Local Journalism Plays Important Role in Local Government

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected hundreds of thousands of small businesses, and news organizations have not been exempt. When the pandemic first hit CandG News halted publication for several weeks, the Troy-Somerset Gazette and the Detroit Metro Times made layoffs, employees were furloughed at the Detroit Free Press and the Macomb Daily no longer operates out of a newsroom. These are just some local examples of how the pandemic impacted the local news market. And, while these cuts will certainly affect the communities in which they operate, local newspapers began suffering long before COVID.

In Michigan, there have been more than 30 newspaper closures, several mergers of smaller papers into larger organizations and a loss of more than 40 percent of journalists since 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center also found there were about 114,000 newsroom employees in 2008 in the US and by 2019 that number decreased to about 88,000. The brunt of that decrease occurred at print news organizations, with about 72,000 people being employed at a newspaper in 2008 and only about 35,000 being employed in 2019. While digital and broadcast newsrooms experienced increases in employment and serve as sources of delivering the news, that doesn’t mean the impact of a local newspaper on a community was maintained. There is just as much news today, and arguably more, to be reported on but fewer and fewer resources to do so.

According to the New York Times, 65 million Americans live in a county with only one local news source. In the Midwest there are 27 counties without a newspaper, according to Poynter. This means there is zero or maybe one local news source to report on city council and school board meetings, police and fire operations, business and a host of human interest stories in dozens of counties across the region and country. Certainly not everything can be followed and reported on in a county by one newspaper. When a story is reported on relating to any one local government it is more often than not that readers lack the full understanding of the story and its impact due to prolonged periods of disengagement by both the news organization and the community itself.

Disengagement in local news directly affects voter turnout, the number of candidates who run for local office and an increase in the potential for corruption. For example, a Governing.com study found that for every additional staffer hire a 6 percent increase in local voter turnout was expected. The study also found that for each additional staffer a newspaper were to hire per 1,000-person circulation the number of candidates who would run for local office would likely increase by a factor or 1.2. As for corruption, when local newspapers are thriving, or least not clawing themselves out of a hole, more time and resources can be spent to follow local policy and spending decisions and truly get to know a community so even small discrepancies or irregularities can be recognized and investigated. Additionally, the Brookings Institute “Local Journalism in Crisis” report found that borrowing costs significantly increased for counties where a newspaper closed. While this doesn’t directly point to wrongdoing it does leave many question as to why.

The necessity for strong local journalism is clear and as this pandemic dredges on and government budgets dwindle their importance only grows greater. One of the beauties of newspapers/journalism is supposed to be how it acts as the fourth estate, the watchdog of government. But, continued decline in newspaper advertising revenues, circulation and staffing levels current approaches to local journalism and its funding are not proving to be successful. This leaves a question as to how these local news organizations can diversify their revenue sources and if government subsidies for the organizations or the readers could help keep them afloat. Creative means to maintain local journalism are vital. To ensure this country has an educated and engaged electorate and sources to unveil wrongdoing and encourage civic participation we must support the local news organizations we currently have and also vocalize their importance and demand more coverage.

Michigan’s Unemployment Benefits Lowest in the Region

The national average for weekly unemployment benefits in the United States is $468; $362 per week is what is provided in Michigan. Michigan has the lowest unemployment benefits of any state in the Great Lakes region and ninth lowest in the nation. In addition to the unemployment amount being $362 a week, that amount is traditionally paid for 20 weeks (it has currently been extended to 26 weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Even with extended and additional unemployment benefits, families in Michigan continue to financially struggle.

According to the most recent Kids Count report, 56 percent of adults living in a household with children have reported losing income as of Nov. 9, 2020 in Michigan. The same report states that only 4 percent of adults living in a household with children in Michigan are receiving their full pay and not using leave for time not working, while 92 percent who are off work are not receiving any pay for their time off.

