March 16, 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.

Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell will ask his board to approve a quarter of a percent increase in the interest rate this afternoon. The Fed rate is near zero now. This will be the first increase since 2018. Some say it is long overdue and a step toward fighting inflation.

But you will feel the effect of this increase and the probable three or more increases to come this year.

Powell wanted a half percent increase, but the war in Ukraine will probably push the board toward a more measured approach.

When the Fed acts, or even talks about acting, the financial world reacts.  Already, credit card interest rates, car loans, business loans and mortgages are more costly. Home mortgage loans are still, by historical standards, low at 4%, but that is up from 3% just three months ago, and they will rise some more once the Fed acts.

It may be confusing to your audiences how raising interest rates can be good for the economy. The Fed wants to make borrowing more expensive, so we all would be more likely to save more and spend less. When we spend less, supplies of everything we buy build up, and the prices of those things — whether they are houses or cars — stop rising so fast. Less demand leads to competitive pricing which tempers inflation. But — and here is the tricky part — if the Fed raises rates too fast and we stop buying too much, we could fall into a recession, where the economy begins to shrink instead of growing slow and steady.

The Fed rate is a sort of reference point for banks. But the effect of Fed rates on your retirement account is a bit murky. On the whole, Wall Street does not like interest increases because it discourages companies from spending on new projects that grow business. But bank stocks and other finance companies often do quite well after they raise rates.

Here’s the biggest downside: It is likely that today the interest rates will rise and the prices on everything you buy from food to gasoline will still be high. It takes time for the economy to absorb small changes.

1/3 of US wastewater monitoring sites show COVID cases rising — why it is not a worry, yet

I don’t want to bury the lead: Virus levels in more than a third of the wastewater samples monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are rising. But, and this is important, the virus levels nationwide are mostly low and the CDC says it is unsure if the uptick is a bump in the road — a temporary rise to a low level from a very low level.

But with significant outbreaks unfolding in Europe and Asia, this is worth watching, especially because people have slowed testing and states are folding their monitoring and reporting efforts hoping the pandemic is ending.

And it is important to point out that despite these wastewater readings, new cases, new hospitalizations and deaths are all steadily dropping.

If you are infected with COVID-19 and don’t know it because you show no symptoms, you may still shed the virus into the sewer system. For more than a year, a dozen states have been testing sewers for the virus. The CDC says this approach may give a quick alert to changes in the virus’ spread. That’s why the newest map of the data from these sewer systems captured people’s attention. Several of the monitoring stations are picking up increasing amounts of the coronavirus. Rising cases do not promise a new emergency in the making, but it is something that people are noting after cases started rising again across Europe and Asia.

On this CDC map of wastewater monitoring stations, the blue dots represent a drop in detected virus, while stations that are yellow, orange and red have progressively higher virus counts detected.


Bloomberg reports:

Bloomberg reviewed data for more than 530 sewage monitoring sites, looking at the most recent data reported during the 10-day window from March 1 to March 10. Out of those sites, 59% showed falling Covid-19 trends, 5% were roughly stable, and 36% were increasing. Rises or declines are measured over a 15-day period.

Fewer sites had data during the Feb. 1 to Feb. 10 window. During that period, 80% of sites showed a decreasing trend, 5% were stable, and 15% were rising.

One of the places that saw an increase is Altamonte Springs, Florida. There, city officials say they are not concerned about the latest reading showing a twofold increase in COVID-19. Spectrum News 13 reported what city authorities say it means:

Despite the large percentage increase from week to week, the report shows that the amount of viral concentration is still one of the lowest samples they’ve recorded, being a 52% lower virus concentration since Thanksgiving.

City leaders are reiterating they are not concerned with this change.

“Though we saw somewhat of an increase over our prior sample, it was actually almost the same as September 2020, so what we’re seeing is, we think, the bottoming out of this virus absent any extraordinary variant,” City Manager Frank Martz said.

The Verge explains why this system is not providing a clear picture of whether the virus is making a return:

Only a dozen states are regularly reporting sewage data to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System, Politico reported. The system, which launched in 2020, collects data on levels of the coronavirus at sewage plants around the country. But with most states not participating, the agency isn’t able to get a clear picture of how the virus is spreading nationwide.

Right now, only California, Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin have sewage data connected to the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS). Many of those states only have a handful of sewage sites regularly reporting data.

Hospitals scramble for saline solution

In this Aug. 8, 2020, photo, face masks hang from an IV pole at a hospital in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

There are some things that hospitals have to have, like gauze, oxygen, syringes and saline solution.

The omicron COVID-19 outbreak drained supplies. Bloomberg reports:

Over the past few months, pharmacists at medical centers have been forced to cobble together alternatives after demand for saline rose during the height of the omicron wave and illness and quarantines kept home many workers at the factories where saline is made.

