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LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

The Cultural Divide Over Masks

Cover image for podcast episode

CREDIT: COURTESY OF ATTN

Above: Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger joins three other former and Gov. Gavin Newsom in a PSA encouraging Californians to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic in this screengrab from ATTN.

How wearing a facial covering to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has become a cultural and political dividing line, congress investigates the San Diego VA for discontinuing the use of ketamine treatments for suicidal veterans, and the internal debate within newsrooms over racial representation and diversity in journalism.

Speaker 1: 00:00 It's one of the easiest things you can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 wear a mask. But even that has become a symbol of political tribalism. As local cases rise, a lifesaving treatment for local veterans is put on hold. And now Congress wants to know why the investigation involving San Diego's VA. And how do you tell the stories of your community? If you don't look like your community newsrooms across America confront their lack of diversity. I'm Mark Sauer and the KPBS round table starts. Now.

Speaker 2: 00:37 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 00:41 Welcome to our discussion. The week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me for our remote version of the KPBS round table today. Reporter Abby Alford of CBS San Diego reporter Brad Racino of I news source and Laura Sonata, community opinion editor for the San Diego union Tribune. This week, the COVID-19 pandemic surged in many States across the South and Southwest at the national and local levels. We hit new daily highs for positive cases. The spike prompted California's current and past governors to release a PSA pleading that we all wear face coverings in public places. A simple, obvious way to promote public safety in a crisis you would think, but somehow face masks have become the latest political flashpoint I'm joined now by Abby Alford, a reporter for CBS eight in San Diego. Abby, welcome to the round table. Thank you, Mark. Well, this week you reported on just one example of how masks have become a dividing line in American society. What happened inside a Starbucks in Claremont?

Speaker 3: 01:47 Well, what had happened is now it has gone viral. Uh, there was a woman who had posted on Facebook. She had tagged the Claremont Starbucks, Starbucks, excuse me to say, um, take a look at this guy, linen. He told me that I needed to put a face mask on. Um, the next time I'm going to call the cops and show them my medical exemption. Well, that has backfired because what she was intending to do or what it appeared to be is trying to shame this man. Who's a young man. And instead there was a, an outpouring of support. There are I think 132,000 comments on it. Now there was a GoFund me set up for the man, um, just to kind of put a virtual tip jar out there. And I'm looking at his GoFund me right now. And it has raised $22,721. And that was since Monday night.

Speaker 1: 02:50 Wow. This is the greatest thing ever happened to this guy.

Speaker 3: 02:53 Yeah. And you know, I mean it's, so it really just goes to that kindness matters. Um, and when we're looking at these mask policies that it's not just the businesses that are requiring it, we're looking at a state order by the governor. Who's ordering face mass to be required in public places. Um, with a few exceptions right

Speaker 1: 03:15 Now has Starbucks reacted to this incident?

Speaker 3: 03:17 Starbucks has, they've released a statement and they say that they welcome all of their guests. They just ask that they adhere to the public health borders. That's pretty much what they've said about it. Uh, Lennon, the Starbucks employee. He has not done any interviews per se, but he wanted to thank all of the supporters. And he says that he couldn't comment about, he said, Starbucks told him that he couldn't comment about the incident, but he does have a video on his own Facebook that thanks everybody for their support. And he kind of gives his side of what happened, saying that the woman walked in, she did not want to wear her mask. He told her that she needed to wear a mask and try to give her this piece of paper that I, uh, Starbucks must have too to kind of let them know what the rules are. And she started cussing up a storm. She flipped them off. She called everybody in the store sheep and just kept continuing to cuss.

Speaker 1: 04:13 And of course this isn't the first example. We've seen a people behaving badly. And in terms of wearing a mask in public places, I'm just in the past week, president Trump, uh, held indoor rally's Oklahoma and Arizona COVID-19 19 cases are spiking in both places, Trump and the vast majority of audience or the audiences in those places. Didn't wear masks. Now TV coverage makes this visual statement prominent. You think this is kind of, what's maybe spurring this whole political divide. If, if it is one, um, across the country, as you see the coverage of this stuff.

