May 19, 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 shows that about one-third of the American population lives in areas where the COVID-19 alert level is either medium or high, says Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky.

“Over the last five weeks we have seen a steady increase in COVID cases,” Walensky said. “The current 7-day averages of cases are about 94,000 per day, which is an increase nationally of about 26% over the previous week and a threefold increase over the last month.”

Walensky said the “7-day average of hospital admissions now is 3,000 patients per day, which is a 19% increase over the previous week.” About 275 people die from COVID-19 every day in the United States, she said.

For areas that show up in orange on the map below, Walensky said, “We urge local leaders to encourage the use of prevention strategies like masking in public indoor settings and increasing access to testing and treatment for individuals.” She said in those areas that are high, everyone should be wearing masks in indoor gatherings. In areas that are in yellow, she said, people who are most at risk from a COVID-19 infection should consider avoiding crowds and should wear masks in indoor public settings.

(CDC data, May 18, 2022)

In the first COVID-19 briefing provided by the White House in six weeks, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha told reporters that despite a significant increase in infections, COVID-19 deaths remain at near pandemic lows. That’s partly because doctors are using a drug called paxlovid which, if used early in an infection, can lighten the effect of the virus. Doctors write nearly 20,000 paxlovid prescriptions a day, Jha said.

Jha said about 100,000 people are testing positive for COVID-19 infections per day and that is likely an undercount of the real infection rate.

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US households spend $4,800 a year on gasoline

Researchers at Yardeni found that American households spend almost twice as much on gasoline now compared to a year ago. That increase, of course, affects lower-income households the most.

Ed Yardeni, the CEO of the company, said in a LinkedIn post:

How much pain at the pump can consumers take? The national retail price of a gallon of gasoline soared to $4.59 during the May 16 week. A year ago, American households spent about $2800 at an annual rate on gasoline. During March, they spent roughly $3800. During May, they are spending at an annual rate of $4800.

No wonder that the Consumer Sentiment Index is so depressed. The wonder is that retail sales have been so surprisingly strong during April and May. Consumers’ inflation-adjusted incomes are barely growing, but they accumulated lots of personal saving over the past couple of years, and they are charging more on their credit cards.

Don’t bet against American consumers. When we are happy, we spend money. When we are depressed, we spend even more money!

FDA to consider fall COVID-19 vaccine and vaccination campaign

The June 28 meeting of the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory committee on vaccines and vaccinations could determine how the country marches toward an anticipated autumn increase in COVID-19 infections. The FDA is considering whether drug companies can produce a vaccine that adapts to anticipated virus variants and how to persuade the virus-battered public to respond to a call for another vaccination.

The FDA and CDC would have to make a decision soon to give drug companies time to manufacture and test new formulas. That means scientists would have to make a best guess about how the virus might morph between now and this fall and winter. The New York Times explains the challenge:

Among the candidates for a fall Covid shot is a booster designed for Omicron, the odd new avatar of the coronavirus, and combinations that include it. Moderna’s lead booster candidate contains 25 micrograms each of its original vaccine and one tailored to Omicron, Dr. Paul Burton, the company’s chief medical officer, said.

Pfizer is also testing an Omicron-specific vaccine but will not make a decision on its fall candidate until June, according to Jerica Pitts, a spokeswoman for the company.

Even if the vaccine match isn’t perfect, the boost to immunity should offer some protection against any new variant in the fall, as the flu vaccine does.

COVID’s toll on broadcast newsrooms

The Radio Television Digital News Association just published a new survey on how the pandemic affects broadcast newsrooms. The RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey found:

More than a third of TV newsrooms have seen permanent physical changes to deal with COVID, and nearly a third still have at least some staff working mostly remotely. Almost 19% have had (or have) budget cutbacks, and nearly 18% have fewer newsroom staffers — down from more than 27% a year ago.

Almost half (45.1%) of TV news directors said their station or company required COVID vaccinations.

But the study found that 49% of the stations surveyed did not require COVID-19 vaccinations.

This was another of the headlines in the new study: “The latest RTDNA/Newhouse School at Syracuse University Survey found that, overall, 8.2% of radio stations reported that the coronavirus and the economic disruption it caused led to canceling local news.” Noncommercial stations were four times more likely to have canceled news than commercial stations. Larger market stations were more likely to cancel news than smaller markets.

The survey was conducted in the fourth quarter of 2021.

