June 7, 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.

As COVID-19 spreads fast (again) and gasoline prices rise, bosses are becoming less enchanted with employees who want to keep working from home. Before the pandemic, about 5% of American employees worked from home. During the pandemic, the number rose to a third of the workforce.

Axios managing editor for business Javier E. David reports:

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that Zoom and Webex aren’t substitutes for in-person dynamics that bridge communication gaps, foster creativity and help build careers.

The convenience of hybrid working is being tempered by limits of virtual collaboration, which empirical data has now started to identify.

Last year, researchers at the University of Chicago published a study of 17,000 workers’ experiences over a year and a half. The study found that employees worked more hours, many of which came outside normal office hours. Meanwhile, productivity declined: “We estimate that productivity declined by 8-19%. These results are consistent with employees becoming less productive during work from home (WFH) and working longer hours to try to compensate.” The study also found:

Employees with children at home had a greater decline in productivity than those without, but even those without suffered productivity losses.

Moreover, women were more negatively affected by WFH than men, but this gender difference was not due to the presence of children in the home. We conjecture that it might be due to other demands placed on women in the domestic setting while working from home.

Employees with lower company tenure decreased output slightly during WFH, whereas output remained about the same for those with longer tenure. This is separate from age or experience effects. This suggests that employees who are more adapted to firm culture and processes are better able to perform in WFH, where there is no colleague at the next desk for quick help or advice.

WFH also affected working patterns in substantial ways. Employees spent more time participating in various types of meetings, but less time in personal meetings with their manager or receiving coaching. They engaged in fewer contacts with colleagues inside and outside of the firm.

At the same time, they had less “focus time,” i.e., uninterrupted time to perform tasks. All of these factors were significantly correlated with the productivity changes due to WFH. These were not temporary adjustments to a switch to WFH but persisted over time. These findings suggest that increased coordination costs during WFH at least partially explain the drop in productivity.

A study of workers at Microsoft found:

The shift to firm-wide remote work caused business groups within Microsoft to become less interconnected. It also reduced the number of ties bridging structural holes in the company’s informal collaboration network and caused individuals to spend less time collaborating with the bridging ties that remained.

Furthermore, the shift to firm-wide remote work caused employees to spend a greater share of their collaboration time with their stronger ties, which are better suited to information transfer, and a smaller share of their time with weak ties, which are more likely to provide access to new information.

The study of Microsoft workers found that in-person conversations were not replaced by live Zoom meetings or phone calls. Instead, live, real-time conversations were replaced by instant messages and emails. The study found that collaboration and personal connectivity suffered.

Even if employers would like to push workers back to the offices, the scramble to find employees to hire gives workers more power to negotiate for working from home.

By the way, a few thousand Brits are trying out a six-month experiment to work four days a week to see if they can keep up the productivity of a five-day schedule.

Why gyms are potential COVID hot spots

A new study published by German scientists found when people are performing high-intensity workouts at a gym, they emit 132 times as many aerosols per minute as a person at rest. And just as working out means more emitting, it also means more inhaling.

Researchers said it just makes sense that gyms should make a stronger effort to increase ventilation and spacing and insist on masking and vaccination. And, the researchers said, it would be a good idea to space out exercise classes so a room has a 15-minute break to allow time for air to circulate.

Dogs are very good at detecting COVID-19 — even better than some test kits

Fantasy forever vom Seethalblick, a Belgian shepherd sniffer dog from the Austrian army trained to detect COVID-19, is presented at a press conference in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

A new French study found that specially trained dogs are very good at detecting humans who are infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Researchers put samples from 335 adults in front of the dogs. (See photos of how they did the testing.) 143 of the people were showing COVID-19 symptoms, while 192 were not. 109 of the people tested positive for the virus. The COVID-sniffing dogs detected 97% of positive cases and they found 100% of the cases that were positive and symptomatic.

That led researchers to make this eye-opening claim: “The sensitivity of canine detection was higher than that of nasopharyngeal antigen testing.”  The researchers added, “Non-invasive detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection by canine olfaction could be one alternative to NPS RT-PCR when it is necessary to obtain a result very quickly according to the same indications as antigenic tests in the context of mass screening.”

Science News adds more context:

In the study, dogs from French fire stations and from the Ministry of the Interior of the United Arab Emirates were trained in coronavirus detection by rewarding them with toys — usually tennis balls. “It’s playtime for them,” Grandjean says. It takes about three to six weeks, depending on the dog’s experience with odor detection, to train a dog to pick out COVID-19 cases from sweat samples.

The dogs then sniffed cones housing sweat samples collected from human volunteers’ underarms. Swabbing the sweat off the back of people’s necks or giving the woofers a whiff of used face masks worked just as well, Grandjean says.

Those results indicate that odors from multiple body sites can be used for canine screening, says Kenneth Furton, a forensic chemist at Florida International University in Miami who was not involved in the study.

The newest research tracks well with previous studies that found dogs can be trained to detect the virus within weeks.

Drones with tasers for schools? ‘A crackpot idea.’

The Associated Press reports, “Taser developer Axon said this week it is working to build drones armed with the electric stunning weapons that could fly in schools and ‘help prevent the next Uvalde, Sandy Hook, or Columbine.’” The company makes Tasers and has been kicking around the drone stun-gun idea for some time but has been waived off by its own ethics board. The AP story continues:

“This particular idea is crackpot,” said Barry Friedman, a New York University law professor who sits on the Axon AI Ethics Board. “Drones can’t fly through closed doors. The physical properties of the universe still hold. So, unless you have a drone in every single classroom in America, which seems insane, the idea just isn’t going to work.”

