Dr. Deborah Birx is the White House coronavirus response coordinator

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Published — July 24, 2020

Inside a private White House call on COVID-19

Dr. Deborah Birx (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Introduction

Hi Watchdogs, and welcome back to your favorite newsletter. In the latest edition of The Moment, we looked back on Rep. John Lewis’ life. “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble,” the civil-rights leader famously said. 

This week, we let you know how we got into a little good trouble of our own. 👀 We have even more information stemming from White House documents we obtained last week that said 18 states were in the coronavirus red zone. We also had some major impact in our investigation into the surge in coronavirus-related hate in Asian communities, we published a story on how people are being evicted during this pandemic and we unpack what the heck is going on in Portland (because it’s a lot.) Let’s get into it. 

🚨New red flags: On a private call, Dr. Deborah Birx, a leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, warned state and local leaders that 11 major cities are seeing increases in positive tests for COVID-19 and should take “aggressive” steps to mitigate their outbreaks.  

Birx told hundreds of emergency managers and other state and local leaders that they should act quickly to stem the outbreaks. Some leaders in these areas say they were not included in these conversations at all. 

One example: Mayor G.T. Bynum said the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, never saw the White House document we obtained, recommending the city shut down its bars, restaurants and gyms and mandate residents wear masks. (via Stateimpact Oklahoma reporter Catherine Sweeney) 

“This is a pandemic. You cannot hide it under the carpet,” said Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage, who also thinks the warnings and data from the White House should be made public. 

So why weren’t they? Beats us. Check out our story to see if your city is one of the 11 cities that is experiencing a rise in positive coronavirus tests.

Related: After we published our first report, we shared the data with local newsrooms across the country. Here’s what a few of them from Georgia to Texas reported on. 

We just freely shared our groundbreaking COVID scoops with over 300 local news outlets. Chip in to help us keep sharing news that can literally save lives.



💥Impact 💥Our project investigating coronavirus-related hate in Asian communities was cited in a letter signed by more than a quarter of Congress to Attorney General William Barr, asking the Department of Justice to take action. Members of Congress also asked Barr to provide regular updates. 

Despite this backlash, Asian Americans have played an integral part in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. They comprise 7% of the U.S. population but 17.1% of practicing physicians, according to the Association of American Medical Doctors. (And that’s not including additional medical professionals like EMTs and nurses.) The joint letter, sent July 20, cited a Center for Public Integrity/Ipsos poll that found 30% of Americans have witnessed someone blaming Asian people for the pandemic. So far, it’s crickets from the DOJ. 

Related: 26% of Asian Americans and 20% of Black Americans say they have feared someone might threaten or physically attack them because of their race or ethnicity since the coronavirus outbreak began. (via PEW Research Center) 

We also held an event with NextShark, a leading source in Asian American news, on building Black and Asian allyship in the age of COVID-19. Missed it? You can find the recording here. (You just have to register with an email first.)

Federal officers use chemical irritants and crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters outside the courthouse on Wednesday in Portland, Ore. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

📍What we’re following: Last week, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that federal law enforcement used unmarked vehicles to grab protesters off the street in Portland. 

Oregon Live reported that Mayor Ted Wheeler was repeatedly tear gassed along with hundreds of other protesters by federal officers on Wednesday. Protesters are calling for systemic police reform in Portland, which Wheeler oversees. 

The ACLU of Oregon also filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of volunteer medics working during the protests on Wednesday. They sued the city of Portland, an individual city officer, a group of unnamed city officers, as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Marshals Service and unnamed federal officers.  

The ACLU announced last night that a federal court just issued a restraining order on the federal agents in Portland and temporarily blocks federal agents from attacking or arresting journalists and legal observers at protests. 

We’re keeping an eye out to see how things develop. But follow Oregon local media like Oregon Public Broadcasting and Oregon Live for the latest. 
 

What else we published this week: We analyzed more than 8,000 eviction filings and found that Black and brown Americans who are most vulnerable during the pandemic are disproportionately on the brink of losing their homes. Here’s the full investigation, co-published with the Tampa Bay Times. 

Lost your job, late on rent — and suddenly you get an indecent proposal from your creepy landlord? With the pandemic driving up unemployment and evictions, that’s a situation that’s becoming increasingly common, especially among women in low-income jobs, reported Buzzfeed’s Amber Jamieson. Jamieson documented a stunning set of transgressions ranging from sleazy to criminal — including a tenant whose landlord reportedly threatened gang rape. Since the pandemic hit there’s been a 13% uptick in sexual harassment complaints, according to a survey of 80 fair housing groups by the National Fair Housing Alliance. Here’s what she said about the story.

*Interview lightly edited for clarity and brevity

How did you get this story?

I first heard about landlords harassing tenants for sex when Alexandria Neason, a friend and Columbia Journalism Review reporter, posted an Instagram screenshot of a local KITV story. In it, the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women reported an increase of complaints, and I immediately reached out to their executive director who gave me specifics about some of the complaints, such as a woman being texted a dick pic from a prospective landlord.

I realized with so many millions unemployed across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic — and lots of people not being able to afford rent — it was unlikely to be happening just in one state. So, I began contacting housing lawyers and fair housing groups across the country.  A lawyer outside of Chicago said their complaints were up three-fold.

But the thing missing were the individual stories of harassment from the tenants themselves. We published a story on April 15 and specifically wrote “Have you been sexually harassed by a landlord during the coronavirus crisis? Contact this reporter” in the middle of the story, in the hope that people affected would reach out and tell me their stories. 

And they did! I also tweeted about wanting to talk to people, and the thread went viral. My inbox and Twitter DMs started filling up with stories from people who’d recently been sexually harassed by their landlords and that’s when we knew we had a follow-up story that could actually go into what it’s like for that to happen, when you’re suddenly unemployed and stuck at home during a pandemic.

What were the challenges of reporting this story and how did you navigate them? 

The main challenge was getting people who had emailed or tweeted at me to then talk to me on the phone! Many of them would say things such as “this is anonymous,” and I would try and explain that when someone is anonymous in a story, they aren’t anonymous to the reporter. Just because you’ve emailed me something, doesn’t mean I will just print that email in a story without verifying information! Particularly because the tweet had gone viral, I was very cautious of making sure there were no bad actors trying to feed me false information.

There was one person who reached out whose story I really, really wanted to include, as it was quite heartbreaking. She was the one person who acknowledged that she’d had to seriously consider the offer from the landlord. But, I couldn’t get her on the phone to confirm who she was and couldn’t get her to confirm information via email, so I wasn’t able to use her story. I hope she’ll eventually speak to me! 

Did you get a sense that some of these vulnerable tenants probably felt they had no choice but to give in to these demands? You mentioned some advice given by experts on how victims should document these incidents and reporting it –– but ultimately, just how effective is this?

These incidents are absolutely the tip of the iceberg — some landlords have always chosen to harass vulnerable tenants, but with millions of people unemployed, increased federal unemployment benefits ending and eviction moratoriums ending, tenants are in even more vulnerable positions than ever before. People should remember that this type of harassment is illegal under federal law and the landlords who do it, often do it multiple times, so reporting it makes a huge difference in being able to help stop it happening to others in the future. 
 

That’s all we have for you, folks. Summer is algae bloom season, so be careful if you choose to have some socially distant fun in the sun. We’ll see you next week.

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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