September 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.

The U.S. Senate will wait until after you vote to decide whether to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, which the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed (267-156) in July.

Democrats hoped to hold a vote Monday. Now that won’t happen, so it may be up to journalists to ask candidates where they stand on this issue before voters cast ballots on Election Day. For the bill to pass, at least 10 Republicans would have to get behind it.

The Respect for Marriage Act would overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. The Respect act would also require states to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

In 2015, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry. But Justice Clarence Thomas urged the court to review that decision and consider overturning it.

It is interesting to put this vote’s delay into perspective using Five-Thirty-Eight’s newest estimate of the midterm election outcome. The models show Democrats have significantly improved their chances of holding the Senate majority.

Mortgage rates hit 6%, the highest rate since 2008

This week, the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage rate rose to 6.02%, which is just about double what it was nine months ago. Freddie Mac’s data shows it has not been at this level since 2008. And, when Federal Reserve officials meet next week, the Fed rate, which eventually affects mortgage rates, almost certainly will rise again.

This may do more than cool down home prices and sales.

Freddie Mac’s data release said:

  • 30-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 6.02 percent with an average 0.8 point as of September 15, 2022, up from last week when it averaged 5.89 percent. A year ago at this time, the 30-year FRM averaged 2.86 percent.
  • 15-year fixed-rate mortgage averaged 5.21 percent with an average 0.9 point, up from last week when it averaged 5.16 percent. A year ago at this time, the 15-year FRM averaged 2.12 percent.
  • 5-year Treasury-indexed hybrid adjustable-rate mortgage (ARM) averaged 4.93 percent with an average 0.2 point, up from last week when it averaged 4.64 percent. A year ago at this time, the 5-year ARM averaged 2.51 percent.

“Mortgage rates continued to rise alongside hotter-than-expected inflation numbers this week, exceeding six percent for the first time since late 2008,” said Sam Khater, Freddie Mac’s Chief Economist. “Although the increase in rates will continue to dampen demand and put downward pressure on home prices, inventory remains inadequate. This indicates that while home price declines will likely continue, they should not be large.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association says new applications for home loans are slowing by a lot, dropping more than 1% in a single week. Refinancing is down 83% from a year ago.

Even if those mortgage rates slow sales, home prices are still 19% above where they were a year ago. See the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Index for analysis.

(S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller Home Price Index)

That calculation includes 20 cities (Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, New York, Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa and Washington, D.C.)

See an in-depth story including trending charts from The Washington Post.

The unexpected force behind policing change

For all of the protests and legislative pressures that have tried to reshape policing in the last few years, one other kind of pressure may have imposed fast and lasting changes: insurance costs. The Washington Post zeros in on how the high cost of court settlements is forcing police departments to overhaul tactics such as police chases and use of force:

Where community activists, use-of-force victims and city officials have failed to persuade police departments to change dangerous and sometimes deadly policing practices, insurers are successfully dictating changes to tactics and policies, mostly at small to medium-size departments throughout the nation.

The movement is driven by the increasingly large jury awards and settlements that cities and their insurers are paying in police use-of-force cases, especially since the 2020 deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Those cases led to settlements of $12 million and $27 million, respectively. Insurance companies are passing the costs — and potential future costs — on to their law enforcement clients.

Larger law enforcement agencies — like the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department or the New York Police Department — handle it in different ways, often by creating a special fund to finance settlements or by paying those costs from the county’s or city’s general fund. This insulates them from external demands by insurers.

It certainly is worth journalists’ time to look at local police department insurance bills and tally up court settlement costs. The Post found, “Even departments with few problems are experiencing rate increases of 30 to 100 percent. Now, insurers also are telling departments that they must change the way they police.”

This is just another in a series of stories the Post has produced on this topic. Back in March, the Post found, “More than $1.5 billion has been spent to settle claims of police misconduct involving thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Taxpayers are often in the dark.”  The Post “collected data on nearly 40,000 payments at 25 of the nation’s largest police and sheriff’s departments within the past decade, documenting more than $3.2 billion spent to settle claims.”

You can explore the data here and sort it by police department and individual officers, some of whom were involved in multiple claims.

Railroad strike averted, for now

All 12 unions representing railroad workers agreed to take the railroad companies’ latest offer to their members and not strike while the votes are being counted. Keep in mind that one of the 12 unions representing nearly 5,000 workers already rejected the offer earlier this week. The Associated Press reports that the marathon negotiations Wednesday included 50 calls between the White House and union leaders, including at least one at 9 p.m. from President Joe Biden, who pleaded with negotiators to find common ground and avert an economy-wrecking strike. Read details of the proposed contract here.

COVID-19 vaccine mandates are becoming less common

A worker wears a mask inside Union Station Thursday, July 28, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Vaccine mandates are becoming less common, and mask mandates are falling even more out of favor as we head into the flu season and face the possibility of a seasonal COVID-19 uptick. Last week, New York’s subways, rail and bus systems dropped mask mandates that had been in place for more than two years.