Speaker 3: 04:49 Well, I think when you look into who are these anti mask wearers, if that's what you want to call them. Um, and in case with this woman, she also had Facebook posts that she was at those rallies, or those protests would be open California protest. Ironically, there's a picture of her wearing an American flag scar for face covering over her mouth. So I wouldn't per se say, you know, if you are, if you refuse to wear your mask, then you automatically support Trump. I think these people who are refusing to wear their mass are those that don't want to be told what to do those. They don't want to believe the science that I'm wearing a face mask will reduce the numbers of deaths. And there are there's research out there that shows by wearing your mask, it does help protect the spread of COVID-19. And I look at it as what her, what harm am I doing? If I'm wearing my mask? You know, those that don't believe in wearing the mask, they think that there is research out there, credible research, but all of the credible research out there shows that if you wear your mask, you will reduce the exposure. And that's what we're trying do. So we don't overload these hospitals and we don't get any more people sick.

Speaker 1: 06:01 A governor, Gavin Newsome made wearing a mask in most public settings, mandatory statewide, but I listened to the governor again today. Uh, it seems like common sense if you're outside, say walking on the beach and you're, you're, you're many feet away from most people walking along, nobody's saying, and you don't see a lot of mass in those situations, but then you go into a coffee shop or you stopped to get something to eat in a cafe that's open along there. And people tend to put on the mass when they get around people. That, that seems like an example of me, of what he's saying. Right?

Speaker 3: 06:32 Right. And that's what he's tried to outline is is that if you're walking or biking or doing any kind of, um, athletic or leisure sport, and you can stay within six feet of people, you don't need to be wearing your mask. But if you're waiting in line, you're going into these restaurants or going into businesses, you need to be wearing a mask unless you're under two years of age or you have some type of medical exemption. But Mark that's what a real sticking point is right now. We've received many people calling in and writing our newsroom saying that they have a medical exemption and they're not allowed into these businesses. Well, some of the businesses are making their own policies saying that you aren't allowed in there. If you can't wear your mask. And it's the slippery slope, because you know, these businesses can't ask them, show me your medical exemption.

Speaker 3: 07:20 I'm just like, you know, if you had a service animal, but there are those who are taking advantage of it saying that they have a medical exemption and they really may not, and kind of ruining it or making it harder for those who actually really do need it for those who have asthma, asthma, or respiratory, or those who, um, may need to use sign language or need to read their lips. Um, so that's where it's kind of the gray area of these medical exemptions or those who have a disability that, that can't wear their mask and they aren't allowed into these stores.

Speaker 1: 07:57 And besides that feedback, what other sort of a feedback have you gotten about your story regarding the Starbucks worker and the mask issue?

Speaker 3: 08:04 My Instagram and my Facebook has blown up, you know, each week you kind of get your algorithms to see like how your stories do, but I've noticed that I've gotten a lot of new comments or new people who like my page or, you know, following me on Instagram and it's filled, I have not had one person comment on either of my social media and support of the woman who tried to shame the Starbucks worker. Everyone has support of linen, um, you know, thanking him for standing up for what's. What he believes is right. Standing up to those who may try to bully him into thinking that I don't have to wear my mask and look, he's just an employee. That's probably making minimum wage and he just needs to enforce what the policies are at Starbucks. And instead, you know, this woman to call them out and boy did it backfire. He has $22,000 on his go fund me. And he's so sweet. He writes on his Facebook that he is a dance teacher and he wants to be able to use that money to help expand and continue to teach students. And I think it's amazing how he's tried to use this to spread kindness and spread love, and also raising awareness of how important it is to wear your mask.

Speaker 1: 09:25 Well, that'll keep them in dancing shoes for a long time. Now I'd been speaking with Abby Alford. She's a reporter for CBS eight here in San Diego. Thanks very much for joining us.

Speaker 3: 09:35 Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And stay healthy, stay safe and wear your mask

Speaker 1: 09:40 Staff of the U S house veteran's affairs committee is looking into why the VA in San Diego has stopped paying for a drug treatment for suicidal veterans and why it's pushing instead a treatment with a controversial nasal spray touted by president Trump. Joining me to discuss the story as reporter Brad Racino if I knew source Brad, welcome. Thanks for having me. Let's start with the drug that was being used. Ketamine, what is it and how, and why is it used?

Speaker 4: 10:05 So ketamine is an old drug it's been around for 50 or 60 years as an anesthetic. It was used on the battlefield in Vietnam, and it's used a lot now for pain relief, but in the early two thousands doctors began to notice how effective it was in treating depression and curbing suicidal thoughts, especially for people who are treatment resistant, meaning they've tried all kinds of medications or other treatments, but were unsuccessful. Ketamine works for a lot of these people

Speaker 1: 10:31 And about how many veterans were using it here.