The blisteringly hot housing market may be cooling

A for sale sign is posted on a home in Philadelphia, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Here is a sign that home sales may finally be slowing. The Mortgage Banking Association says applications for new mortgages fell 12% last week. MBA’s website put the figure into perspective:

“Mortgage applications decreased for the first time in three weeks, as mortgage rates – despite declining last week – remained over two percentage points higher than a year ago and close to the highest levels since 2009. For borrowers looking to refinance, the current level of rates continues to be a significant disincentive,” said Joel Kan, MBA’s Associate Vice President of Economic and Industry Forecasting. “Purchase applications fell 12 percent last week, as prospective homebuyers have been put off by higher rates and worsening affordability conditions. Furthermore, general uncertainty about the near-term economic outlook, as well as recent stock market volatility, may be causing some households to delay their home search.”

The National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo Index shows a similar story about new homes.

Sentiment for future new home sales. (National Association of Homebuilders/Wells Fargo Index)

For context, the sentiment considers a figure above “50” to be positive, so while homebuilders are concerned about the tightening demand for new homes, they are still positive about the future.

Combine rising interest rates with increasing inventories of new and existing homes for sale and the result is the demand for home buying and selling may be slowing a bit. Zillow says the number of homes on the market is, for the first time in more than a year, increasing. There were 715,000 homes on the market at the end of March, and that rose by 25,000 in April. Before the pandemic, there were twice as many houses available.


Zillow researchers wrote:

Even if inventory reaches same-month 2021 levels this summer or fall, that will still leave inventory down by about one-third from normal, pre-pandemic levels. At the pace of inventory recovery observed in March, inventory would take about 30 months to reach 2019 levels. So, circle September 2024 on your calendars to see if this extrapolation held true.

If you trust the wisdom of crowds, check with the roughly 100 housing market experts surveyed by Zillow last quarter, whom we challenged with this exact same question: 38% said they expected inventory to recover by the end of 2024, narrowly edging out 2023 (37%) as the most cited year.

Builders have been firing on all cylinders, and with more homes under construction than any time since 1973, they understandably feel exposed in the event of a housing downturn. If they trim their construction plans out of caution, we will miss out on one of the best hopes we have for net new inventory on the market, and the inventory crunch that’s helped push prices up will persist for longer than expected.

Axios added some more perspective:

The big picture: The dynamics of the housing market are shifting in many ways, with rising mortgage rates becoming a factor for the first time in a while.

The monthly mortgage payment on the median-asking-price home — which has risen to $408,458 — has hit a record high of $2,404 at the current 5.27% mortgage rate, per Redfin.

That’s 42% higher than the $1,688 monthly payment a year earlier, when mortgage rates were 2.96%.

“Homebuyers continue to be squeezed in nearly every way possible, which is causing some to take a step back from the market,” says Redfin chief economist Daryl Fairweather in a company blog post.

Between the lines: As inventories rise, prices soften. Redfin reports 15% of home sellers cut their asking price last month — up from 9% a year ago.

Could a housing market crash be in the making?

Zillow researchers say “no.”

If prices did begin to fall, we know there are millions of stymied first-time buyers, or younger millennials soon to be aging into that situation, waiting in the wings to snap up homes if they see a bargain. Those first-time buyers will continue to feel the pressure from rising rents, which jumped 17% in just the past 12 months. And a generally high-inflation environment will keep homeownership looking attractive as a hedge against inflation.

Most existing homeowners are insulated from high mortgage rates, thanks to more than 90% of loans in the past several years being vanilla fixed-rate, fully amortizing mortgages. That keeps people’s current bills affordable and will prevent a foreclosure wave like the one that helped cause the housing market to spin out of control and crash in 2008.

But NPR spoke with people who think that in some cities, houses are overpriced and there could be a bubble that might pop, if not outright burst.

Prices all over the U.S. have been rising astronomically. Boise, Phoenix, Austin and Miami have been particularly hot. But prices are up sharply pretty much everywhere. Moody’s home price index shows a 32% rise in prices nationally over the past two years. The National Association of Realtors reports an even bigger increase of 39%.


But the experts NPR interviewed said any housing market correction in the future will be unlike the crash of 2008. For one thing, lenders have been more cautious than they were 15 years ago, and most mortgages now are fixed-rate mortgages, not the adjustable-rate loans of the early 2000s.

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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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