July 6, 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 average monthly car payment just crossed $700 a month. Keep in mind: That is average. Lots of people are making what I would consider a home mortgage or apartment rental payment for a new vehicle.

(The Guardian)

The prices are so high that some buyers drive hundreds of miles, occasionally even further, to find deals on new cars. And as NPR points out, that purchase does not include the price of parking, fuel, insurance or interest rates.

Cox Automotive/Moody Analytics calculates, “The number of median weeks of income needed to purchase the average new vehicle increased for the fourth consecutive month reaching 41.3 weeks in May from an upwardly revised 40.8 weeks in April.”

(Cox Automotive/Moody Analytics)

NPR explored the causes for these dramatic price hikes, which may not drop again:

The primary reason cars have gotten so pricey can be traced back to the computer chip shortage that started during the pandemic.

When car sales dropped dramatically during the early parts of the lockdown, auto manufacturers slashed orders for the chips.

Around the same time, as schools and work went online, people bought additional laptops, iPads, TVs, video games and other electronic goods for their home. So, chip manufacturers shifted their production to serve those companies.

This was soon followed by other big shifts in the economy. People started moving out of crowded cities into suburban locations, and suddenly demand for cars skyrocketed.

Auto manufacturers were caught flatfooted and unable to make enough cars because they didn’t have enough microchips, which play a big role in today’s cars, controlling everything from windows to the navigation screen to even passenger seat sensors.

With a limited supply of chips, automakers cut back and made fewer cars. They decided to put their chips into making bigger, more expensive vehicles — SUVs loaded with features — to get more bang for their buck.

Before the pandemic, the sticker price on a new car was the starting point for negotiations that moved downward. Now it is often a price that only goes higher. The Guardian reports:

Before the pandemic, dealers competed on how far below the sticker price they would sell a car, light truck, or SUV. But it is no longer a buyer’s market; dealers now have the upper hand, and those willing to sell popular models, particularly hybrids and electric vehicles, at sticker price are the rare exception.

“We are inundated with orders we can’t fill,” said the sales manager of a New Jersey Toyota and Volkswagen dealership that prices vehicles no higher than their sticker price. He asked not to be identified because he is no longer accepting orders for popular models, including the Toyota RAV4 Prime and the Highlander Hybrid, and has a list of 160 customers who have put down deposits and are waiting months for their vehicles.

The unintended consequences of the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling

The Supreme Court intended for states to make their own decisions about the legality of abortions. But it may not have intended for states to make decisions that cut off critically important drugs like methotrexate for women of childbearing age — a fast-moving rumor and fear in online conversations among people who depend on the drug.

Before you read on, note there has been no ban on methotrexate at this time but, as states consider how they will adapt to the Supreme Court’s abortion rights rulings, the speculation turns into outright fear.

Methotrexate is widely used by people with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and other inflammatory conditions, including Crohn’s disease. People with breast cancer, lung cancer and leukemia depend on it. For them, it is a sort of miracle drug.

The drug is also used to treat ectopic pregnancy, which the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists explains is a pregnancy that starts outside the uterus (typically in the fallopian tubes) that is not viable. ACOG says methotrexate stops cells from growing, which ends the pregnancy. That could classify methotrexate as an abortion drug, even though an untreated ectopic pregnancy can lead to death if a fallopian tube ruptures and causes internal bleeding.

A New York Times report says:

“We’re already seeing on Twitter and elsewhere physicians being scared to treat ectopic pregnancies,” said Dr. Aileen Gariepy, director of complex family planning at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. “As doctors, our job is to follow science and evidence-based medicine, it is keeping up-to-date and doing what’s right for the patient. It is not the nuances of how state legislatures wrote something.”

Dr. Gariepy said that in rare cases, the body will expel an ectopic pregnancy on its own. But for the vast majority of women, the only options are medication to remove the pregnancy or surgery.

If an ectopic pregnancy is diagnosed within a few days or weeks of implantation — at a point when there is no dangerous bleeding — doctors tend to use a medication known as methotrexate. It is given through an injection and stops cells from growing to end the pregnancy, which is then reabsorbed by the body over several weeks. Methotrexate is not the same drug used for a medication abortion, which involves taking two different drugs — mifepristone and misoprostol — 24 to 48 hours apart in order to block progesterone and start uterine contractions.

13 states that have abortion bans allow an exception for “medical emergencies.”

The fear at the moment is that any ban, even one that carves out an exception for a medical emergency, will cause confusion and delay a medical decision and that, the doctors say, can be dangerous.

