February 18, 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.

California laid out plans to live with COVID-19 much the same way we live with the endemic seasonal flu. Without a doubt, other states will soon follow suit. Politicians will want to be seen as forward-looking and not living in fear, even if a couple of thousand people a day are still dying of COVID-19.

While parts of the world — including Russia and Hong Kong — are still overwhelmed by new severe COVID-19 cases, deaths, hospitalizations and new cases are declining in the United States. The rate of infection is still considered to be severe in much of the U.S., but the figures are dropping. The question is whether that is good enough to begin to drop mask and vaccine requirements.

The U.S. has let up on restrictions a couple of times before in the last two years only to see cases shoot up again. California’s new endemic plan, which included the state lifting its indoor mask mandate this week, coincides with Los Angeles County reporting the second-highest daily coronavirus death toll in nearly a year on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported.

California’s new endemic plan includes mass testing as a cornerstone, so the state can spot any new significant outbreaks. The state’s endemic plan also includes stockpiling masks, ventilators, over-the-counter tests and other resources necessary to respond if outbreaks occur. Dr. Mark Ghaly, Californias health and human services secretary, said Thursday, “We’re gliding into normal. We’re not announcing the normal. … This is a state that’s going to have tools available and keep our antennas up.’”

What is an ‘endemic?’

To be clear, ENDemic does not mean the pandemic is over. And endemic is different from epidemic. Don’t be intimidated if you don’t know the difference, because a lot of doctors get this wrong on TV. Columbia University published some general guidelines for using the words:

  • AN EPIDEMIC is a disease that affects a large number of people within a community, population, or region. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes an epidemic as an unexpected increase in the number of disease cases in a specific geographical area.
  • A PANDEMIC is an epidemic that’s spread over multiple countries or continents. A pandemic is an epidemic that travels. The World Health Organization (WHO) declares a pandemic when a disease’s growth is exponential. This means growth rate skyrockets, and each day cases grow more than the day prior.
  • ENDEMIC is something that belongs to a particular people or country. An endemic is a disease outbreak that is consistently present but limited to a particular region. This makes the disease spread and rates predictable.
  • AN OUTBREAK is a greater-than-anticipated increase in the number of endemic cases. It can also be a single case in a new area. If it’s not quickly controlled, an outbreak can become an epidemic.

$5/gallon gasoline is in sight. Russia/Ukraine tensions add to uncertainty.

Motorists fill up vehicles as a winter storm sweeps over the intermountain West and drops up to eight inches of snow Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Gasoline prices are rising and will soon rise even more. In California, $5 per gallon gasoline is not out of the question as refineries make changes to use renewable fuels.

Energy forecasters say that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would increase oil prices globally. Natural gas prices would likely rise, too. Oil is selling for $95 a barrel and an all-out invasion might increase prices above $125, experts say. Saudi Arabia signaled this week that, regardless of what Russia does, it does not plan to increase oil production.

Chicken wings cost 41% more since the pandemic

I admit I do not see the attraction of chicken wings anyway, but those who do pay a heck of a lot more for them now than they did before the pandemic. Wingstop CEO Charlie Morrison told Wall Street analysts this week that his company is paying 41% more for wings. Wingstop is among many restaurants that have raised prices while trying to talk customers into enjoying other parts of the bird — which, I suppose, is OK if you are just eating meatless rubbery appendages soaked in sauce. The former CEO of McDonald’s said this week that rising beef and chicken prices are driving restaurant owners crazy. Burger King recently cut its menus and cut back on discounted items. Starbucks hiked prices in October and January. Chipotle says it is also about to raise prices again because meat prices are so high. Heineken says it is going to raise beer prices by what it called “courageous” amounts to offset the rising price of beer ingredients and even higher shipping prices. The CEO did not say what “courageous amounts” means, but it sounds costly.

Pandemic spending sends credit card balances sky high

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York just released figures showing household debt in the United States is rising fast. Credit card balances increased by $52 billion, “the largest quarterly increase observed in the 22-year history of the data.” The report said:

Aggregate household debt balances increased by $333 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021, a 2.2% rise from 2021Q3, and the largest increase since 2007 in both percentage and nominal terms. Balances now stand at $15.58 trillion, reflecting an increase of $1 trillion during 2021, and stand $1.4 trillion higher than at the end of 2019.

The biggest household debt categories all rose, including:

  • Mortgage balances shown on consumer credit reports increased by $258 billion during the fourth quarter of 2021 and stood at $10.93 trillion at the end of December.
  • Auto loan balances increased by $15 billion in the fourth quarter, a change similar to that seen in the fourth quarter in the previous two years.
  • Student loan balances contracted by $8 billion in the fourth quarter of 2021 and marked a $21 billion increase since 2020Q4 –the smallest annual increase seen in nearly two decades.
  • Balances on home equity lines of credit (HELOC) were up very slightly, bucking a declining trend in place since 2016Q4, and keeping the outstanding balance at $318 billion.

