September 20, 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.

New data just released by the Department of Homeland Security shows U.S. officials have documented a record 2.4 million immigration encounters along the southern border by the end of this month. In President Joe Biden’s first year in office, officials noted 1.73 million encounters.

Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers detained more than 203,000 migrants who crossed the U.S. Mexico border.

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The new data shows the desperation on the border as search and rescue operations sharply increase:

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The data also shows that Border Patrol agents are increasingly arresting people who have criminal convictions or are wanted for suspected crimes.

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

I was particularly interested in how Border Patrol tracks gang affiliations of people crossing the border. Pay attention to the low total number of gang-affiliated cases as a percentage of people crossing the border. Keep these figures in context.

(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

The newest data notes that migrants seeking legal asylum in the United States in recent months came from Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba. The newest data also shows how difficult it is for people seeking asylum to win their cases. Immigration lawyers say it is the most difficult kind of case to prove. WUSA talked to experts to discover why it is so hard.

The CATO Institute also uses the newest data to make the point that fentanyl smugglers caught at the U.S. border are, most often, American citizens, not people seeking asylum. CATO makes this point:

An NPR -Ipsos poll last week found that 39 percent of Americans and 60 percent of Republicans believe, “Most of the fentanyl entering the U.S. is smuggled in by unauthorized migrants crossing the border illegally.” A more accurate summary is that fentanyl is overwhelmingly smuggled by U.S. citizens almost entirely for U.S. citizen consumers.

CATO says these are the facts:

  • Fentanyl smuggling is ultimately funded by U.S. consumers who pay for illicit opioids: nearly 99 percent of whom are U.S. citizens.
  • In 2021, U.S. citizens were 86.3 percent of convicted fentanyl drug traffickers—ten times greater than convictions of illegal immigrants for the same offense.

(CATO Institute)

  • Over 90 percent of fentanyl seizures occur at legal crossings points or interior vehicle checkpoints, not on illegal migration routes, so U.S. citizens (who are subject to less scrutiny) when crossing legally are the best smugglers.
  • The location of smuggling makes sense because hard drugs at ports of entry are about 97 percent less likely to be stopped than people crossing illegally between them
  • Just 0.02 percent of the people arrested by Border Patrol for crossing illegally possessed any fentanyl whatsoever.
  • The government exacerbated the problem by banning most legal cross border traffic in 2020 and 2021, accelerating a switch to fentanyl (the easiest-​to‐-conceal drug).
  • During the travel restrictions, fentanyl seizures at ports quadrupled from fiscal year 2019 to 2021. Fentanyl went from a third of combined heroin and fentanyl seizures to over 90 percent.

See more data from The Department of Homeland Security.

Is the pandemic really over?

President Biden told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that the COVID-19 pandemic is “over.” He said the U.S. still has a “problem with COVID.” But if the pandemic is over, why has Biden requested an additional $22.4 billion in COVID-19 funding, and why has Biden not lifted the public health emergency declaration?

Around 400 people are still dying every day from COVID-19 in the United States. That is just shy of 3,000 people a week. Last month alone, 15,284 people died in America from COVID-19.

NPR points out:

The National Institutes of Health defines the term as “an epidemic of disease, or other health condition, that occurs over a widespread area (multiple countries or continents) and usually affects a sizable part of the population.”

Globally, there have been about 612 million cases of coronavirus. The number of new daily cases peaked in January for many countries, including the U.S. (806,987), France (366,554) and India (311,982), according to Our World in Data, an international organization of scientists.

Interestingly, companies that make COVID-19 vaccines saw their stock prices drop around 9% on Monday.

The federal government is still managing the vaccine programs, and Politico quotes administration sources as saying the federal COVID-19 response may not end before mid-2023:

At the White House and inside the health department, officials planning the unwinding of the Covid public health emergency imposed in January 2020 are working under the tentative assumption the declaration will be allowed to expire in the spring or summer of 2023.

The administration is preparing to phase out the federal subsidies that guarantee free Covid vaccines and treatments as early as the beginning of 2023, in favor of transferring the burden of buying and distributing them to the private insurance market. Health officials met last week with a range of health industry and state representatives to discuss that transition, saying afterward, “we have always known that we would not be in this business forever.”

The World Health Organization has not said the pandemic is over. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week, “We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We are not there yet, but the end is in sight. (But) … a marathon runner does not stop when the finish line comes into view. She runs harder, with all the energy she has left. … Now is the worst time to stop running.”

One way we can measure how employers and workers are thinking about the pandemic is by looking at whether they are returning to the workplace. The Kastle company monitors keycard swipes in 2,600 buildings in 138 cities and says in the 10 major metro areas it watches, office use is the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

But if anybody expected a surge of people returning to offices, the data does not show that is happening. Bloomberg reports:

“Everything I have seen points to no serious uptick in the return to office after Labor Day,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford University professor who’s studied the rise of remote work. “The last two big pushes after Labor Day in 2020 and 2021 were complete failures with no impact at all, and so I was not expecting anything different this time around.”

Banned Book Week: Top 10 banned books

Commonly banned books are visible at the Central Library, a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library system, in New York City on Thursday, July 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

The American Library Association says efforts to ban books in the U.S. has reached new levels. The ALA says, “In a time of intense political polarization, library staff in every state are facing an unprecedented number of attempts to ban books.”

The ALA produced its newest list of 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021. That is about twice as many book challenges and bans as the ALA reported in 2018 and 2020.

Of the 1,597 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

(American Library Association)

The Washington Post notes:

At least six states have also passed laws targeting school libraries. These mandate parental involvement in reviewing books, making it easier for families to remove books or restrict the texts available at school. Five more states are considering such legislation. Because of laws like these, and similar district-level policies, librarians and schoolchildren alike have less freedom this year to pursue their reading interests, The Washington Post previously reported.

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.

Clarification: This article was updated to change the word “arrests” to encounters in the headline and first paragraph, because not all interactions at the southern border resulted in arrests.

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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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