None of us will forget those early, terrifying months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were no vaccines. No one knew what to do, so we all masked up. I was so careful that if I was hiking in the woods and saw someone approaching, I’d quickly put on my bandana and hope they’d do the same. What did we know? I mean, we had friends who had their groceries delivered to their garage and wouldn’t touch them for several days.
These days, the fear has subsided for those of us who are healthy and fully vaxxed. People are still dying unnecessarily of COVID, but mask mandates are pretty much behind us. I still wear a mask on public transportation but nowhere else.
So I read with great interest recently that a new report shows mask mandates did not work. Yasmin Tayag wrote about it in The Atlantic on Feb. 13. The report — “a rigorous assessment of 78 studies” — showed that there was no difference in the COVID rate when the general population wore masks, whether they were cloth or high-grade N95s.
Yet what the report actually found was complicated and easily misunderstood and/or mis-explained by the media. The paper wasn’t saying that masking doesn’t work — it was saying that mandates don’t work at the community level. In other words, if you are wearing a high-quality mask and making sure that it fits properly, you are doing a decent job of protecting yourself from others. It’s just that too many people weren’t masking, or weren’t wearing a proper mask, for it to make much difference at the population level. Tayag wrote:
The population-level detail is important: It indicates uncertainty about whether requiring everyone to wear a mask makes a difference in viral spread. This is different from the impact of individual masking, which has been better researched. Doctors, after all, routinely mask when they’re around sick patients and do not seem to be infected more often than anyone else. “We have fairly decent evidence that masks can protect the wearer,” Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told me. “Where I think it sort of falls apart is relating that to the population level.”
Naturally, such nuances get obliterated by bad-faith commentators — like Bret Stephens of The New York Times, who writes today that the study shows masking doesn’t work, period, and that those who pushed for mandates should apologize. Stephens does include a to-be-sure paragraph acknowledging that individual mask-wearing may make sense, but he blows right past it, writing:
Those skeptics who were furiously mocked as cranks and occasionally censored as “misinformers” for opposing mandates were right. The mainstream experts and pundits who supported mandates were wrong. In a better world, it would behoove the latter group to acknowledge their error, along with its considerable physical, psychological, pedagogical and political costs.
No. The “misinformers” claimed that masking itself didn’t work, and that we were killing ourselves by breathing our own carbon dioxide. Stephens knows this, I assume, but he’s more than happy to let us confuse mandates-don’t-work with masking-doesn’t-work, and to elide the reality that universal masking probably would have worked if everyone wore high-quality masks over their mouths and noses rather than their chins.
I’ve never been all-in on masking. As I said, I continue to mask up on public transportation, but nowhere else. And I always enjoy seeing a cyclist wearing a mask but not a helmet, which is truly a cosmically hilarious misunderstanding of risk. But there is good reason to think that if you wear a proper mask properly that you’ll reduce your chances of getting COVID.
Last month I criticized an opinion piece by David Wallace-Wells in The New York Times for failing to pull together two lines of statistics about the elderly and COVID-19. Yes, the death rate among those 80 and older remains very high, but we don’t have a clear sense of how many of those who died had received the bivalent booster, the best protection available against serious illness and death.
Today we run into a similar problem in The Boston Globe, although at least reporter Felice J. Freyer doesn’t make any opinionated assertions for which she lacks data. Freyer reports that the COVID death rate in Massachusetts is jumping up again. In a chart that accompanies her story, we learn that the latest death rate is now 62.14 per 100,000 cases. Of the 129 deaths, 76.8% were 80 and older, and 15.9% were between 70 and 79. The rate among those 29 and younger was zero.
We also learn from Freyer’s reporting that 59% of Massachusetts residents 65 and older have received the bivalent booster, a much higher proportion than the 38% who’ve received it in the country as a whole. That is to our credit.
But here’s where the twain never meets. What we would really like to know, more than anything, is how many of those elderly people in Massachusetts who are dying of COVID are also among the 41% who didn’t receive the bivalent booster. We can be reasonably sure that the death rate among the unboosted elderly is higher than it is for those who’ve been boosted. But how much higher? Does anyone know?