About 70% of Americans’ debt is in home mortgages. But student loan debt is almost twice as much as all credit card debt, which provides some perspective on the size of the student loan burden in America.

(Federal Reserve Bank of New York)

The growth of household debt transcends ages, with people ages 30 to 59 making up the largest borrowing groups. Interestingly, the youngest age groups have not changed their debt loads much at all in recent years while seniors have taken on more debt.

(Federal Reserve Bank of New York)

61% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck

LendingClub and PYMNTS.com just released a report saying most American households ended 2021 living “paycheck to paycheck.” Bullet points included:

  • 61%: Share of the U.S. population living paycheck to paycheck as of December 2021
  • 54%: Portion of baby boomers and seniors who live paycheck to paycheck
  • $1,158: Average savings of struggling Gen Z paycheck-to-paycheck consumers as of December 2021

This caught my attention: CNBC reports that Americans now say they need to make roughly $122,000 a year to feel financially secure, more than double the national average income. If that number is reliable, there are a lot of financially insecure journalists out there!

Theme parks, resorts, airlines say reservations are picking up

I don’t know how to make sense of this item, backed right up next to the one above that says six out of 10 Americans are living paycheck to paycheck, but The Wall Street Journal says many travel sectors are lighting up as the pent-up demand to travel and vacation breaks loose:

Companies reported that people are eating out at restaurants as restrictions are removed and daily cases fall. PepsiCo Inc. CEO Ramon Laguarta said that while at-home consumption has remained high, business at restaurants is accelerating.

MGM Resorts said attendance of key conferences like the CES tech conference in January was hurt by the Omicron variant, but after a short drop, the company’s forward hotel bookings are back above pre-pandemic levels. And MGM’s 65-and-over crowd has now reached pre-pandemic levels in terms of room nights, CFO Jonathan Halkyard said. The company sees more domestic visitors coming in the year ahead.

The hassles involved in traveling right now, rather than fear of falling ill, are weighing on the demand for travel, according to Expedia Group Inc. CEO Peter Kern.

“What we observed most notably is that the issues that evolved were really issues of inconvenience,” he said last week about the Omicron slowdown. “There were border shutdowns, there were planes out of service because pilots and crew were sick, things of that nature, but there was far less consumer fear over traveling, and really, it was an issue of the inconvenience of the health issues.”

Airlines recently reported that despite a temporary setback from Omicron, Americans’ demand for air travel remains strong.

This graphic shows how travel spending dropped to nearly nothing during the pandemic but is now roaring back:

(The Washington Post)

The Washington Post adds insight that shows there is a dichotomy of have’s and have not’s:

For the wealthiest, couples who may have budgeted $25,000 on a luxury vacation before the pandemic are suddenly willing to spend three or four times that, he said. A $150,000 family vacation to South Africa is no longer out of the question for some. And many summer cruises to Europe are already sold out.

“People still have the means to spend; they just needed a catalyst, and now they have one,” said Aneta Markowska, chief economist at Jefferies, who is planning a spring vacation, her first in two years, to Turks and Caicos. “They are sitting on the biggest cash cushion they’ve seen in years — and that’s not just the wealthy; it’s 80 percent of the population.”

Americans have set aside roughly $2.4 trillion in extra savings during the pandemic, in part because they’ve cut back on dining out, travel and entertainment, according to Wells Fargo. But data shows spending on those services tends to pick up rapidly as coronavirus cases subside.

Documenting threats and hostilities aimed at school board members

Reuters is trying to document the depth and frequency of hostilities that school board members are enduring across the country. Reuters talked with dozens of board members in 15 states and documented more than 200 threatening and harassing messages. You know that if they had an even wider sample, they would find many many more such hateful messages and threats. Some of the threats were insults, but some went so far as saying board members “should be killed.”

School boards have responded by limiting public comment, holding meetings virtually and adding security. Some board members say they now live in fear, but Reuters found that such threats seldom rise to the level that police make arrests and most are never investigated.

Why don’t Olympic skaters get dizzy?

A skater warms up ahead of the women’s free skate program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

While watching the Olympics, I got curious about why skaters don’t collapse in a heap after spinning around and around. Apparently somebody at CNN did too and found some answers. In short, they get used to it. The story says:

Kathleen Cullen, a professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University, has a more scientific answer. She studies the vestibular system, which is responsible for our sense of balance and motion and says spinning without stumbling from dizziness is an art perfected over time.

At the start of their careers, skaters and other athletes feel dizzy when they spin around, Cullen says. But ultimately, they train their brains to better interpret that feeling.

“There’s a really profound fundamental thing that happens in the brain of people like dancers or skaters over lots and lots of practice. And that’s basically a change in the way the brain is processing information,” Cullen says.

“When you spin around, you’re activating the semicircular canals, rotation sensors. They’re filled with fluid and they’re sensing your rotation. But when you stop, the fluid has inertia, and it tends to continue to move. They actually get a false sensation of movement.”

Over years of training, figure skaters’ brains have adapted and learned to ignore this error, she says.

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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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