March 11, 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.

Sometime late this spring or early this summer, the United States will pass the 1 million mark for COVID-19 deaths. NPR reports that a group called Marked By COVID is pushing to establish a sort of national memorial and the idea has gotten some Congressional backing. The NPR story says:

Progress has been slow, but the concept behind the physical memorials would be to create a design that would be scalable, from a small-town square to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. — a place for people to leave flowers or reflect on their loss. But advocates want to add on an interactive, augmented reality element. People would be able to submit photos of their loved ones, then hold up their phones to the memorial and see their pictures projected toward the sky among those of other COVID victims.

In Congress, the current focus is on a pair of resolutions showing support for a COVID memorial day. Arizona Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton is the lead sponsor of the House resolution.

“We haven’t faced death at this magnitude in our country in a long period of time, [and the] trauma that’s associated with that,” he said.

So far Stanton’s resolution has 67 co-sponsors, all Democrats.

Researchers say that for every person who dies of COVID-19, nine close family members are affected. The researchers told Kaiser Health News in the early days of the pandemic:

“There’s a narrative out there that COVID-19 affects mostly older adults,” said Ashton Verdery, a co-author of the study and a professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University. “Our results highlight that these are not completely socially isolated people that no one cares about. They are integrally connected with their families, and their deaths will have a broad reach.”

Pandemic deaths caused a massive tombstone shortage

950,000 pandemic deaths in the United States have caused a backlog of tombstones that may mean it will be a year before families have their loved ones’ grave markers delivered. The New York Times talked with a third-generation grave marker business owner:

“We probably have over 800 orders, it’s so depressing,” said Don DeNigris, a third-generation co-owner of the company, which was founded in 1905 by his grandfather. “We don’t even count them anymore.” Mr. DeNigris added that they probably wouldn’t complete all of the orders until the end of the year, explaining that demand had been up by “30 or 40 percent” over the past two years.

The memorial industry has been hugely disrupted because of Covid-related demand, supply-chain issues and labor shortages.

At DeNigris, the backlog was set off in April 2020 when monument makers were shuttered for a few weeks because they were not originally deemed “essential services.” A few weeks later, that changed when the New York State Monument Builders Association appealed the decision. But the pileup of orders had already begun.

The supply chain problems were exacerbated last fall when the 3M Company announced it would no longer make the spools of a rubber-based adhesive stencil that can withstand the force of sandblasting, something that monument companies depend on.

KXAN in Austin reports:

In a statement, 3M officials said, “In October 3M, notified its customers that the company will no longer manufacture Sandblast Stencil Products. Severely constrained raw material availability, exponentially increasing costs, and strategic business focus factored into the decision.”

Monument and memorial manufacturers say they have smaller suppliers who can supply them with rubber stencils, but none are big enough to fill the void left by 3M.

Last year, there was a problem getting granite for the markers. The eMissourian reported in December:

Zane Belyea, owner of Jewish Funerals USA and Distinctive Life Cremation and Funeral Services in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said quarries around the country have had a real challenge finding workers to cut stone out of the earth.

Certified memorialist and Washington Monument Owner Roger Aholt said some colors of granite have gone up in price or been delayed more than others, but everything has been affected. Tyler Gaither, director of Russell Colonial Funeral Home and St. Clair Monument and Granite Works, said black granite stones from India and China have taken a year or longer to get in.

“We used to have a three-month turnaround for most of the work that we have. Now we’re anywhere from five months to a year,” Vernum said.

Mask mandates on planes and mass transit extended until April 18

One week before the current mask mandate for public transportation — including airplanes — was to expire, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the order again. There is some hint in the Biden administration’s announcement that future mask orders may be more tailored to local COVID-19 data than the current order. The statement said this about the time between now and the new deadline:

During that time, CDC will work with government agencies to help inform a revised policy framework for when, and under what circumstances, masks should be required in the public transportation corridor. This revised framework will be based on the COVID-19 community levels, risk of new variants, national data, and the latest science.

The decision to keep mask orders in place goes against the national trend of state and local governments dropping mask requirements, which followed the CDC’s recently updated guidance that put most Americans in moderate- and low-risk categories.

Airline allows unvaccinated workers back to work

United Airlines says unvaccinated workers who opposed vaccines for religious or medical reasons may return to work. Some unvaccinated workers took unpaid leave or were working at positions that did not put them in contact with customers.

Rising infections in Europe and elsewhere

New cases of COVID-19 are rising in the United Kingdom and finally dropping in Denmark.

(Johns Hopkins)

Swiss authorities say cases are rising there but they seem unfazed.

New cases are also rising in the Chinese financial hub of Shanghai.

Cases are rising significantly in the east Australian state of New South Wales. The Sydney Morning Herald referred to it as a “more contagious version of the Omicron variant.” So far, intensive care unit admissions are not rising. But both new cases and deaths are rising in Thailand.

Hong Kong, which has been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases filling hospitals, is hopeful that cases there have finally peaked.

One-fourth of members of Congress had COVID-19

Republican senators and representatives had more positive cases than Democrats.