Elizabeth Kirchner, of the department of rheumatologic and immunologic disease at the Cleveland Clinic, told Healio:

“Will we need to somehow prove that every methotrexate prescription we write isn’t going to be used to induce abortion?” “Will our ability to write prescriptions be hampered? Maybe just for certain populations, like perhaps women of childbearing age?”

“To some of you, this may seem like overzealous fear-mongering, but I urge you then to note Texas Senate bill SB4, which went into effect in December 2021,” she said. “This law specifically names methotrexate as an abortion-inducing drug. Pharmacists in Texas must jump through several hoops, including verifying that the patient is not pregnant, before they can dispense methotrexate.”

Although this law accounts for cases where methotrexate is dispensed for reasons other than inducing an abortion, the penalties involved may still have a cooling effect on its use, according to Karen Morrison, an attorney and associate member of the Virginia State Bar.

“The penalties are so steep — felony charges on top of the lawsuits brought by private citizens authorized by [Texas Senate Bill] 8 — that any pharmacist would be forgiven for being hesitant to fill a methotrexate prescription,” Morrison said.

Journalists, it would be useful for you to report about this since so many people depend on methotrexate and false rumors are spreading fast that states are banning the drug.

Will state abortion laws affect which colleges students attend?

Vice says college students are taking state abortion laws into consideration when they decide where to go to school this fall.

After the overturning of Roe, millions of college students found themselves attending institutions where they would no longer have access to certain types of reproductive healthcare. Now, students who had committed to attending colleges or universities in majority conservative states are rethinking their decisions. Meanwhile, rising high school seniors say they now have something new to consider when compiling their lists of prospective schools: the access and right to an abortion.

Twenty-six states are set to ban or severely limit abortion protections and services. Half of them—Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming—have “trigger” laws that will ban abortion in the days and weeks following the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Vanderbilt announced the creation of a task force that will “focus on the impact of a statewide abortion ban and plan to address impacts to clinical care.”

Returning college students are also worried about the end of abortion, and women of color specifically told VICE News the Supreme Court’s decision made them feel even more uneasy about attending colleges where abortion is banned.

According to RAINN, a national anti-sexual violence organization, “Sexual violence on campus is pervasive”

  • 13% of all students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (among all graduate and undergraduate students).
  • Among graduate and professional students, 9.7% of females and 2.5% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.
  • Among undergraduate students, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation.

Baby formula shortage eased, not over

I wanted to circle back to the baby formula shortage story that got so much attention for a few weeks. The shortage is not over, but it has eased.

Some formula arrived from Europe, and that helped. NorthJersey.com reports:

In Bergen County, powdered formulas are in very limited supply, said Jessica Palaia, administrator of the Facebook page Bergen County Formula Exchange, with more than 1,300 members. Liquid, ready-to-use formula is easier to find, she said. Hardest of all are specialized formulas for children with metabolic issues.

It is pretty much the same story in Louisville, Kentucky. WDRB reported:

Formula from across the globe is starting to appear on store shelves in Louisville.

Laura Serke, a NICU dietician for UofL Health, found cans of Kendamil at a local Target recently. They came from the United Kingdom and were part of Operation Fly Formula.

Previous flights focused on specialized formula, and most of that went to area hospitals.

Serke said any formulas flown into the U.S. are required to meet U.S. nutritional guidelines, but it’s still important for parents to read the labels.

(Free) deep learning for journalists covering midterm elections


For the next month, I will be traveling to five states with a roving band of experts to help local journalists more aggressively cover five big midterm election issues. Our experts and I will explore immigration, inflation/economics, health care policy and drug costs, climate change and disinformation. We start this week in Phoenix and then travel to Madison, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; Philadelphia; and then we wind up at Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Park your smartphone for a day and lean in. This will be intensive.

We are focused on serious journalists who want to spend an intensive day learning. The class is full in Phoenix and nearly full in Madison, but we have plenty of space left in Philly and Columbus, and some seats open in St. Pete. We will record the St. Pete session for people who want to learn virtually. More on that later.

I would ask you to only sign up if you are sure you will attend and if you are planning to do some election coverage. We welcome all media, and we think this will be especially useful for local newsrooms. Don’t overlook radio hosts, assignment editors, producers, visual journalists and newsroom managers who all shape election coverage but usually do not take advantage of training.

This training is free, and we will even buy you lunch.

Here is a link to the signup page, details on our guest faculty and dates for each city.

It is fine for newsrooms to send a small team to these sessions.

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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