February 3, 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 19th has an interesting piece about how widows who are eligible for Social Security survivor benefits can’t get the help they need because Social Security offices have been closed during the pandemic. More than 90% of people who apply for Social Security survivor benefits are women, and almost all of them are women over age 60.

The 19th points out that women tend to live longer and earn less than men, so their Social Security benefits are less than their spouses. When a spouse dies, the survivor may apply for survivor benefits, the higher benefit that would have gone to the spouse who earned more money.

The 19th reports:

Applications that could be completed in one in-person visit in a normal year are taking weeks and even months to complete.

Many people have to provide documentation to receive benefits. Without an in-person option, applicants for Social Security benefits like disability benefits and survivors’ benefits — paid to those who have lost a spouse or to dependents — will sometimes be required to mail original copies of sensitive documents, which has led some people to delay applying, experts said. They also must rely on limited customer service help to get through an application, which is particularly difficult if a person’s first language isn’t English.

“Social Security is vitally important to women and LGBTQ+ people and people of color — those who have been discriminated against historically, and especially lower-income people,” said Nancy Altman, president of advocacy group Social Security Works. “It just compounds all the issues with the field offices closed.”

The 19th found that the people who work in the Social Security field offices are swamped with applications:

Inside the field offices, workers have been coming in on a rotation to go through tens of thousands of pieces of mail and scan documents, but the demand has increased as the pandemic has gone on, along with phone calls. According to a report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, only about 51 percent of phone calls to field offices and the national number were answered in fiscal year 2020.

AARP has this advice:

If you are already receiving a spousal benefit when your husband or wife dies, Social Security will in most cases convert it automatically to a survivor benefit once the death is reported. Otherwise, you will need to apply for survivor benefits by phone at 800-772-1213 or in person at your local Social Security office.

[Editor’s note: Local Social Security offices are closed to walk-in visits due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many services are available online and by phone. If you have a critical situation regarding your benefits or need to update information attached to your Social Security number, such as your name or citizenship status, you may be able to schedule an in-person appointment. Offices are tentatively scheduled to fully reopen March 30. See Social Security’s coronavirus page for more information.]

Truly this is the kind of topic that crosses generations. Not only does it affect vulnerable seniors, but it also weighs on children who oversee their parents’ affairs. The people affected are some of your most loyal readers, listeners and viewers.

Mask litter: a lesson in percentages for journalists

A discarded face mask is shown on a street in San Francisco, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

I have seen some stories recently sounding an alarm about the growing problem of mask litter. The premise of the stories is that people are tossing their masks on the ground, and it is creating a problem.

You would reach that conclusion if you focused on just the percentage increase of masks found in litter. One global survey said mask litter increased “exponentially” from the start of the pandemic through the end of October 2020. The study blared, “Littered masks have had the greatest change since the pandemic announcement, with an exponential increase from March 2020, resulting in an 84-fold increase on the previous year by October 2020.”

My goodness, it sounds dire! I could imagine mask opponents using this data to claim that widespread mask mandates lead to medical waste litter. After all, the data says when people started wearing masks more, more masks were littered.

But a deeper look into the data shows the mask litter, of course, was nearly nonexistent prior to the pandemic and rose to not quite 1% of all litter by the end of the study. In other words, when you start with nearly nothing and double it, you still have very little.

You can find examples where COVID-related litter is a bigger issue.

Researchers found, “The United Kingdom had the highest proportion of mask, glove, and wipe waste, with masks accounting for more than 5% of all litter and gloves and wipes making up about 1.5%.” And, the study says, “Beach litter surveys in Kenya, 100 days after the first reported COVID-19 case, showed 16.5% of litter associated with COVID-19 (includes sanitizer and soap bottles).”

I have seen some interesting studies about the increase in single-use plastic products since the start of the pandemic. The study said, “Most of the plastic is from medical waste generated by hospitals that dwarfs the contribution from personal protection equipment and online-shopping package material” and five rivers in Asia are identified as carrying large amounts of pandemic-related plastic waste into ocean waters.

Engineers at Cornell University are working on a way to recycle personal protective equipment waste and just published their findings.