The Hill does the math:

In total, 152 lawmakers, which includes seven who reported having antibodies and two presumed cases, had COVID-19 since January 2020.

Republicans made up 82 of those individuals, while 69 Democrats and one independent made up the rest.

The majority of infections in the House occurred among GOP lawmakers at 67 infections compared to 60 Democrats in that chamber.

In the Senate, 15 Republicans, nine Democrats and one independent reported having COVID-19 since 2020.

(The Hill)

Republicans had more cases in the earlier part of the pandemic but Democrats had the most cases during the omicron outbreaks.

UN data tracker: Where Ukrainian refugees are now

The United Nations is trying to keep a reliable estimate of where Ukrainian refugees are going. The UN estimates more than 2 million people have fled and the largest number (1.4 million) are in Poland. Click on the map to get data.

(United Nations)

The UN updates the data daily.

Will high gasoline prices make electric cars more attractive?

I heard a commentator on CNBC say offhandedly this week that he bet there would be a record number of electric cars sold this weekend. It was just a guess, but it got me looking around at electric vehicle popularity.

Here is something I have not heard of: NBC Bay Area says customers are willing to pay thousands of dollars over asking price for electric vehicles.

Tony Behari with San Mateo Auto Sales said that he is currently seeing 10 times the normal interest in electric and hybrid cars.

“I mean, we can’t stock inventory. That’s how bad it is,” Behari said.

For example, the Chevrolet Volt is one of the more popular hybrid cars. The San Mateo Auto Sales said that type of vehicle doesn’t last more than three days on the lot.

With no stock at dealerships, a car like the Volt can cost someone 35% more than just months ago.

According to Behari, the sticker shock is not stopping shoppers. He told NBC Bay Area Saturday that he received offers of $2,000 over the listed price.

“So, they tell me, ‘Well can I give you a deposit over the phone? What do I have I do?’ But for us, it’s first come first serve,” he said.

My wife and I parked my pickup truck and took her Prius for all of our errands this weekend.

Review Geek looks at how much it costs to refuel an electric vehicle versus a gasoline vehicle:

According to KBB, most of the EVs currently available get between three and four miles out of each kWh. So, to figure out the cost, simply divide the total miles driven by three, or 3.5, and you’ll get the amount of kWh you’d use each month. Then, multiply that by the cost of each kWh at your home. According to the US Energy Information Administration, the average US household pays nearly 14 cents per kWh.

As an example, if you drive 300 miles and get around 3.5 miles out of each kWh, that’s 85.7 kWh used. Multiply 85.7 by $0.14, and you just spent $12 to drive 300 miles in an electric vehicle.

Luckily, most people charge their EVs at home, sitting on a charger overnight. And considering most regions offer discounts on electricity at night when usage is at a low point, that’s the cheapest time to recharge your electric car at home.

The same math as stated above applies here. The average US household pays nearly 14 cents per kWh, but that price can double during peak hours or in California and New York. Still, the average cost is $0.14 per kWh, which ends up being far cheaper than gas. Just keep in mind that some locations will cost more.

If you drive 1,000 miles per month and charge your EV at home, just do the math. Take 1,000 divided by 3.5, which is 285 kWh. Then, multiply 285 by $0.14 and you’ll get $40. You just spent $40 on electricity to drive 1,000 miles.

And don’t forget, you will need a charging station for your home, which is a few hundred to several hundred bucks.

Why rural America has a difficult time moving to electric vehicles

An electric Ford F-150 Lightning is on display in New York City on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Ann-Sophie Fjello-Jensen/AP Images for Ford Motor Company)

Farmers use a lot of fuel. They use it to run tractors and combines. They heat buildings and run pumps and augers and dryers and fans. The Biden administration pointed out in arguing for its infrastructure bill that rural America needs or will need EV charging stations. We may have to build them before rural Americans embrace electric vehicles, starting with electric pickup trucks. The Department of Transportation says:

“Rural residents drive more than their urban counterparts, spend more on vehicle fuel and maintenance, and often have fewer alternatives to driving to meet their transportation needs. Over the long run, EVs will help residents of rural areas reduce those costs and minimize the environmental impact of transportation in their communities.”

Daily Yonder has a thoughtful story about the planning challenges ahead to move oil-dependent rural equipment to electric.

Lobsterflation: costly crustaceans

A lobster rears its claws after being caught off Spruce Head, Maine, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

The Consumer Price Index’s estimate of 7.9% inflation can’t hold a candle to what is happening to lobster prices. Axios reports:

Maine lobstermen were able to sell their catch straight off the boat for $6.71 a pound in 2021, according to the Maine Department of Marine Resources. That was up 59% over the pandemic-depressed 2020 level — and up 39% over 2019.

That price increase coincided with rising supply — the problem was just that supply didn’t rise enough to keep up with high demand.

Prices are so high that some restaurants removed lobsters from their menus rather than charging $100. Washingtonian notes that the current high prices are likely to be the norm for another month, then a new Canadian lobster fishing season starts and supplies will increase, driving prices down.

We’ll be back Monday 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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