Friedman said it was a “dangerous and fantastical idea” that went far beyond the proposal for a Taser-equipped police drone that board members — some of them former or current police officials — had been debating in recent months.

“We begged the company not to do it,” Friedman said of the company’s announcement. “It was unnecessary and shameful.”

Why are Americans more likely to die in traffic crashes than Europeans?

University of Maryland researcher John Rennie Short finds:

In 1994, Europe and the United States had the same traffic death rates, but by 2020 Americans were over three times more likely to die on the road than Europeans.

Today, 12 people are killed in traffic per 100,000 annually in the U.S., compared to 4 per 100,000 in the Netherlands and Germany, and only 2 per 100,000 in Norway. The difference reflects more aggressive programs across Europe to reduce speeds, greater investment in mass transit and stricter drunk driving enforcement.

The U.S. doesn’t just lag behind other rich countries in promoting road safety. In recent years, traffic deaths in the U.S. have increased. After a gradual reduction over 50 years, fatalities soared to a 16-year high in 2021 when almost 43,000 people died. Pedestrian deaths hit a 40-year high at 7,500.

But why did traffic fatalities increase during the pandemic when there were fewer cars on the road? The answer, Short says, is that drivers took more risks behind the wheel, including driving faster, not wearing seat belts and driving while impaired. And there were other factors:

Cyclist and pedestrian traffic deaths were rising even before the pandemic, as cities encouraged walking and biking without providing adequate infrastructure.

Short says we took often describe traffic fatalities as “accidents” when they are hardly accidental. He added that if we did not accept traffic fatalities as inevitable, we would insist on changes, even if they are unpopular:

That will mean protecting motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians from vehicular traffic and reducing traffic speed on urban roads. It also will require better road design, enforcement of traffic laws that make the roads safer, and more effective and enforceable measures that promote safety devices like seat belts, child restraints, and helmets for bikers and motorcyclists.

The tough life of truckers

A trucker drives on Interstate 40 near Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. Global supply chain shortages continue as high demand has brought goods shortages to the U.S. and much of the world. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The pandemic has taught us a thing or two about the fragile nature of our supply chain system in the United States, and truck drivers are the hub of that system. The New York Times outlines the ways that we make it difficult for truckers to stay on the road. On one hand, we want drivers to be well-rested. On the other, we don’t have anywhere near enough safe places for them to pull over and sleep:

The United States has a huge shortage of truck parking spaces. According to the American Trucking Associations, over 98 percent of truck drivers have reported having difficulty finding safe parking. If no spots are available in designated areas, truckers have to improvise, spending their nights sleeping in potentially unsafe or illegal locations, like vacant lots or highway on-ramps.

For truckers, a good night’s sleep is essential. Driving a truck is incredibly dangerous, and tired drivers exacerbate the problem. In 2020, 4,842 large trucks were involved in fatal crashes — and 107,000 in crashes that resulted in injury. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, fatigue is a factor in around 13 percent of truck crashes.

Has gasoline really lost its odor?

TikTok users are convinced that something has changed with gasoline. It all started with user @youngvec’s video, and 8.4 million views later, others want to know whether the odor of gasoline is different for some reason.

@yungvecWhat is really goin on??♬ original sound – Cafuné

Some people wondered if COVID-19 has cost us all our sense of smell. Others said they suspected gasoline was being diluted with alcohol.  Neither is likely.

I want to forward a theory that the difference is in how we fuel vehicles today. Newer cars and trucks come with anti-siphon systems that make it more difficult to steal gasoline but also don’t allow fumes to escape as readily while fueling up. These systems are called “anti-rollover valves” and keep vehicles involved in crashes from leaking fuel. If any of you journalists talk with a real expert who can definitively answer this, drop me a note. Caution: Do not do this story by sticking your nose down a gas tank. It is dangerous.

What are you actually smelling when you smell gasoline odor?

Gasoline is a mixture of around 150 chemicals. The odor you smell when you sniff gasoline fumes comes from benzene. It is oddly attractive to humans, so much so that benzene was used as an after-shave additive a century ago.

Carl Engelking explained in Discover Magazine why the smell can be pleasing to some people:

Our nose can evoke powerful, vivid memories if it catches a familiar scent. The smell of pine needles may take you back to summer camp, a roasting turkey transports you decades in time to grandma’s house for the holidays. This powerful connection between scent and memory is sometimes called the Proust phenomenon, a nod to French author Marcel Proust, who eloquently described a potent memory of childhood evoked by the smell of a madeleine biscuit dipped in tea.

But the link is more than literary. Smell is the only sense that doesn’t pass through the thalamus before reaching the forebrain. The thalamus functions as an operator switchboard of sorts, connecting sensory inputs from our eyes, ears, tongue and touch to the right parts of the brain so we can register and make sense of them. But scent bypasses this switchboard entirely, in favor of a direct line. What’s more, the bundle of nerves that detects scent molecules, the olfactory bulb, has a high density of connections near the amygdala and hippocampus, which are involved in emotional response and memory formation, respectively.

That’s why smells make our brains form strong, emotionally salient memories and at a subconscious level.

And yes, inhaling gasoline can be addictive.

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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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