Briefing for August 18-20, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

Briefing for August 18-20, 2021 on COVID-19 and Low-Income Communities

We are struck that one of the few certainties about the coronavirus outbreak is that low-income communities and workers in low-income, service sector occupations will be disproportionately impacted — likely in devastating fashion.

One step in combatting this will be to share information about what is happening and what can be done. That’s why we are offering a daily news service summarizing relevant stories, which you can read below.

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Briefing for August 20, 2021

If the unvaccinated want to work, they face a number of hurdles: Kaiser Health News reports: “With the Delta variant surging, a growing number of employers are tiring of merely cajoling workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and are following President Joe Biden’s protocol for federal workers: Either show proof of vaccination, or mask up and get regular testing if you want to work on-site. The federal government — the nation’s largest employer — will require unvaccinated employees to wear masks while working, get regular testing and take other precautions, like maintaining physical distance from co-workers and restricting work travel. Several states, including California, Hawaii, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, also say unvaccinated state workers must get regular tests. On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom broadly extended such a mandate to teachers and all school employees, the first state to do so. Those programs, with their testing alternative, differ from outright mandates to get vaccinated, as some health care organizations — including the health care workforce of the Department of Health and Human Services, hospitals, and the U.S. military — are requiring. Employers, fearing a backlash, frame the policy as a choice, with both sides of the equation seen as effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Do public health experts think this approach will help? All agreed the best solution is universal vaccination. Short of that, many said, the moves by employers will add a layer of protection — although how much remains to be seen.” 
Tens of thousands of U.S. students are quarantining or in isolation: From Axios: “The school year has just started, and already tens of thousands of students and school staff members across the U.S. are isolating or quarantining after testing positive or possibly being exposed to COVID-19, school districts and other officials said this week. As of Aug. 12, more than 4 million children had tested positive for the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. There were 121,427 child COVID-19 cases last week. While the organization noted a decline in early summer, there was a steady increase in cases among children in early July.”  

  • “About 20,000 Mississippi students were quarantined due to possible COVID-19 exposure as of Tuesday, a state health official said, per AP.”  
  • “Nearly 6,000 students and more than 300 staff members in Florida’s Hillsborough County school district were quarantining or isolating as of Monday, officials said.”  
  • “More than 3,000 students and staff in a New Orleans school district were quarantining as of Monday afternoon, according to NOLA Public Schools. The district reported nearly 300 active coronavirus cases.” 
  • “Roughly 1,200 students in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District have been ordered to quarantine since the beginning of the school year, the New York Times reported.” 

Landlords look for exit amid federal eviction moratorium: From the Associated Press: “Most evictions for unpaid rent have been halted since the early days of the pandemic and there are now more than 15 million people living in households that owe as much as $20 billion in back rent, according to the Aspen Institute. A majority of single-family rental home owners have been impacted, according to a survey from the National Rental Home Council, and 50% say they have tenants who have missed rent during the pandemic. Smaller landlords with fewer than four units, who often don’t have the financing of larger property owners, were hit especially hard, with as many as 58% having tenants behind on rent, according to the National Association of Realtors. More than half of back rent is owed to smaller landlords. Landlords, big and small, are most angry about the moratoriums, which they consider illegal. Many believe some tenants could have paid rent, if not for the moratorium. And the $47 billion in federal rental assistance that was supposed to make landlords whole has been slow to materialize. By July, only $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion had been distributed.” 

As COVID rates rise, mandate vaccines for prison staff: Amanda Klonsky and Erika Tyagi of UCLA Law’s COVID Behind Bars Data Project write for USA Today: “Across the United States, unvaccinated corrections staff are helping to fuel a public health emergency. In the majority of states that report this data, fewer than half of prison staff have gotten a shot, according to data collected by the UCLA Law COVID-19 Behind Bars Data Project. This is a particularly alarming fact considering that at least 114,000 prison workers have been infected with COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, at least three times the rate of the overall population. In recent weeks, governors in California and New York have announced that all state employees, including state prison workers, would be required to submit proof of vaccination or face weekly testing. Following suit, New JerseyIllinois, and Pennsylvania joined the list of states requiring vaccines or weekly testing for those working inside prisons. For more than eight months now, far too many prison staff nationwide, who received priority access to vaccines, have proved unwilling to get vaccinated. It’s time for elected officials to step in to avoid another wave of outbreaks inside their prisons.” 

