January 12, 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.

Parents are asking reasonable questions about whether classrooms are as safe against the spread of COVID-19 as they could be considering the federal government sent billions of dollars to local schools to upgrade ventilation and filtration.

As is the case when huge amounts of money quickly leave federal doors, it is difficult to nail down exactly where it all is going … or already went. This is one investigation that almost has to come from local journalists, wherever you are. ProPublica found:

In the year and a half since millions of children were sent home, the Education Department has done only limited tracking of how the money has been spent. That has left officials in Washington largely in the dark about how effective the aid has been in helping students, especially those whose schools and communities were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

Provisional annual reports submitted to the federal government by state education agencies underscored the dearth of clear, detailed data. Agencies classified how the funds were spent using six very broad categories, including technology and sanitization. According to a ProPublica analysis of more than 16,000 of the reports covering March 2020 to September 2020, just over half of the $3 billion in aid was categorized as “other,” providing no insight into how the funds were allocated.

In the absence of a centralized and detailed federal tracking system, the monitoring of relief funds flowing to the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts has largely been left to states. Some districts have been found to be spending their federal funds on projects seemingly at odds with the spirit of the aid program, such as track and field facilities and bleachers.

As you search for accountability, focus on March 2020 to March 2021, but know that school districts have until 2024 to spend all of the federal funds. States are supposed to track the spending but may still not have the systems in place to do so. The Office of the Inspector General has been warning that schools need to start tracking spending more closely. Long before this huge slug of federal dollars entered the pipeline, investigators opened more than 200 criminal investigations and more than 140 whistleblowers had suffered reprisals.

Already, ProPublica says, some of the money that schools could use to make their classrooms safer and improve learning has been spent on athletic stadiums, football field turf and tracks. An Associated Press story found:

One Wisconsin school district built a new football field. In Iowa, a high school weight room is getting a renovation. Another in Kentucky is replacing two outdoor tracks — all of this funded by the billions of dollars in federal pandemic relief Congress sent to schools this year.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said every dollar of pandemic relief spent on sports could be used to expand tutoring, reduce class sizes and take other steps to help students who are struggling academically.

“Can these districts show that all their kids are ready to graduate at the end of this year — college- and career-ready?” she said. “If not, then stop the construction. Stop it right now.”

The AP story says some schools didn’t spend the pandemic relief funds directly on athletics but instead used it to pay regular school bills and used school funds to pay for athletics upgrades in a budgetary sleight-of-hand.

If you want to see what states could do to make their pandemic stimulus spending more transparent, look at Georgia’s ESSER funding dashboard website. It lists spending by school district and shows the status of each project. You will see spending lines listed for things such as school nurses and bonuses for teachers.

There’s a national blood crisis

For the first time, the Red Cross has declared a national “blood crisis.”

COVID-19, of course, is the key reason, as people don’t show up for appointments to donate and there is a staff shortage at blood centers. The Red Cross said there was a 34% decline in new donors last year. Some blood centers have less than a one-day supply of some blood types.

The Red Cross plea said, “If the nation’s blood supply does not stabilize soon, life-saving blood may not be available for some patients when it is needed.”

Here are 10 facts about blood from the Red Cross:

  1. 4.5 million Americans will a need blood transfusion each year.
  2. 43,000 pints: amount of donated blood used each day in the U.S. and Canada.
  3. Someone needs blood every two seconds.
  4. Only 37 percent of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood – less than 10 percent do annually.
  5. About one in seven people entering a hospital need blood.
  6. One pint of blood can save up to three lives.
  7. Healthy adults who are at least 17 years old, and at least 110 pounds may donate about a pint of blood – the most common form of donation – every 56 days, or every two months. Females receive 53 percent of blood transfusions; males receive 47 percent.
  8. 94 percent of blood donors are registered voters.
  9. Children being treated for cancer, premature infants and children having heart surgery need blood and platelets from donors of all types, especially type O.
  10. Cancer, transplant and trauma patients, and patients undergoing open-heart surgery may require platelet transfusions to survive.

Why don’t we have artificial blood by now?

For as long as I have been a reporter (and trust me, that is a long time), I have done a story about a blood shortage seemingly every year. Not long ago, there were stories about big hopes for artificial blood, a substitute that would make blood drives obsolete. What happened?

Experts at Stanford say scientists have looked for a blood substitute for hundreds of years and they still do not have one.

One artificial blood that shows promise can be reduced to a freeze-dried powder. It is called ErythroMer, and only a few years ago a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis was hopeful that it could be useful on battlefields. It would be easy to transport and store.

The researchers hope that they can soon try the blood powder on humans, perhaps even this year.

Another project is trying to perfect freeze-dried platelets. Blood platelets are notoriously difficult to store, so there has to be a constant source of donors for platelets, which are essential to cancer therapy. There are also efforts to create synthetic platelets.

Take a look at this research that mentions artificial blood and platelet research in Maryland, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Massachusetts.