“It’s been pretty severe,” says Eric Tichy, who manages the pharmacy supply chain for the Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic. “We’ve kind of had to make do with the things we have available.”

Saline suppliers indicate on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website that they expect deliveries to pick up over the next few months. One hitch could be whether the plastic needed to make saline bags takes a hit, should Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cause major disruptions to oil and natural gas output.

Beckers Hospital Review says:

Children’s Mercy Kansas City in Missouri is operating with about 70 percent of the saline it normally needs, according to Bethany Baker, PharmD, the hospital’s director of pharmacy clinical services. The shortage is complicating care for healthcare workers, who must use bigger IV vials and bags for children, as the smaller products were among the first to run out.

Erin Fox, PharmD, senior pharmacy director at Salt Lake City-based University of Utah Health, said the shortages create “a very frustrating situation for staff” who “are already overworked and doing 100 other things.”

Saline supply shortages have arisen before. America uses about 4 million bags of saline solution a month. The New England Journal of Medicine tracked intermittent shortages in this vital tool for hospitals back a decade and a half and reported:

The United States gets its saline from just three companies: Baxter International, B. Braun Medical, and ICU Medical. Most shortages are caused by a quality or production problem at the manufacturing facility — causes that apply to the current saline shortage as well. In addition, when one supplier experiences a shortage, other suppliers often have insufficient manufacturing capacity to make up the difference.

Drug manufacturers are not required to have redundancy in their facilities or even a business contingency plan in case of a disaster, no matter how essential or lifesaving the medication they are producing.

With so few manufacturers producing such a vital medical product, all it takes is a supply chain interruption, even a hurricane that shuts down production in one factory, and the whole national hospital system gets squeezed.

(New England Journal of Medicine)

Another spring of robust RV sales and other hidden treasures in a new government report

I have mentioned a nerdy and awesome federal document that is packed with great regional and local story ideas if you mine them. Lucky for you, Clark Merrefield at The Journalist’s Resource has combed through the Beige Book, as it is called, and found some good story ideas that are backed up with real Federal Reserve data. The Beige Book looks at consumer sentiment across the country.

Merrefield joined The Journalist’s Resource in 2019 after working as a reporter for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, so he knows a story when he sees one. He found more than a dozen story ideas in the latest Beige Book. I’ll share a handful of them,but visit The Journalist’s Resource and get the data behind the ideas:

  • Sales of RVs defied typical seasonal trends and remained robust throughout the winter,” according to the Beige Book. Reach out to local sellers of recreational vehicles to find out if they are part of the trend or bucking it. Is there a coming “Summer of the RV” in New England, or will high gas prices keep them off the roads?
  • Residential home inventory is still low in upstate New York. “Housing affordability is a growing concern in the region, and efforts are underway to rehabilitate ‘zombie’ homes in some areas and convert some commercial space to residential.” Zombie homes are properties that have fallen into disuse and disrepair. Explore your local streets and see if there are renovation projects conducive to an article or series on zombie home rehabs.
  • A contact from a university “expressed great concern that educators were leaving the profession in large numbers because the current work environment was ‘not what they had signed up for.’” No other details are given. Is teaching classes online “not what they had signed up for”? Are these mostly adjuncts and their pay is too low? Is there something else happening? Is the contact from a state or private university? Regardless, if higher education faculty are indeed leaving in droves, that’s worth exploring.
  • Some employers were willing to loosen requirements on education and experience in favor of on-the-job training to fill open positions. One firm that had required a bachelor’s degree in computer science was able to fill those roles with applicants without a bachelor’s degree. Talk to firms that have decided to bend a bit on their education requirements to see how those employees are working out and whether this warrants a rethinking of education requirements for certain jobs.

Farmers battle for the right to fix their own tractors

An attendee looks at a John Deere automated tractor at the John Deere booth during the CES tech show Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Joe Buglewicz)

Governing takes us inside a battle I imagine most have never heard about. It is the so-called “right to repair” fight and it pits farmers against big implement companies like John Deere.

In the last few days, a half dozen farmer trade groups, the National Farmers Union and other farmer advocacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission claiming John Deere makes it needlessly difficult to work on their brand of farm equipment.

The complaint says Deere withholds diagnostic software and other equipment that farmers need to repair their own equipment. It says Deere controls more than half of the $68 billion agriculture equipment industry and that Deere has made it impossible for an individual to diagnose malfunctioning equipment because Deere keeps diagnostic software and tools to itself. And the complaint claims that Deere charges premium prices for the repairs and wait times can cost farmers valuable time in the field.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission issued a deep report on other industries that make it next to impossible to fix devices that they produce.  The report, called “Nixing the Fix,” said that “manufacturers explain that these repair restrictions often arise from their desire to protect intellectual property rights and prevent injuries and other negative consequences resulting from improper repairs.”

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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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