicaid Rapid Antigen At-Home Test (12 months).
  • QuickView At-Home Test (12 months).
  • Clinitest Rapid Antigen Self Test (11 months).
  • Speedy Swab Rapid Antigen Self Test (6 months).
  • Rapid Antigen Test Card (6 months).

The FDA recommends ditching tests that have expired beyond the extension dates. The risks are that the tests can become dried out and over time and won’t give an accurate test result.

You can go here to see what the packaging of each test looks like to make it easier for you to figure out which tests you have, or to help a loved one figure it out.

Congress on the cusp of passing bill to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies

Congress may, just may, very soon, pass legislation that will allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies. At first it will only involve 10 drugs — largely expensive drugs like some that are used for cancer treatment. But the first negotiations would not happen until 2026, then 10 more drugs would be negotiated in 2029. Not exactly a quick pace but it has taken 20 years to get this far in the legislative process.

Importantly, the bill would also cap Medicare recipients’ out-of-pocket costs for prescription drugs at $2,000 a year.

Already ads are running that falsely describe the bill, according to PolitiFact.

Truck companies find drivers

Here is a bit of good news. Trucking companies have been hiring drivers like crazy and what was a national truck driver shortage now is a modest surplus of drivers, according to ACT Research. There are lots of reasons for the flip. When stimulus checks ran out, people started looking for work and driving trucks is a good paying job. Some people decided during the pandemic that they wanted to go out on their own for a job and being an independent driver appeals to them.

Axios Markets newsletter dove into the Bureau of Labor Statistics to put the hiring blitz into perspective:

20,000 more long-haul truckers gained employment in May— the largest monthly addition of new truckers since 1997 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking, according to a Goldman research note.

Long-haul trucking employment is now 2% above pre-pandemic levels.

Average weekly earnings were 10.8% higher in May, compared to a year ago, for drivers in freight trucking, according to BLS data.

More drivers struck out on their own, too, buying their own truck and taking advantage of surging “spot prices” — or live market rates — for hauling.

“A lot of people who wouldn’t normally be a truck driver” became truck drivers, said Kenny Vieth, president of ACT.

The American Trucking Association says trucking companies still have a challenge ahead. The ATA says that by 2030, there will be a shortage of 160,000 drivers as the current crop of drivers retires. ATA said trucking companies must recruit a million new drivers over the next decade. The ATA also is encouraging more women to consider a career in trucking. The American Trucking Associations launched Women in Motion, “a new program designed to elevate and highlight the contributions of women to the trucking industry, encourage more women to consider a career in trucking, and address important issues within the policy arena that specifically impact women.”

CNBC reported:

The median annual pay for big-rig drivers in 2021, per BLS, was $48,310 or about $23 an hour. Many of them work 60-70 hours a week, though a good deal of that time is spent waiting for goods to be loaded or unloaded, and they’re only paid for driving time. Many aren’t compensated for overtime, don’t have health care benefits, are paying their own fuel costs and spend days or weeks away from home.

Badly needed truck parking spaces on the way

While I am on the subject of trucking, transportation companies have been howling for years about the need for spots to park their rigs on long hauls. Congress is working on a bill called the Truck Parking Safety Improvement Act, which would authorize $755 million over the next four years to address the nation’s critical lack of truck parking.

The ATA says, “Nearly half of all truck drivers report being forced to park on the shoulders of highways or other unofficial, unsafe locations due to lack of parking. On average, the cost of looking for parking amounts to $5,500 in lost wages annually.”

Truckinginfo.com reported:

In the American Transportation Research Institute’s most recent survey on the industry’s top concerns, among drivers, truck parking tied with driver compensation for their number one issue.

The letter cites the 2019 Jason’s Law Report from the DOT and found that 98% of drivers regularly experience problems finding safe parking — a sharp uptick from the 75% figure reported just four years earlier in the 2015 report.

Those preliminary results indicated that from 2014-19, the number of truck parking spaces nationwide increased 6% in public areas and 11% in private areas, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The survey concluded that about 313,000 truck parking spaces were available nationally — 40,000 at public rest areas and 273,000 at private truck stops. It also found that 79% of 524 truck stop owners and operators indicated they do not plan to add more truck parking.

“Ultimately, the pervasive truck parking shortage can be explained with simple math,” says the letter. “There are about 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States and approximately 313,000 truck parking spaces nationally; for every 11 drivers, there is one truck parking space.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to adjust the shelf life of the Lucira Check-It Test Kit from six months to 18 months as per a new FDA ruling.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at atompkins@poynter.org or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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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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