Public health struggles with COVID and politics: Governing takes stock of the toll the pandemic has had on local health departments. “Along with other Americans, many health officials hoped that vaccines could end the coronavirus pandemic, or at least bring it in for a smooth landing in this country. Those hopes have been dashed. Instead, health departments — traditionally underfunded and understaffed — find themselves caught between caseloads climbing back toward the million-a-week level and politicians in many places hampering their ability to respond. More than 250 health officials have quit or been shown the door over the course of the pandemic. Those who remain on the job, including front-line workers, frequently find themselves harassed by angry members of the public and, sometimes, by politicians. ‘When you have looser guidance at the state and federal level, people put the blame on the local level, if they feel you are limiting their lives or their freedom,’ says Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Faisal Khan, the acting director of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, testified last month before the county council in favor of a mask mandate. ‘My time before the council began with a dog-whistle question from Councilman Tim Fitch, who said he wanted to emphasize for the assembled crowd that I was not from this country,’ wrote Khan, who has worked in numerous international settings. ‘In all that time and in all those places, I have never been subjected to the racist, xenophobic, and threatening behavior that greeted me in the county council meeting.’ Health officials have been working at full tilt, plus overtime, for a year and a half now. They recognize that the politics of the pandemic aren’t getting any easier even as COVID-19 is once again spiking. ‘Our local health department staff are exhausted. They are demoralized,’ Freeman says. ‘They don’t really have any reason to look forward to things changing any time soon.’” 

Briefing for August 19, 2021

How cities are ramping up rental relief: With the federal eviction moratorium under attack in the courts, cities and states are turning to inventive strategies to move the $46 billion in federal housing aid faster to people who need it. Bloomberg Cities looks at some of the ways local authorities are ramping up: 

  • Streamlining applications: “Beginning last spring, cities used various pots of funding, including federal CARES Act relief money, to create locally based rental assistance programs. Many of those programs had complicated documentation requirements, both to protect against fraud and to assure that limited funds were going to tenants who most needed them. To move more quickly, cities have stripped down the application requirements. Many are following Treasury guidance allowing applicants to ‘self-attest‘ that they are eligible for the program, rather than requiring documentation of income loss, unemployment, household members, or lease terms.”  
  • Working with trusted organizations: “Many cities have turned to networks of community-based nonprofit organizations to help administer rental assistance programs, both in terms of outreach and disbursal of funds. Philadelphia has contracted with the Urban Affairs CoalitionPublic Health Management Corporation, and UESF to serve as payment vendors, because each of those groups has established ACH payment infrastructure, says Greg Heller, executive director of the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Newark, N.J., is working with five neighborhood-based groups that will be going door to door to spread the word.”
  • Tracking data and reaching the most vulnerable: “Cities have used data to provide transparency for their rental assistance programs and to make them more equitable. Philadelphia, which has so far distributed $135 million to 25,000 households, updates an online dashboard every week showing how many applications have been received and paid out. That kind of data helps cities track where funds are going, as well.” 

Immunosuppressed people grapple with returning to work: From Kaiser Health News: “While the emergence of the delta variant in the U.S. has made many companies delay the return to in-person work or mandate vaccinations, in other offices, immunosuppressed people … are left to cobble together their own strategies to minimize their risks. The Delta variant raises the stakes for many who were already concerned about catching COVID-19 when they return. Those who have the option to keep working remotely have done so — but worry about what it means for their careers as their colleagues return to the workplace. Research showing how well vaccines protect those with weakened immune systems is limited. In part that’s because immunosuppressed people, who make up at least 3% of the U.S. population and include people with cancer, HIV, and many chronic health conditions, were not included in the original clinical trials for the three COVID-19 vaccines authorized for emergency use. Scientists didn’t include them because they needed to conduct the clinical trials quickly and were concerned that this group’s immunosuppressive medicines and increased likelihood of developing infections in general would complicate interpreting the study results. Research does show that those who are immunosuppressed are at higher risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19, passing the virus to others in their household and getting infected even if vaccinated. A recent study reported that 44% of hospitalized ‘breakthrough’ cases in the U.S. were in immunosuppressed people.” 