This kind of fuzziness drives me crazy. David Wallace-Wells, writing in his New York Times newsletter, is rightly concerned that the death rate from COVID-19 remains high among the elderly, which he defines roughly as those 80 and older. And he notes that 94% of Americans 65 and older have been vaccinated.
He puts it this way: “If it was ever comfortable to say that the unconscionable levels of American deaths were a pandemic of the unvaccinated, it is surely now accurate to describe the ongoing toll as a pandemic of the old.” His message, not clearly stated (there is little that’s clear about this piece), is that vaccines are not protecting the elderly from dying from COVID, which is a pretty serious assertion.
But what does he mean by “vaccinated”? Farther down he writes of the high death rate among the elderly:
It is also partly a reflection of how many fewer Americans, including older ones, have gotten boosters than got the initial vaccines: 34 percent, compared with 69 percent. The number of those who have gotten updated bivalent boosters is lower still — just 12.7 percent of Americans over the age of 5.
So is getting fully boosted, including with the bivalent vaccine, decent protection against death and serious illness among the elderly or isn’t it? He doesn’t say, and he probably doesn’t know. I’m guessing that the 94% figure he cites means “fully vaccinated,” which is defined as two shots. As we know, that’s not very protective. At this point, I’ve had four shots plus a mild case of COVID for a total of five immunity-boosting events.
This NBC News story by Aria Bendix is more helpful. Analyzing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bendix reports that 85% of people who died of COVID in November were 65 and older, but only 31% of that age group had received a bivalent booster. Here, too, though, we have two different numbers passing in the night: We don’t know what the death rate was among elderly people who had gotten the bivalent shot. That’s the key fact, right?
This is important, because COVID is both serious business and the subject of ongoing fear-mongering among those who envision all of us wearing masks forever. (I’m not anti-mask; I wear one on public transportation.) What Wallace-Wells establishes is that the elderly, despite vaccines, are dying of COVID at a frighteningly high rate. What he doesn’t establish is whether that’s a consequence of them not getting the bivalent booster.
As Wallace-Wells notes, the elderly don’t get as much protection from vaccines in general because their immune systems are less active. Still, an 80-year-old who’s had the bivalent booster is surely less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID if they’ve received the bivalent booster than if they’ve only had the first two shots. How much less likely? Who knows?
My wonderful Northeastern intermediate reporting students have produced a terrific story on urban biking for The Scope, our School of Journalism’s digital publication covering issues related to social justice.
Here’s how we did it. Eleven of the 14 students interviewed experts, policymakers and ordinary cyclists, combining all of their notes onto one Google Doc. One student took photos. Two contributed research. Each of them wrote a story based on everyone’s notes. Finally, I pulled together an article from several of their stories.
Like many organizations not dependent on face-to-face contact with the public, The Boston Globe has delayed bringing its employees back to the office. Several attempts have been made in the past, only to be set aside in response to a new COVID-19 surge.
Those days now appear to be over. Starting Tuesday, Sept. 20, non-production employees have been told to report for in-person work. Most employees, including journalists, will be expected to come in Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with the option of working at home on Mondays and Fridays. This three-day schedule seems to be the new norm. It also coincides with the restoration of Orange Line service.
Here’s part of a memo sent to employees by Rodrigo Tajona, the Globe’s chief people officer:
I hope this note finds you safe and well. First of all, I would like to appreciate and recognize everything that each one of you has been doing for the company, before, during and post COVID. We understand that it hasn’t been easy, but we’ve managed to navigate through these unprecedented times by working together. This is a tremendous credit to each one of you and we are grateful in acknowledging these efforts.
During this time, when most of our non-production employees have been working from home, there’s no doubt that we have been executing positively towards achieving our goals as a company. However, there is also a clear sense that something is missing. We have welcomed over 200 new members of our community since the offices closed, and they haven’t had many opportunities to get to know their colleagues. There are follow-up conversations that don’t happen when a zoom window closes. The brainstorming and creative thinking that we need to continue to innovate as a modern media company is hindered by not being in the same room. The ability to learn from the expertise of our colleagues and to mentor newer colleagues is limited. And we have a civic duty to be part of the city that we cover. In the pages of the Globe, we have reported on the impact of closed offices on Boston. It is great to see that so many offices have returned, and our building at Exchange Place is bustling again.