Olympics open with more than 60 athletes testing positive for COVID-19

A worker prepares to administer a COVID-19 test at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Olympic organizers say 67 athletes and team officials have tested positive for COVID-19 since arriving in Beijing. Add in coaches and Olympic staff members and the case count is now 232 positive cases and growing as the curtain goes up on the Games. The local organizers keep a slightly outdated tally online. The Guardian reports:

Eleven people at the Winter Olympics are in hospital with Covid, Beijing 2022 officials have revealed, although none are in a life-threatening condition.

Organizers have also downplayed concerns that the virus is spreading within the ‘closed-looped’ system in Beijing, which completely separates Olympic personnel from the general public, despite a further nine athletes and 23 team officials testing positive in the last 24 hours.

The overall number of cases now stands at 232 since 23 January, leading to fears that some top athletes will miss out when the Games officially begin on Friday. However, Dr Brian McCloskey, chair of the medical expert panel for Beijing 2022, struck an upbeat note in front of the world’s media.

“The vast majority of people who have tested positive are well, a lot of them are asymptomatic,” said McCloskey. “There have been 11 people hospitalized, because they had a symptom but none of those are seriously ill in any way.”

Army starts dismissing vaccine mandate holdouts

The Pentagon announced this week that, like the Air Force, the Army will immediately start dismissing soldiers who defy the order to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The deadline to apply for an exemption passed more than a month ago. 97% of the 1.3 million active-duty service members have gotten at least one shot, according to the Pentagon.

COVID-19 cases put Tonga on lockdown

I have been searching for news about how Tonga is doing following that astonishing volcanic eruption Jan. 15. Tonga is now in a shutdown because, as leaders there feared, COVID-19 might spread during reconstruction. For the moment, there is no evidence that foreign aid workers brought the virus with them, but that is one of the big worries.

Should you toss a used home COVID-19 test kit into the trash?

With a half-billion home COVID-19 test kits heading to American homes in the next few days, it seems like a good idea to ask what we should do with used kits. Are they hazardous medical waste?

I saw a news story from India about how people who recycle trash are afraid to touch used plastic test kits. As the Miami Herald points out:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says laboratories and test sites should treat all waste related to COVID-19 testing of both suspected and confirmed specimens and kit components as “biohazardous waste,” also known as biomedical or infectious waste.

The CDC told the Miami Herald that at-home test kits can be thrown out with your normal trash “and are not considered biohazardous waste.” The health agency didn’t explain why.

You should also check the instructions that came with the test in case the manufacturer has any additional guidance. For example, Abbott says you can recycle the box of its BinaxNOW at-home test, but you should dispose the test card, nasal swab and test solution in the trash.

And regardless of which test you take, once you’re done, make sure to clean and disinfect all surfaces that the swab, tube and other parts of the kit touched, the CDC said.

Different locales may have different guidelines. The state of Delaware says schools should treat used testing kits as infectious waste. The CBC reports that a Canadian trash disposal company wants used test kits to be double wrapped in a plastic bag and placed in the garbage, not the recycling. The company’s president said used tests, which include a nasal swab, could pose a hazard for workers who handle the waste.

One tiny country has an 85% vaccination rate and lots of homemade vaccines

You probably would not guess what country —which has five vaccines at various stages of approval — this story is about. It is Cuba. Scientists have not shared much about their drug trials, but the country has vaccinated nearly the whole population without relying on any other country.

Double-check your prescriptions. Pharmacies are overloaded.

A Miami physician wrote a special piece for the Miami Herald that says a number of patients have gotten the wrong medications and draws a line to “many pharmacies are understaffed right now due to high demands and healthcare worker shortages.”

New EPA study: One-third of food grown and produced in US is wasted

A truck unloads organic waste to be used for composting at the Anaerobic Composter Facility in Woodland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

This stunned me. Read this lead paragraph in a newly published U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report:

Over one-third of the food produced in the United States is never eaten, wasting the resources used to produce it and creating a myriad of environmental impacts.

Food waste is the single most common material landfilled and incinerated in the United States, comprising 24 and 22 percent of landfilled and combusted municipal solid waste, respectively.

This wasted food presents opportunities to increase food security, foster productivity and economic efficiency, promote resource and energy conservation, and address climate change.