Tracking the impact of COVID in prisons: Close to 3,000 people have died from COVID-19 while incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails, and most criminal justice experts believe the actual number is significantly higher; getting information from U.S. prisons has always been difficult and it proved even more so during the pandemic. In trying to help make more COVID information from U.S. prisons public, Sharon Dolovich, a professor of law at UCLA and director of the school’s Prison Law and Policy Program, founded the COVID Behind Bars Data Project, a data trove that came together organically from the efforts of Dolovich and her team and collaborators across the country. Dolovich discussed the project’s past and future with Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

Diabetes and COVID forge deadly ‘perfect storm’ in Mississippi: From the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting: “Amid the worst pandemic in a century, Mississippi is leading the nation in increased diabetes deaths per capita, according to a just-released Diabetes Care study. ‘It’s a perfect storm,’ said Tim Moore, president and CEO of the Mississippi Hospital Association. ‘We already have an unhealthy population in Mississippi because of poverty and lower access to health care, and now we have a population that’s getting very sick.’ Mississippi has seen more than 7,880 deaths from COVID-19, as of Tuesday. According to the state Department of Health, diabetes was an underlying condition in 1,347 of those deaths. Researchers found that between Jan. 1 and Nov. 3 of last year, Mississippi (which has a 14.8% adult diabetes rate that trails only West Virginia) saw diabetes deaths rise 1.43 times higher than the historical level. That is the nation’s highest. This revelation comes as Mississippi faces its fiercest battle in the pandemic, COVID-19’s Delta variant causing hospitals to be flooded with people in critical condition, including ‘young people, expectant mothers, and newborns,’ Moore said.” 

The resilience of New York’s Black homeowners: The New York Times reports: “Kirkland Lynch, a 35-year-old Black renter, has a six-figure job with Google, a law degree from Harvard, sterling credit, and a mortgage pre-approval. But after a six-month house hunt in Brooklyn, with six unsuccessful bids, he is close to giving up, disheartened by slights that verge on discrimination. ‘It doesn’t have anything to do with race,’ he said. ‘Other than the fact it has everything to do with race.’ The pandemic has compounded the challenges of an already difficult housing market, particularly for Black home buyers, who face a range of additional obstacles, and it threatens to widen the gap between Black and white homeownership to levels not seen since housing discrimination was made illegal five decades ago. After declining for much of the past 20 years, the national Black homeownership rate has stayed near 42% from 2016 to 2019, the lowest since 1970, while the rate of white homeownership reached 73%, a record high, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a fair-lending advocacy group. In 2019, 58% of Asians and 47.5% of Latinos were homeowners. (Black homeownership peaked in 2004 at 49%, before the 2008 housing crisis.)” 

