March 29, 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.

Today, the White House begins a push to fight a resurgence of COVID-19 by encouraging building owners and managers to focus on what it calls the “Clean Air in Buildings Challenge.” The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will hold a 12:30 p.m. webinar Tuesday on the topic.

In short, the strategy encourages people to open windows and let air inside closed buildings, use air filtration systems like HEPA or MERV-13, and consider adding ultraviolet germicidal irradiation systems to HVAC units. The White House explains:

Research shows changing the air in a room multiple times an hour with filtered or clean outdoor air — using a window fan, by using higher MERV filters in an Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, using portable air cleaning devices, and even just opening a window — can reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission — with studies showing five air changes an hour reduce transmission risk by 50 percent. And, improving indoor air has benefits beyond COVID-19: it will reduce the risk of getting the flu, a common cold, or other diseases spread by air, and lead to better overall health outcomes.

Some of these suggestions are easy and common-sense measures while others can be expensive and might be more suitable for new construction rather than retrofitting existing systems. Given all of the new home, apartment and condo construction going on, I wonder if builders are considering these ideas in their new units. I also wonder how much of an attraction these filtration measures would be for office space shoppers.

The American Rescue Plan includes billions of dollars to improve filtration. The White House says:

Federal funds and resources are available to support improvements in ventilation, filtration, and clean indoor air — the American Rescue Plan has $122 billion for schools and $350 billion for state, local, and Tribal governments, which can support upgrades to their local businesses, nonprofits, community centers, and other commercial and public establishments. Additionally, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides billions of dollars to our communities to support people’s health and safety in new or upgraded airports, transportation hubs, low-income housing, schools, and other buildings.

Kaiser Health News found that thousands of schools across 44 states used federal recovery funds to install air filtration systems that use unproven technology. In fact, some of the units installed in public classrooms made air quality worse, pumping high levels of ozone into the buildings.

Because this one budget line item, HVAC filtration, involves so much money, and there is so much hype about unproven technology, it is worth journalists’ effort to track the spending. In Ohio, for example, the state is spending a half-billion dollars on filtration upgrades. The Dayton Daily News spent time with the workers who install the systems. Future Ed’s survey of 3,500 school systems, including charter schools, found HVAC upgrades were the single biggest category of intended spending of federal COVID-19 aid.


Future Ed reports:

More than half the districts and charters in the sample, 1,668, expect to spend money on school climate systems, and HVAC is a top-three priority in every region.

The spending averages out to about $401 per student across agencies choosing this option.

  • The plans range from thousand-dollar investments in filters that block the spread of the virus to multi-million-dollar plans for replacing entire HVAC systems.
  • Los Angeles Unified School District, for instance, has budgeted $50 million of its $2.5 billion in ESSER III funding to provide 55,000 portable, commercial-grade air scrubbers for every classroom and commonly used room.
  • St. Joseph’s School District in Missouri is budgeting its entire $25 million for HVAC upgrades.
  • In the town of Ukiah, California, the school district intends to devote about half its ESSER funding, $6 million, to upgrade and replace aging systems.
  • Similarly, the Newport News Public Schools in Virginia plans to spend $40 million, or nearly half its allotment, to replace HVAC systems in several the city’s schools and add air purifiers and filters. Suburban Montgomery County
  • Maryland, by contrast, has earmarked $6.6 million of its $262 million in ESSER funds for improving and upgrading ventilation systems.
  • Rural school districts and charter organizations plan to spend $566 per pupil on HVAC systems, compared to $563 for towns, $389 for cities, and $330 for suburbs. The cost differences could reflect the diseconomies of scale for education agencies in less-populous communities: HVAC work costs more per pupil when there are fewer students in a building. It also indicates a short supply of the materials and contractors needed to complete the projects.

Such improvements are explicitly allowed in American Rescue Plan since they can not only prevent the spread of Covid, but can also guard against other airborne illnesses and provide a more comfortable climate for learning.

Under the current federal guidelines, all HVAC improvements must be completed by September 2024. So this work will take years to complete and journalists should start thinking about how they will track this massive spending for years to come.


Another White House COVID infection

White House press secretary Jen Psaki didn’t make the trip to Europe because she tested positive just before Air Force One packed up to leave. Deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre made the trip instead. And now, she has tested positive.

Finally, a peak in Korean COVID cases

A man wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks near a banner reminding the precautions against the coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

It appears that the incredible COVID-19 run through South Korea may be on the decline. The New York Times reports, “South Korea reported 187,213 new virus cases on Monday, about 100,000 fewer than the day before, and 287 virus-related deaths were reported, down sharply from last Thursday’s record of 470.” The death rate would certainly have been worse in a less inoculated country, but Korea vaccinated 87% of its population.

Your 5G-equipped new car

New cars are rolling off the assembly line ready to connect like a smartphone to a wireless provider. USA Today notes:

Last week, BMW launched the first 5G-equipped car –the 2022 BMW iX xDrive50, powered by T-Mobile’s new Magenta Drive service. The $20/month service provides high-speed connectivity to the car, both for calls and data services. In addition, it powers an internal Wi-Fi hotspot that can support up to 10 devices in and around the car.