The October 2020 unemployment rate in Michigan was 5.1 percent, compared to 3.5 percent in October of 2019 (the most recent data available).  At the national level, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the unemployment rate was 6.9 percent of the non-farm working population. At the national and local level, unemployment rates aren’t as high as they were in April, when the pandemic first hit, but they are higher than they were compared to 2019.

So, as the pandemic continues we are more likely to see higher unemployment rates and more people unable to meet their needs from the unemployment benefits they receive (or should be receiving). According to a recent Money.com article, unemployment benefits in most states do not cover the basic needs of most families. This is due to the cost of living in a state (food, rent, utilities) compared to the amount and length of unemployment benefits received.

The map below shows the maximum unemployment an individual can receive in each state. Massachusetts has the highest amount of unemployment paid to an individual (with dependents) at $1,234 a week; it is also one of the wealthiest states. Conversely, Mississippi pays the lowest amount at $235. According to the article, Kentucky and Maine are among the poorest states in the Country but their unemployment benefits ($552 and $667, respectively) allow residents to cover their basic needs.  The unemployment benefits in Kentucky and Maine are higher than that of Michigan’s $362 a week.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, families with two adults and two children in the Detroit-Livonia-Warren metro need an annual income of $79,308 – or $6,609 per month – to live comfortably. With the an unemployment amount of $362 a week for 26 weeks (factoring in the pandemic) for an adult household of two (two adults bringing in income, but with two children as well), that brings in about $19,000 for the year—far below the amount a family with two children needs to live comfortably.

As the pandemic continues on, citizens and certain lawmakers continue to urge for additional relief to aide affected families and the economy. Just last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on the legislature to permanently extend the unemployment benefits length to 26 weeks and also increase the weekly amount (no amount was specified). No movement has been made on the request. Michigan’s current unemployment benefits were inked into law in 2002 and are due for an overhaul. The way it currently stands, hundreds of people could be left without unemployment benefits the day after Christmas because of a combination of having maxed out their time receiving Michigan unemployment benefits and the fact that federal COVID unemployment programs created through the CARES Act are set to expire. Changes to unemployment benefits need to take place at the State level, but help from the federal government is also necessary, especially during the pandemic. 

What’s the Future of School Vaccines in Michigan?

Healthcare workers and the elderly will be among the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine once it is widely distributed. And, in the months following their vaccinations, the general public will become eligible too. While there are still many questions to be answered regarding the adult population being vaccinated against COVID, there are also questions regarding children being vaccinated. 

When will the vaccine be ready for children? Is it safe for them? Will children be required to be vaccinated to attend school?

According to a recent Washington Post article, trials for a COVID vaccine geared toward children have either just begun or have yet to start, depending on the company. This information alone means that a vaccine for children is farther out, however more than 1.1 million children have tested positive for the virus thus far. A child’s immune system responds differently than an adult’s does which is just one reason why child-oriented trials are necessary; ensuring the vaccine is safe and effective for this sector of the population is critical.  

Certainly when a vaccine will be available for children will impact when students can safely return to school and partake in school-oriented activities. However, even when one becomes available, the question of whether they will be required to obtain take the vaccine to attend school remains. States determine vaccine laws and in Michigan the Public Health Code requires children to be immunized against polio, diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. There are exceptions though, such as if vaccinating a child violates the religious beliefs of the family or is medically advised against because it could cause more harm than good to the child. 

Below are the overall vaccination and waiver rates for the diseases mentioned above by county in Southeastern Michigan. This highlights how the majority of the K-12 students in Southeastern Michigan are vaccinated as required by Michigan law.  According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Detroit (which was included in the regional maps due to its size) had the highest percentage of students vaccinated as of February 2020 at 94.1 percent, followed by Washtenaw County with 93.9 percent of its student population being vaccinated. Livingston County had the lowest percentage of students vaccinated at 90 percent. Conversely, Livingston County had the highest vaccine waiver rate at 7.7 percent while Detroit had the lowest at 1.9 percent. 