We have had all of our BGMP [Boston Globe Media Partners] locations open for a while, and we have been happy to hear about the productive meetings and collaborations taking place in our beautiful offices. As we have communicated in Town Halls and in company memos, we are ready and thrilled to have employees return to the office on a regular schedule effective September 20th 2022.
The following guidelines have been taken into consideration, understanding that life happens and flexibility is important to each one of us:
Although the offices will be open every day, we expect employees and managers to follow a 3/2 hybrid schedule; Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, to be at the office. Mondays and Fridays are flexible for location. This gives us the benefit of having people in the office at the same time to get the most out of in-person time. Employees will be expected to work from the office typical office hours for their role, or in some exceptions as agreed upon with their individual managers (such schedule to be approved at the manager’s discretion).
We expect employees and managers to schedule meetings for employees to attend in-person at the office, versus having an employee at the office, attending a virtual meeting.
Individual requests to work remotely will be managed by department heads. Requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis, based on the nature of the job, department needs, and in accordance with collective bargaining agreements, where relevant….
While we have done our best to anticipate how best to help you with your return to work, we count on your unique experience to help us help other employees too. We’re very excited to receive your feedback, and to seek how to move forward together in the best possible way.
Please connect with your manager or HR, if you have any questions or comments.
COVID-19 has been the central reality of our lives for two years now. But the moment it became real is different for each of us.
For me, it was Wednesday, March 11, 2020. That was the day when Northeastern University, where I teach, announced it was shutting down; when fans were sent home in the midst of an NBA game after a player tested positive; and when then-President Donald Trump delivered a rambling, unnerving address that sent the Dow Jones futures tumbling.
So yes, that’s when we all began to take COVID-19 seriously. But we really had no idea of what was to come. I remember telling my students that I hoped we’d be back in person in a few weeks. Now here we are, two years later, and schools, workplaces, stores and the like are still not fully back to normal, though the situation is certainly far better than it once was.
The arc of our progression from hopefulness to humility can be traced in how Trump and President Joe Biden have spoken about the pandemic. Trump virtually never said an honest word when discussing COVID, telling us over and over during the final months of his presidency that it was no big deal.
Still, a statement he made on Feb. 27, 2020, stands out for its audacious mendacity. “It’s going to disappear,” he said. “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear. And from our shores, we — you know, it could get worse before it gets better. It could maybe go away. We’ll see what happens. Nobody really knows.”
Well, the miracle failed to materialize. By Election Day, nearly 233,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, and we still had nothing to protect ourselves except masks and social distancing.
If Trump’s optimism in the early days of the pandemic proved illusory, there were reasons to be hopeful a year later. Effective vaccines began coming online, and tens of millions of Americans rushed to get the shots. By the Fourth of July, President Joe Biden was cautiously hailing the return to something like normal.
“Don’t get me wrong, COVID-19 has not been vanquished,” he said. “We all know powerful variants have emerged, like the delta variant, but the best defense against these variants is to get vaccinated.” He added: “So, today, while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no longer controls our lives. It no longer paralyzes our nation. And it’s within our power to make sure it never does again.”
We all know what happened next. Delta proved to be far more contagious than the earlier forms of COVID-19. Combined with the maddening, inexplicable refusal among many Americans — disproportionately Trump supporters — to get vaccinated or even wear masks, we experienced a horrifying fall infection rate surge. And then it started to abate.
Until it didn’t.
We were riding home from a Thanksgiving visit with family when I saw a story on my phone about yet another COVID-19 variant, this one out of South Africa. Dubbed omicron, the variant proved to be wildly more contagious than delta, although it seemed to have welcome characteristics as well, such as causing milder illness. Still, omicron ripped through the population, even striking those who had been “triple-vaxxed,” though the rate of severe illness and death among that group was blessedly low.