In the future, your car may get software updates just like your phone and laptop do now — right over the internet. USA Today reports:

During the pandemic, people became very accustomed to having high-speed Internet access for all their devices, and as we start to travel more, that need for high-speed access wherever people go will grow. In that light, T-Mobile’s claim to offer 5G coverage on 92% of interstate highway miles across the U.S. makes the notion of a connected car more appealing than it may first appear.

But carmakers are not planning to build 5G connections into autonomous driving technology since signal dropouts are inevitable.

Is it ever legal to smack somebody who insults your wife?

Los Angeles police say Chris Rock does not want to press charges against Will Smith. But It got me wondering if there is ever a defense for smacking another person who insults you or your loved one?

The Mattern Law Firm in Los Angeles explains that assault does not even have to include physical contact.

Put simply, battery involves intentional contact that’s harmful, and assault requires no contact at all. Take this example. A person tries to punch someone but doesn’t — they could be charged with assault even if they missed. For it to also be battery, actual contact would have had to be made.

How Stuff Works took the question to Micah Schwartzbach, a California criminal defense lawyer, who said:

“In general, you have to not be the aggressor and you have to reasonably believe that force is necessary to protect yourself from some imminent violence,” says Schwartzbach. “And on top of that, you have to use a proportionate amount of force.”

There are some really important points for distinguishing between a legal and illegal punch.

No.1, you can’t strike first. That would make you the aggressor. It’s hard to argue self-defense when you’re literally on the attack.

Second, you can only punch someone if they’ve already taken a swing at you or if you believe you’re about to be hit. Schwartzbach says that it’s also possible to claim self-defense if you punch your attacker while he’s winding up to smack you, but you’d need some fast hands.

And third, you can’t escalate the fight. If the drunk guy at the bar doesn’t like the way you’re looking at his girlfriend (yes, another cliché) and shoves you on the shoulder, you’re not justified to break a bottle over his head. You’re probably not even justified to punch him. Or slap him.

But this incident at the Oscars involves movie stars, so let’s explore the “them’s fightin’ words” argument. Schwartzbach says that is a widely misunderstood defense for smacking somebody:

Even though “fighting words” aren’t protected as free speech, they’re still not a legal justification for violence. Schwartzbach says that even if someone threatens you and says they’re going to beat you up or kill you, the law doesn’t give you the right to slug them.

“It’s one thing for it to be ‘understandable’ that someone threatens to kill you and you punch them in the face,” says Schwartzbach. “But if there’s no indication that the person was about to harm you in some way and you had time to go talk to the police, you’re likely not going to have a legal defense.”

Metro asked a therapist about the Oscar smackdown:

Relationship coach Liam Barnett agrees that you should stick up for your partner, but only after you have given them the opportunity to stick up for themselves first.

‘Reacting immediately could make them feel inferior and weak towards the person that is insulting them,’ says Liam.

‘If you notice that they need help, then you can interfere by drawing some boundaries. Make them notice the person who’s insulting them that what they’re saying or doing is wrong.’

How do strike the balance and give your partner the support they need — without making the issue about you and your anger?

‘I think it’s reasonable to expect that a partner would support you during times of distress,’ says Naomi Segal, couples psychotherapist and founder of The Couple Consultancy.

‘What that support or “sticking up for” looks like, however, depends on what your partner needs in that moment. For some, this may be soothing after an incident, for others it may be for a partner to represent them at times when they feel unable to do it themselves.’

Remember, even if there is no criminal charge, when a rich movie star hits you, a civil lawsuit may be an option. And the slap could still cost Will Smith his Oscar. The Academy has rescinded Oscars to other disgraced honorees.

Smith apologized to Rock, the Academy, the show’s producers, the attendees, “everyone watching around the world,” the Williams Family and his “King Richard Family” on Monday night. “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” he said. “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable.”

MORE FROM POYNTER: Will Smith’s slap heard ‘round the world was an insult to the Oscars

Two decades of research into why some people survive suicide attempts off the Golden Gate Bridge

A pedestrian carries an umbrella while walking on a path in front of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

In the last two decades, 26 people who have attempted to take their own life by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge still showed signs of life when they were rescued from the water. 14 of them survived crashing into the water at 75 miles per hour. But why did some survive and others didn’t?

The answer is emerging that the way that the MarinHealth Medical Center treated the survivors made a lifesaving difference. But even the physicians and medical workers doing the rescue work cannot pinpoint why more people survive now. Part of the answer is that the survival rate went up around the same time the medical center began staffing as a trauma center, which designates caseloads and staff level. Today, anyone who jumps from the bridge goes straight to MarinHealth. Before, they might have been transported further across the bay.

In the 85 years since the bridge opened, 1,800 people have died after jumping from it. Engineers are currently installing new netting to prevent people from jumping to their death.

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.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
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

More News

Back to News