We have gotten so consumed by COVID-19 (rightfully) that lots of other important research falls off our radar. But artificial blood research has the promise of solving a life-saving challenge as old as humans.

New CDC guidance on masks could come soon

Face masks are stacked before getting technical information printed on them at a new factory in Mexico City, Thursday, May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

The word around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is that soon, maybe very soon, the agency may recommend that people upgrade masks to more protective N95 or KN95 varieties. Until now, the CDC has said, “CDC recommends that specially labeled ‘surgical’ N95 respirators should be prioritized for healthcare personnel.”

The Washington Post said that deliberations are underway to change the guidance, but the CDC wants to be sure there are enough of the masks available before telling people to switch to the N95 grade protection. After all, anybody who goes near the president of the United States is given an N95 mask.

Recently, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky refused to recommend N95 masks, saying that N95s are too uncomfortable for some people, and some people would just abandon masks completely if the CDC pressed for their use. “They’re very hard to breathe in when you wear them properly,” Walensky said. “They’re very hard to tolerate when you wear them for long periods of time.”

Researchers at Max Planck Institutes in Germany estimated how different masks and fits of masks affect the likelihood that an infected person might infect another after 20 minutes of close contact. Even with a substandard quality mask with a loose fit, the chances are low. But with a KN95 mask that fits tightly, the risk is much lower still, according to the study.

Axios put the findings on a graphic. The blue mask is one of those cheap paper masks. The gray and green ones are N95s. The key difference is the highest performer has a nosepiece that fits around your face.

(Axios)

One thing the study points out is that the fit of the mask may be the most important factor.

(Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization)

This study did not include cloth masks although, in general, they are less effective than surgical masks. The German study also found, “Three meters are not enough to ensure protection. Even at that distance, it takes less than five minutes for an unvaccinated person standing in the breath of a person with Covid-19 to become infected with almost 100 percent certainty.”

Here is the CDC’s advice on what you should know about N95s:

  • Filter up to 95% of particles in the air when approved by NIOSH and proper fit can be achieved
  • Seal tightly to the face when fitted properly
  • Since N95 respirators form a seal to the face, they may feel harder to breathe through than a cloth mask
  • N95 respirators cannot be washed. They need to be discarded when they are dirty, damaged, or difficult to breathe through
  • N95 respirators tend to be more expensive than masks

Wear an N95 with

  • Cup, flat fold, or duck bill shape
  • Two straps that go around the head
  • Formable wire nose bridge
  • Appropriate markings printed on the filter indicating the N95 respirator has been approved by NIOSH

Do NOT wear an N95

So the question remains: Why is the CDC not recommending KN95 masks if ample research shows that they offer greater protection and there is no shortage of masks?

Are anti-vaxxers getting punked into drinking urine?

The Guardian points to news that anti-vaxxers are touting urine as a new COVID-19 “cure,” which makes me wonder if somebody is just punking vaccine opponents:

Over the weekend, Christopher Key, the leader of an anti-Covid-19 vaccine group called the “Vaccine Police”, posted videos online extolling the health benefits of what he described as “urine therapy”. According to the wizard of wee, there is “tons and tons of research … [and] peer-reviewed published papers on urine”; so, if you do your own pee-search you will discover it is God’s own antidote to Covid-19. “This vaccine is the worst bioweapon I have ever seen,” Key said. “I drink my own urine!”

Who knows what “research” this guy is pointing to, but it is true that COVID-19 can be traced in urine and researchers are interested in biomarkers that show up in urine as a way to predict severe COVID-19 illness. But, as you know, urine samples are useful in detecting a lot of human problems. Drinking it is another matter entirely.

For my money, this is tied with yesterday’s item about Norway forcing new military recruits to wear used underwear as the grossest COVID-19 story of the week — not that we are shooting for that goal.

Big acts are seeing lots of no-shows in the audience

George Strait Performs at Mercedes Benz Stadium on Friday, November 5, 2021, in Atlanta. (Photo by Robb Cohen/Invision/AP)

Concert promoters say one in five people who buy expensive tickets to big concerts are not showing up. They say it is really unusual and it is another pandemic-era trend. The Wall Street Journal says before the pandemic, maybe 2% of ticketholders would fail to show up. The Journal reports:

Somewhat predictably, the likelihood of no-shows increases with concerts that have been postponed and rescheduled multiple times. Changing a performance date can naturally create conflicts for fans who can no longer attend, but the numbers seem to indicate that continued apprehension about large events amid COVID’s ongoing outbreak is the most likely reason for a decrease in attendance.

“It’s going to take time to get back to what I think is normal,” John Meglen, president and co-chief executive officer of Concerts West, explained, pointing to reschedule shows multiplying by “maybe two, three times, maybe four, I don’t know how many, by Covid.”

While ticket sales often carry the biggest sticker price, concert attendees usually spend money on things like food, drinks, parking and merchandise. These income sources go away when fans no-show, and it’s often the venues themselves that feel the biggest hit.

Observations from the real world

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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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