Maryland’s second-largest school system dropped its mask mandate soon  after opening for fall classes. I am seeing universities making similar decisions.

Washington state will end its COVID-19 emergency order, but Gov. Jay Inslee’s office announced:

The statewide Face Covering Order issued by the state Department of Health will remain in place for health care and long-term care sittings, as well as correctional facilities under certain circumstances after the state of emergency ends. The governor is also looking at options to ensure there are protections for workers who choose to wear a mask in their workplace.

Here is a state-by-state list of government-imposed mask mandate rules.

When the White House rolled out a list for ways that employers could help workers stay COVID-free this fall, the recommendations did not include vaccine mandates. The White House plan said:

The Administration is calling on employers to take actions this fall in three key areas of COVID-19 mitigation and protection against serious illness:

  • Helping their employees access updated COVID-19 vaccines;
  • Ensuring that they know about COVID-19 treatment options and how to access them; and
  • Improving indoor air quality across their buildings.

This includes actions such as offering:

  • Paid-time-off for vaccination;
  • Working with local vaccine providers to host on-site vaccination clinics for employees, including by offering both the annual flu shot and updated COVID-19 vaccines;
  • Incorporating clear information about COVID-19 treatments into employee health plans and employee communications; and
  • Taking concrete steps to improve indoor air quality, such as commissioning, repairing, and improving HVAC systems, and installing high-quality air filters and air cleaners.
  • To help businesses take action, the Administration will release clear information about steps that businesses of all kinds can take to protect their workforce and customers and to keep their doors open this fall, and will work across the federal government and with business organizations to share information, answer questions, and support actions in any way that we can.

One curiosity is why the Biden administration dropped mask mandates for airplanes and other federally regulated venues but still has a mask mandate in place for federally funded Head Start preschool programs. Despite Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules that do not call for masking young children, Head Start still requires masks for children as young as 2 years old.

The New York Times reminds us:

The strict Head Start guidelines were established last November during the surge in Delta variant infections, and they remain in place in half the states, including those throughout the Northeast and on the West Coast. In addition to universal masking, they require that Head Start staff members be vaccinated.

A group of conservative states, including Texas and Florida, sued to prevent the rules from taking effect, and federal courts imposed an injunction on the guidelines in those states. Now, the masking and vaccine requirements are a point of contention for local Head Start centers, complicating both enrollment and hiring, program directors said. Many parents don’t want their young children to be masked, worried that masking could hinder socialization and language development. And their older children are now able to attend schools without any face coverings.

The Times added this context:

Masks can make it more challenging for some children to develop early speech and reading skills, which are learned, in part, by observing mouths in movement, according to research.

And while masks, properly worn, do offer virus protection, young children tend not to be severely affected by the coronavirus, even when unvaccinated.

For many Head Start centers, the masking and vaccine rules make a difficult situation even more difficult.

People are paying $75,000 or more to get taller by surgically breaking their legs

GQ profiles a guy named John who is now 5’11” but, before he spent $75,000 on leg-lengthening surgery, was 5’8”.

That John is on his feet at all is impressive—and probably foolish—considering that only eight months prior, he was five feet eight and a half. Back in September, he paid $75,000 for the agonizing privilege of having his legs surgically lengthened. That entailed having both his femurs broken, and adjustable metal nails inserted down their centers. Each nail is made of titanium, which is both flexible and sturdy, like bone, and about the size of a piccolo. The nails were extended one millimeter every day for about 90 days via a magnetic remote control. Once the broken bones heal, ta-da: a newer, taller John.

GQ says the post-surgery pain is intense and the operation leaves the patient’s legs highly vulnerable to snapping for a while. A BBC report says hundreds of Americans undergo the operation every year, and GQ quotes a Las Vegas doc as saying business is booming at his clinic.

The GQ story says most of the people it spoke with said they were interested in the surgery in order to become the best version of who they imagined themselves to be. And there is some data suggesting height has a monetary correlation:

Short guys aren’t so much discriminated against as they are precluded from stuff: like dating certain taller people, or making your frosh-soph basketball team. According to a 2009 study of Australian men, short guys make less money than their taller peers (about $500 a year per inch); are less likely to climb the corporate ladder (according to one survey, the average height of a male Fortune 500 CEO is six feet); and, for the cis and straight among us, have fewer romantic opportunities with women (a 2013 study conducted in the Netherlands found that women were taller than their male partners in just 7.5 percent of cases)

A BBC story summed up a number of studies that found taller candidates tended to win political races more often and taller men and women are perceived as more attractive. But the studies warn these are all correlations that hardly hold universally true. Tall people also tend to suffer hip and bone fractures more often, and it may be that taller people live shorter lives.

Grocery chain testing a new system that checks your purchases in seconds

The H-E-B grocery store chain in Texas is testing out a new checkout system that allows you to run your shopping basket through a scanner that calculates your total, just like that. Think of it like the difference between stopping at a toll booth and handing money to a person versus breezing through a lane where a scanner reads a device stuck to your windshield while you drive through.

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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