This uneaten food results in a “waste” of resources—including agricultural land, water, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy—and the generation of environmental impacts—including greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, consumption and degradation of freshwater resources, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and degradation of soil quality and air quality.

This uneaten food also contains enough calories to feed more than 150 million people each year, far more than the 35 million estimated food-insecure Americans. Broadly speaking, between 70 to 90% of the food lost or wasted in the United States is edible.

Wouldn’t you think that a national effort to reduce food waste would be the kind of thing that might attract broad, even bipartisan interest and support? I bet a lot of you could point to local efforts to reduce food waste. I bet your local landfill managers could tell you a thing or two about what they see in the waste stream.

Why can’t we predict how SARS-CoV-2 will change?

If they could predict how the virus was going to morph, scientists could produce a booster that would vaccinate people against future variants. But this virus is not like others, including the seasonal flu or measles. People who study such things see other viruses moving in a “ladder-like” way. But SARS-CoV-2 does not evolve in the same way, where one variant changes into another. This virus explodes into a new pattern and that makes it incredibly hard to predict how to protect against what’s next.

Here is a much deeper explanation of this if you want to learn more. I don’t pretend to understand it all but it does make me appreciate the work of scientists who try to keep us safe and healthy.

We are driving less. So why are more pedestrians dying?

Governing, a website for local government officials, notes:

For decades, American vehicles have been growing heavier and taller. They are also deadlier, killing more pedestrians in the past 10 years. Better regulations and traffic calming can help. But the pace of change is slow.

Between 2009 and 2019, total driving miles increased by 10 percent while pedestrian deaths in the U.S. jumped by 50 percent. It’s since only grown worse, with more pedestrians dying in 2020 than 2019 despite a decline in vehicle miles driven. But even before the pandemic-related surge in reckless driving, American roads have been getting more dangerous for non-drivers in part because of the very vehicle type that struck Daniels down.

Numerous studies and investigations have shown that SUVs and other light trucks are far deadlier for those outside the vehicle than sedans. This isn’t a novel finding: Almost 20 years ago, researchers showed that SUVs were more than twice as likely to kill pedestrians as a normal sedan.

As Vice News recently showed, American cars are getting almost as big as World War II tanks.

Governing points out that bigger and heavier vehicles hit pedestrians with greater force than smaller cars, and they hit the human body in the most deadly ways:

“A full-size truck might hit a woman my size in the face, the neck, or the chest,” says Angie Schmitt, a planner who works with localities to develop safer streets. “That’s a more dangerous place to suffer a very strong blow: Your internal organs, your head, your brain, those are not good places to be hit.”

As passenger vehicles have become taller and larger, it also becomes harder for drivers to see people in front of their vehicles. Children, those using wheelchairs, and even average size adults can be obscured by a towering hood.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering how to make vehicles more pedestrian-friendly, but it is an issue that will pit personal preferences, regional norms and America’s love for SUVs and pickups against safety concerns. One idea that a couple of states have tried but mostly failed to implement is to issue a pedestrian-safety rating for every vehicle, similar to other safety ratings that vehicles already include.

‘Test to stay’ losing favor with schools

The New York Times flagged what probably can be accurately called a “trend” involving schools that are turning away from weekly COVID-19 testing for students and instead sending home tests home with kids with the advice to use the test if they notice symptoms. “Test to stay” got the CDC’s endorsement as a way to limit how many children are in quarantine. The Times story says:

Dr. Westyn Branch-Elliman, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School who advises the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the state’s test-to-stay program, while previously “wildly successful,” no longer made sense. At-home testing of students would be the “wave of the future,” she added.

“Test-and-stay was a great program for the fall of 2021. But now it’s January 2022,” Dr. Branch-Elliman said. “We have vaccines, we have antivirals, and we have Omicron. And all of those things mean we have to adjust our policies.”

Earlier this month, New York City replaced its previous policy of quarantining entire classes that were exposed to the virus with a new policy allowing asymptomatic students who test negative to remain in school. Public schools in the city are providing rapid at-home tests to students and employees who have symptoms or who were exposed to the virus in a classroom.

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.

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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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