So here we are again. Two years into the pandemic, we are older, sadder and wiser. The omicron surge has faded as rapidly as it began. But, as I write, some 959,000 Americans have now died of COVID, and the virus seems likely to be with us for years to come. A year ago, we might have exhaled in delight at the prospect of vaccinating our way out of all this. Now we’re just holding our breath.
“We will continue to combat the virus as we do other diseases. And because this is a virus that mutates and spreads, we will stay on guard,” Biden said cautiously in his State of the Union address last week. He added: “I cannot promise a new variant won’t come. But I can promise you we’ll do everything within our power to be ready if it does.”
That’s a long way from saying, as Trump did, that COVID-19 will miraculously “disappear.” It’s also a dialing back of the optimism Biden expressed last summer. But it’s realistic.
Unfortunately, the ongoing stresses caused by COVID-19 come amid other disorienting events. The economy is growing rapidly, but inflation is eating up wage gains. Political strife continues, with a sizable portion of the electorate claiming to believe Trump’s lies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The planet is still warming.
Looming over all of this is the terrible war being waged by Russia against Ukraine. We feel helpless as increasingly horrific images are beamed onto our televisions and digital devices.
Existence feels fragile. Looking back, it seems as though COVID-19 ushered in a new age of uncertainty. I hope we get through this together.
It was obvious to just about everyone that the media were going to face a challenging year after losing the artificial stimulant provided by the Trump presidency. “Will audience and revenue resume the downward track they had been on for years before Trump demanded everyone’s unwavering attention?” I asked last January.
The answer: Yes, indeed.
David Bauder of The Associated Press has pulled together the numbers. The situation is especially grim on cable news, where weekday prime-time viewership was down 38% at CNN, 34% at Fox News and 25% at MSNBC. (Fox still has by far the largest audience of the three.)
I’m not shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise. Cable news is bad for you. The formula at all three consists of keeping you riled up and angry so that you don’t change the channel. Fox adds weaponized right-wing propaganda about COVID, the Jan. 6 insurrection, critical race theory and more. So please, touch that dial.
Then again, everything’s down, not just cable news. Viewership of the three network evening newscasts — higher quality than their cable brethren — declined 12% to 14%. Unique monthly visitors to the websites of The New York Times and The Washington Post dropped — although paid digital subscriptions to the Times are up, and that’s the metric that really matters. The Post, on the other hand, reportedly dropped from about 3 million to 2.7 million digital subscriptions toward the end of the year.
None of these numbers is inherently bad. We were glued to the news to an unhealthy extent during Trump’s presidency, as we all wondered what demented action he was going to take next. Then, in 2020, we had COVID to deal with as well.
There is still plenty of news taking place. COVID remains with us, the Republican Party has gone full-bore authoritarian and Trump has never really gone away. But things are a bit calmer, if not necessarily calm.
With national news commanding fewer eyeballs, will some of that attention be diverted to local journalism? I’d like to hope so. But with hedge funds and corporate chains hollowing out hundreds of community newspapers, in a lot of places there just isn’t enough to command attention.
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I first heard about Roderick Topping’s Instagram photos of New Haven during the COVID shutdown (you’ll find him at @robobtop) from an interview he did with Babz Rawls Ivy on WNHH-LP. Topping shot a series of gloomy, moody pictures showing mostly abandoned cityscapes in an attempt to capture a historical moment that we all experienced, and that we still haven’t put entirely behind us.
Thirty-six of Topping’s photos are now on display at the New Haven Museum in an exhibit titled “Strange Times.” I had a chance to visit recently, viewing COVID photographs under COVID protocols — visitors are required to register ahead of time and masks must be worn throughout the building.
In the introductory text, Topping explains what he’s up to:
For the past year and half I’ve been walking the streets documenting this new reality in New Haven. These photographs focus on the structures, outlines, and topography that serve as the background to our daily lives. Many of the photos here are black and white, much how I think I’ll remember these days: bleak, lonely, and surreal.