The data displayed above is reflective of vaccines required by the Michigan Public Health Code and as of yet there is no word as to whether or not the COVID vaccine will be required for school attendance in Michigan. In theory, we can only hope that vaccination rates for school-aged children will be as high as they are for the required vaccines in Michigan. But, until a vaccine for that population becomes available, and likely for sometime after, schools will have to continue to enforce social distancing, mask-wearing and regular sanitization, if they are meeting in person. 

Flu Vaccination Rates Increase as COVID Vaccine Authorization Pends

The flu vaccine has been increasingly stressed this year to thwart a winter where COVID-19 and the flu run rampant. In Michigan, 350,021 people had already tested positive for COVID as of Nov. 28 and while a vaccine is expected to be available soon, it is not here yet. Currently, the best chance to avoid contracting COVID is to remain at home whenever possible and wear masks and maintain a distance from others when needing to leave the house. With the flu though, a vaccine is available, and has been available prior to every flu season for decades.

For the 2020-21 flu season, 198 million flu shots have been made available to the public, an increase from 175 million last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the Washington Post, national pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens have reported demand for the flu vaccine is higher this year than in years past, even double in same cases. However, according to the data from the Michigan Department of Health and Services there was no county in Southeastern Michigan where even half of the adult population had received the flu vaccine for the 2019-20 flu season.

Washtenaw County had the highest percentage of adults who received the flu vaccine at 42 percent last year, followed by Oakland County where 41 percent of the adult population received the flu vaccine. St. Clair County had among the lowest percentage of adult residents who received the flu vaccine last year at 25 percent. The City of Detroit had the lowest percentage though at 13 percent.

The CDC recommends everyone above the age of 6 months receive a flu vaccine, with rare exceptions. While the flu vaccine is widely recommended for nearly all ages, those with compromised immune systems and above the age of 65 tend to be the most targeted populations for vaccination. According to the CDC, between 70 and 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 years and older, and between 50 percent and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations have occurred among people in this age group. With such data, it would make sense that the counties with the highest population of older adults would also have among the highest flu vaccination rates. However, that is not that case.

In Southeastern Michigan, St. Clair County has the highest population of adults 65 years of age or older at 19.5 percent and a 25 percent flu vaccination rate for adults, the lowest in the region. In Washtenaw County 14.5 percent of the population is made up of older adults, among the lowest percentage in the region (Detroit’s older adult population makes up 13 percent of its population and 13 percent of the adult population received the flu vaccine last year) yet it has the highest flu vaccination rate.

The flu vaccine for the current flu season is still available, but attention has certainly shifted in recent weeks to the availability of a COVID vaccine. According to media reports, Moderna applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for authorization of its COVID vaccine Monday and Pfizer applied for emergency authorization of its COVID vaccine last Friday. According to CNN, the FDA is scheduled to meet with its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee on Dec.10 to review Pfizer’s application and on Dec. 17 to review Moderna’s application. If approved, millions of doses of the vaccines could be shipped around the US by mid-December. According to media reports, about 6.4 million Pfizer vaccines will be distributed throughout the US by mid-December and about 20 million doses of the Moderna vaccine will be available by the end of 2020. The CDC will make the recommendation on who should get the shots first; it is likely healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be recommended to get vaccinated first.

For Michigan, Henry Ford Hospital estimate that as early as Dec. 12 vaccines can begin to be distributed. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan expects that 5,000 residents will need to be vaccinated a day for 3-4 months to ensure the City’s population is vaccinated.

While we wait for a COVID vaccine to be approved and distributed, it is imperative we take additional steps to maintain our health, such as receiving a flu vaccine. The data from the State shows that not even half of the adult population in Michigan received one last year (the State average is 32 percent); we must do better at becoming vaccinated against COVID once vaccines are widely available. The flu is deadly; up to 62,000 people died from it last year, according to the CDC. However, 267,000 people have already been killed by COVID in the US and it hasn’t even been an active virus in the US for a year.