July 14, 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 White House has a new plan to protect against BA.5, a subvariant of the omicron variant of the coronavirus that is now responsible for a majority of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

The plan didn’t cause much of a stir because it is pretty much the same as the old plan. The plan promises easy access to tests and vaccines. It promises easy access to boosters and anti-viral medications. And it promises a lot of free tests:

To help ensure that Americans have tests on hand if a need arises, the Administration opened COVIDtests.gov for a third round of ordering ahead of the summer, meaning that 16 free tests have been made available to each household since the launch of the program. To ensure equitable access for visually-impaired individuals, the Administration has also made available more accessible at-home tests to households with visually-impaired individuals.

The “new” plan also promises lots of free high-quality masks but does not suggest mandatory masking.

Biden administration warns pharmacists who refuse to fill orders for contraception or abortion medication

Politico reports:

Senior Biden administration officials announced Wednesday that they are reminding tens of thousands of pharmacies around the country that they risk violating civil rights laws if they refuse to fill orders for contraception or abortion medication or discriminate based on a person’s pregnancy status.

The action comes a few weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and gave more than a dozen states a green light to ban abortion, and aims to respond to a wave of reports that pharmacies in those states are refusing to not only fill prescriptions for abortion and contraception pills but also other medications that they speculate could be used off-label to terminate a pregnancy.

A jumbo-sized Fed rate hike could be near

The new 9.1% consumer inflation rate stirred concerns enough Wednesday that there is widespread talk that the Federal Reserve may try to shock the economy in one move to make enough of a difference. It could be as high as a full percentage point increase, which will reverberate across mortgage and credit card rates and, eventually, commercial loan and car loan rates. Bloomberg reports:

The persistent inflation comes after the Fed raised its policy rate by 75 basis points in June, the biggest increase since 1994, and tighter monetary policy is cooling rate-sensitive sectors of the economy like home sales. Another three-quarter-point increase in July was already priced into swap contracts before the CPI data; afterward, the contracts priced in the chances of an even bigger move.

Some members of Congress pushing student loan forgiveness have big loans themselves

The Daily Caller zeros in on a dozen Democrats in Congress who are pushing student loan forgiveness while they also are carrying loans of $15,000 to $300,000. As the story points out, “Biden’s plan would reportedly waive away a minimum of $10,000 per borrower. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has called on the president to cancel $50,000 of debt, but Biden claimed in April he is ‘not considering’ an amount that high.”

The most dangerous city sidewalks

Every year, a group called Smart Growth America ranks cities by how safe their sidewalks are for pedestrians. Here are the latest findings:

(Smart Growth America)

(Smart Growth America)

(Smart Growth America)

The lethal toll of hot prisons

In this May 9, 2011 file photo, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is seen in West Feliciana Parish, La. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

U.S. prisons are crowded, populations are aging, and climate change is overheating facilities. The Marshall Project reports that in many states, prisons are not air-conditioned, and some lawmakers have said outright that it is fine with them if the prisons stay that way. About 80% of the 150,000 people living in Texas prisons today have no A.C., even while courts in Arizona, Wisconsin and Mississippi have sided with imprisoned people to lower facility temperatures.

The Vera Institute says Texas estimated it would cost $5 million to install air conditioning in one prison, then spent $7 million on a legal fight to avoid installing it. Vera says:

Texas is not alone in forcing people to endure extreme heat in prisons. Many states, including most states in the South, lack universal air conditioning in prisons. Reports dating back decades demonstrate that incarcerated people and staff in California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, and elsewhere have been trying to get departments of corrections to address the issue. Now, as global temperatures rise, climate projections only look worse, as places unaccustomed to hot, humid weather will experience severe temperatures more frequently.

Take, for example, the blistering heat dome that engulfed the Pacific Northwest last summer. When temperatures in Oregon reached 117 degrees, people in its state prisons—some of which lack functioning central air—had few options to cool down and even lacked drinking water. At Washington State Penitentiary, dozens of people spent 23 hours a day locked in their cells in the Hole, the prison’s solitary confinement unit, even as the air conditioning stopped working and temperatures soared.

Prisons were unprepared then, and little has been done since (Washington’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds released a report with recommendations that have largely been neglected). Meanwhile, as another record-breaking summer carries on, the high temperatures are especially dangerous for incarcerated people who may be older, have preexisting medical conditions like asthma or diabetes, or whose health has been impacted by COVID-19 (which has raged behind bars). Certain medications—like psychotropics, which treat some mental health conditions—have side effects that can also make people ill in high heat.

A 2017 investigation by The Marshall Project and The Weather Channel found:

A growing segment of the incarcerated population is especially heat-sensitive. Jails and prisons house an increasing number of people with mental illness; as many as one in five Texas prisoners are prescribed psychotropic medications, which make the body more vulnerable to heat. A similar number receive blood pressure drugs, which can cause the same problem. And the rise of longer sentences in the 1980s and 90s has produced a surge of older prisoners, who are particularly susceptible to heat illnesses.

There is a way to prevent heat stroke in prison, of course: cooling the facilities during the hottest months. But in most states, there’s little political will to do so. On its corrections department website, Florida lists the availability of air-conditioning as one of many “misconceptions” about its prison system, along with cable television. “We couldn’t afford to do it if we wanted to,” State Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee, told an interviewer in 2011 about air-conditioning in prisons. “But number one we just don’t want to.” Whitmire, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for comment.

The article points to a 2015 Columbia Law School report that said prisoners often live without air-conditioning in areas where temperatures exceed 100 degrees for days at a time and where the heat index, which records how hot it feels with humidity, has hit 150 degrees.

Even if you don’t care about the health of imprisoned people, keep in mind that close to 400,000 people work in prisons and jails in the United States.

The times in which we live

A tweet from an Ohio emergency room doctor:

The Cook Partisan Voting Index: how every district leans now

Since 1997, this index has shown how Democratic or Republican each Congressional district leans in presidential politics based on previous voting cycles and compared to the nation as a whole. The latest edition of the index just came out.

33 children and youths are hurt in farm accidents daily in the US

The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety just published a report that says farming is the deadliest and most dangerous job for young people in America. Here are a few of the findings, which are not all that surprising to those of us who grew up in farm communities.

(The National Children’s Center for Rural and Agriculture Health and Safety)

Here is the better news: Generally, farm injuries to young people are in decline. Maybe it is because there are fewer kids on farms? The study says, “The number of large farms is increasing, small- to mid-size farms are decreasing, and life-style farms (with children) are increasing.”

Heated car seats that require a monthly subscription

The company logo shines off the hood of a used 2016 M4 coupe outside a BMW dealership Sunday, Sept. 12, 2021, in Highlands Ranch, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Remember the good old days when, if you had the luxury of heated car seats, you didn’t have to pay a monthly fee to warm your backside? Several news outlets in South Korea report that BMW is trying to charge $18 a month to unlock software that enables heated seats in cars.

It seems like if you pay $60,00 to $85,000 for a car, you should be able to own the heated seats.

BMW says it has not decided for sure if it is going to keep trying this idea, but The Verge reports:

BMW has slowly been putting features behind subscriptions since 2020, and heated seats subs are now available in BMW’s digital stores in countries including the UK, Germany, New Zealand, and South Africa. It doesn’t, however, seem to be an option in the US — yet.

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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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