There are some evocative images here. I particularly like one from January of this year, just before vaccines became widely available. A man sits alone on a park bench, at night, on New Haven Green. His back is to the camera. Center Church is directly in front of him. The story told by that photo is that human interaction was missing even when we were able to get outside.
Yet there are some odd choices here as well. For instance, Topping shows us a man standing alone at a bus stop during the daytime on Chapel Street. In viewing it, you start telling yourself that the scene would normally be crowded with people. Then you look at the date: Feb. 14, 2020, a moment when COVID was still just a rumor. So what exactly is Topping trying to convey?
There are also some photos taken as the city was opening up again, such as a group of diners sitting outdoors at a restaurant on Crown Street during July of this year.
Overall, “Strange Times” provides an illuminating look at downtown New Haven. Even if not every image fits in perfectly with the pandemic theme, the exhibit is worth your attention if you happen to find yourself in the New Haven area. And save some time for the rest of the museum as well.
Any reason The New York Times had to publish not one but two lengthy stories today on heartlanders who refuse to get vaccinated? One is from Ohio, the other from Oklahoma. If the Times has ever devoted a story of similar length and prominence to people who feel trapped in their homes because they’re surrounded by unvaxxed COVID carriers, well, I don’t remember it.
Hopes were running high when we all turned the calendar to 2021. Would the worst 12 months in anyone’s memory give way to the best year of our lives?
Not quite. Yes, it was better than 2020, but 2021 was hardly a return to paradise. The joy of vaccinations gave way to the reality that COVID-19 is likely to be with us for a long time. The economy recovered rapidly — accompanied by the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Worst of all, the end of the Trump presidency morphed into a crisis of democracy that is starting to look as ominous as the run-up to the Civil War.
During the past year, I’ve been struggling to make sense of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens through the prism of the media. Below are 10 of my GBH News columns from 2021. They’re in chronological order, with updates on many of the pieces posted earlier this year. If there’s a unifying theme, it’s that we’re in real trouble — but that, together, we can get through this.
• The end of the Trump bump, Jan. 27. Even as he was denouncing journalists as “enemies of the people,” Donald Trump, both before and during his presidency, was very, very good for the media. Cable TV ratings soared. The New York Times and The Washington Post signed up subscribers by the bucketload. Several weeks after Trump departed from the White House, though, there were questions about what would happen once he was gone. We soon got an answer. Even though Trump never really left, news consumption shrank considerably. That may be good for our mental health. But for media executives trying to make next quarter’s numbers, it was an unpleasant new reality.
• Local news in crisis, Feb. 23. The plague of hedge funds undermining community journalism continued unabated in 2021. The worst newspaper owner of them all, Alden Global Capital, acquired Tribune Publishing and its eight major-market papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. When the bid was first announced, there was at least some hope that one of those papers, The Baltimore Sun, would be spun off. Unfortunately, an epic battle between Alden and Baltimore hotel mogul Stewart Bainum resulted in Alden grabbing all of them. Bainum, meanwhile, is planning to launch a nonprofit website to compete with the Sun that will be called The Baltimore Banner.
• The devolution of Tucker Carlson, April 15. How did a stylish magazine writer with a libertarian bent reinvent himself as a white-supremacist Fox News personality in thrall to Trump and catering to dangerous conspiracy theories ranging from vaccines (bad) to the Jan. 6 insurrection (good)? There are millions of possible explanations, and every one of them has a picture of George Washington on it. Carlson got in trouble last spring — or would have gotten in trouble if anyone at Fox cared — when he endorsed “replacement theory,” a toxic trope that liberal elites are deliberately encouraging immigration in order to dilute the power of white voters. A multitude of advertisers have bailed on Carlson, but it doesn’t matter — Fox today makes most of its money from cable fees. And Carlson continues to spew his hate.
• How Black Lives Matter exposed journalism, May 26. A teenager named Darnella Frazier exposed an important truth about how reporters cover the police. The video she recorded of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin literally squeezing the life out of George Floyd as he lay on the pavement proved that the police lied in their official report of what led to Floyd’s death. For generations, journalists have relied on law enforcement as their principal — and often only — source for news involving the police. That’s no longer good enough; in fact, it was never good enough. Frazier won a Pulitzer Prize for her courageous truth-telling. And journalists everywhere were confronted with the reality that they need to change the way they do their jobs.