Briefing for August 18, 2021

Over 90% of LGTBQ adults have had at least one vaccine shot: From the Washington Blade: “A summary of data collected as part of the annual LGBTQ+ Community Survey by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation in partnership and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation in New York City found that the vast majority — 92% — of LGBTQ+ adults surveyed in the United States had received at least one vaccination for COVID-19. Although vaccination rates vary somewhat within the LGBTQ+ community, the rates across race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexual orientation, and age are well above the rates for various general adult populations where the data are available. By race and ethnicity, 90% of Latinx respondents, 85% of Black respondents, 96% of Asian or Pacific Islander respondents, and 85% of Native American/Alaskan and Middle Eastern/North African LGBTQ+ adults, among other race identities, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.” 
To improve rental assistance, just make it cash: Writing for the American Prospect, David Dayen profiles a New Mexico program that has found a way to get housing assistance to those who need it more quickly. “Tomas Rivera is with Chainbreaker Collective in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It initially started as a bikeshare program in the mid-2000s, before expanding to cover transit, housing, and gentrification. With the COVID crisis came anti-displacement work, bolstered by moratoria at the federal, state, and city levels. But beyond setting up tenant hotlines, Chainbreaker was instrumental in a direct-payment program that predated the rental assistance debacle. Working with an immigrant justice organization called Somos un Pueblo Unido and the city of Santa Fe, Chainbreaker organized a program last November called the CONNECT Fund. The city used $6 million in CARES Act funds available for coronavirus-related expenses to offer $3,000 one-time payments to residents suffering economic hardship and threat of eviction. The application was relatively simple, with just an income threshold and self-attestation of hardship. Money was routed directly to bank accounts or on a debit card. ‘When people talk about slow distribution [of rental assistance], that was not our experience with direct cash assistance,’ Rivera said. ‘We got rid of $3 million in a couple weeks.’ While there were no strings attached to the funds, it was clear from communicating with recipients later that the $3,000 was primarily used to pay rent, the main expense in their households. But not tying it to rent was critical, because it removed all the requirements to confirm rental debt and separated the program from landlords. That speeded relief into people’s hands. And evictions in Santa Fe were subsequently cut in half in 2020, despite the pandemic economic pain. ‘It gives people a basic amount of money to keep themselves going,’ said Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber.” 
The CDC halted evictions, but Texas judges are proceeding anyway: The Texas Observer reports that a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court has essentially left the CDC eviction moratorium up to judges’ discretion. “Families facing eviction are subject to an uneven patchwork of protections that vary depending on where in the United States they live. Those protections are also subject to the interpretations of judges. Nationwide, thousands of judges hear eviction cases, but because each operates within a different court system, it’s impossible to track just how those judges have interpreted the moratorium. ‘It boils down to: Does the judge in that particular case or court or county or docket view it as constitutionally authorized?’ says Bill Raftery, a senior analyst at the National Center for State Courts. In Texas, that question falls to justices of the peace (JPs). JPs are elected officials and many are not lawyers. In Texas, JPs follow the guidance and training of the Texas Justice Court Training Center (TJCTC), a group that provides training and education for JPs. After the Texas Supreme Court withdrew its emergency order at the end of March, TJCTC published guidance saying that the CDC eviction moratorium ‘is not a matter that a justice can or should enforce.’ ‘They’re basically saying it’s completely up to the judge’s discretion as to whether or not they want to enforce the CDC moratorium,’ says Stuart Campbell, a lawyer with the Dallas Eviction Advocacy Center. ‘That’s not how federal law works. You don’t have discretion to enforce federal law.’” 
What you need to know about the historic SNAP increase: The tragic events in Afghanistan and Haiti have understandably overshadowed the Biden administration’s historic announcement on Monday to implement the largest increase in SNAP benefits in U.S. history. NPR covers the basic info that people need to know. 

  • Its new calculations mean that the average SNAP benefit will increase by $36.24 per person, per month, beginning Oct. 1. The impact will be felt by many, as the Agriculture Department says the program helps feed more than 42 million Americans (or 1 in 8) each month. 
  • The exact amount will vary by state — you can check on the estimated increase your state will receive here
  • Plus, check out this SNAP eligibility guide to see current maximum household benefit amounts and learn how they’re calculated. 

Mental health is the next big workplace issue: From Axios: “Employees’ mental health is quickly becoming a top concern for companies as they try to hold on to workers through the pandemic. ‘These days there are worker shortages everywhere,’ says Chris Swift, CEO of The Hartford, a financial services and insurance company. Mental health is a massive contributor to that, he says.” 

  • “Despite the fact that we’ve gotten used to pandemic-era living, workplace burnout is rising. 44% of workers say they feel fatigued on the job, up from 34% in 2020, per a study conducted by the human resources consulting firm Robert Half.” 
  • “Drug overdose deaths spiked 30% in 2020 — to nearly 100,000 — and the bulk were opioid overdoses, Bloomberg reports. The deaths and drug addictions are contributing to the overall worker shortage.” 
  • “A whopping 52% of U.S. employers say they are ‘experiencing significant workplace issues’ with substance misuse or addiction by employees, according to a new survey from The Hartford. That’s up from 36% in March 2020.” 

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