• The 24th annual New England Muzzle Awards, July 1. For 24 years, the Muzzle Awards have singled out enemies of free speech. The Fourth of July feature made its debut in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 and has been hosted by GBH News since 2013, the year that the Phoenix shut down. This year’s lead item was about police brutality directed at Black Lives Matter protesters in Boston and Worcester the year before — actions that had escaped scrutiny at the time but that were exposed by bodycam video obtained by The Appeal, a nonprofit news organization. Other winners of this dubious distinction included former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, retired Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz and the aforementioned Tucker Carlson, who unleashed his mob to terrorize two freelance journalists in Maine.
• How to help save local news, July 28. Since 2004, some 2,100 newspapers have closed, leaving around 1,800 communities across the country bereft of coverage. It’s a disaster for democracy, and the situation is only growing worse. The Local Journalism Sustainability Act, a bipartisan proposal to provide indirect government assistance in the form of tax credits for subscribers, advertisers and publishers, could help. The bill is hardly perfect. Among other things, it would direct funds to corporate chains as well as to independent operators, thus rewarding owners who are hollowing out their papers. Nevertheless, the idea may well be worth trying. At year’s end, the legislation was in limbo, but it may be revived in early 2022.
• Democracy in crisis, Sept. 29. As summer turned to fall, the media began devoting some serious attention to a truly frightening development: the deterioration of the Republican Party into an authoritarian tool of Trump and Trumpism, ready to hand the presidency back to their leader in 2024 through a combination of antidemocratic tactics. These include the disenfranchisement of Black voters through partisan gerrymandering, the passage of new laws aimed at suppressing the vote and the handing of state electoral authority over to Trump loyalists. With polls showing that a majority of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, it’s only going to get worse in the months ahead.
• Exposing Facebook’s depravity, Oct. 27. The social media giant’s role in subverting democracy in the United States and fomenting chaos and violence around the world is by now well understood, so it takes a lot to rise to the level of OMG news. Frances Haugen, though, created a sensation. The former Facebook executive leaked thousands of documents to the Securities and Exchange Commission and spoke out — at first anonymously, in The Wall Street Journal, and later on “60 Minutes” and before a congressional committee. Among other things, the documents showed that Facebook’s leaders were well aware of how much damage the service’s algorithmic amplification of conspiracy theories and hate speech was causing. By year’s end, lawyers for Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were using the documents to sue Facebook for $150 billion, claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and company had whipped up a campaign of rape and murder.
• COVID-19 and the new normal, Nov. 17. By late fall, the optimism of June and July had long since given way to the reality of delta. I wrote about my own experience of trying to live as normally as possible — volunteering at Northeastern University’s long-delayed 2020 commencement and taking the train for a reporting trip in New Haven. Now, of course, we are in the midst of omicron. The new variant may prove disastrous, or it may end up being mild enough that it’s just another blip on our seemingly endless pandemic journey. In any case, omicron was a reminder — as if we needed one — that boosters, masking and testing are not going away any time soon.
• How journalism is failing us, Dec. 7. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank created a sensation when he reported the results of a content analysis he had commissioned. The numbers showed that coverage of President Joe Biden from August to November 2021 was just as negative, if not more so, than coverage of then-President Trump had been during the same four-month period a year earlier. Though some criticized the study’s methodology, it spoke to a very real problem: Too many elements of the media are continuing to cover Trump and the Republicans as legitimate political actors rather than as what they’ve become: malign forces attempting to subvert democracy. The challenge is to find ways to hold Biden to account while avoiding mindless “both sides” coverage and false equivalence.
A year ago at this time we may have felt a sense of optimism that proved to be at least partly unrealistic. Next year, we’ll have no excuses — we know that COVID-19, the economy and Trumpism will continue to present enormous challenges. I hope that, at the end of 2022, we can all say that we met those challenges successfully.
Finally, my thanks to GBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2022.