Speaker 4: 10:34 Well, it's been used to treat veterans in San Diego for almost a decade. I don't know the exact number of vets who have been through treatment throughout that whole time. But I do know that since 2017, the San Diego VA has sent at least 32 of them to a private clinic for ketamine infusions.

Speaker 1: 10:49 So it's been around a long time. What a veterans using ketamine and their mental health care providers say about its effectiveness.

Speaker 4: 10:56 Every single veteran I've interviewed. And at this point I've lost track, but it's easily more than a dozen has said. Ketamine is the only thing that keeps their suicidal thoughts at Bay. Um, some of these people have been through more than a hundred rounds of electroconvulsive therapy or been prescribed dozens of pills a day and have said, they've never felt anything close to what ketamine does for them. Um, and mental health care providers are optimistic. You know, they're overly cautious about praising ketamine too much as they should be, but clinical trials for it do kind of back up that optimism.

Speaker 1: 11:25 And this is for folks who are suffering PTSD and the effects of being in combat made me multiple tours.

Speaker 4: 11:32 Yeah, some of it is, is, uh, military related. Some of it is, you know, things that they brought with them into the military. It could be childhood trauma, sexual abuse, anything. Some of these people have been living with really serious depression for decades.

Speaker 1: 11:43 And when did the San Diego VA healthcare system stop paying for ketamine treatments? What were the reasons given

Speaker 4: 11:51 It began last October out of the blue, the VA stopped authorizing veterans to receive ketamine at a private clinic. Um, initially the VA blamed administrative or paperwork problems. Then the VA story shifted last month when it said it was doing this because the clinic, what the clinic was offering, the VA could now offer in house. Then that story shifted again just two weeks ago, the VA said it was removing the veterans because the private clinic was delivering ketamine by an injection and not buying an IV. And that's dangerous. Now I should point out the story published today, debunks all of those statements and shows how the hospital's own paperwork contradicts those explanations.

Speaker 1: 12:29 And the VA was warned about possible consequences. It looks like the warnings may have born out.

Speaker 4: 12:36 Yeah, the psychiatrist and his staff at the private clinic warned top administrators at the San Diego VA repeatedly that their actions would have disastrous consequences. The VA ignored those warnings time after time. Then in mid-October a Navy and Marine pilot took her life. When she learned that the VA was going to stop the ketamine treatments, she called the drug, her lifeline. And actually just a week before her death, her husband had reached out to the top brass at the San Diego VA and warn them what the decision was doing to his wife. But it didn't help.

Speaker 1: 13:08 And, uh, the latest story here where you've debunked, uh, their reasons for saying they stopped the treatments. What was the via, what did the VA have to say about that?

Speaker 4: 13:17 That's funny. Um, they won't respond to any of my, uh, evidence that ha that sites their own paperwork, their own records and ask them to explain it. They, they will not respond to those questions. They haven't responded to us since June 19th. Um, so yeah, they're, they're just not answering.

Speaker 1: 13:34 So let's talk about the treatment that the VA is using now instead. Uh, what is it? And who's looking into this switch to this drug, which I guess is being touted by Donald Trump.

Speaker 4: 13:45 Yeah. The VA is using a drug called spur Vato. It's a nasal spray that was promoted heavily last year by president Trump as a game changer in the fight against veterans suicides. The problem is the drug is not nearly as effective, at least for all the veterans I've interviewed. And the drug is causing these vets to revert back to where they were before they ever found ketamine. And it's a really dangerous situation for these people to be in. Um, and as you, you asked about, who's looking into this, that the house committee on veterans affairs launched in a investigation actually last year in Desparado and president Trump's ties to the drug and that's still ongoing, but a few weeks ago, the house committee interviewed one of the vets in our story to figure out what's going on here locally in San Diego. Uh, also Congressman Scott Peters, his office has gotten involved and is talking to vets. Congressman Mike Levin has been made aware. Um, but it's too related at this point to really tell if anything will change because of this.

Speaker 1: 14:36 And is this, is this a subcommittee that's looking at it now? Or, I mean, how does the process work with that?

Speaker 4: 14:41 Yeah, it's the sub community is the, a subcommittee of over, I think it's oversight and investigations of the house committee on veterans affairs.

Speaker 1: 14:48 And presumably if they find enough smoke and fire there, they'll bring it to the full committee and move on from there,

Speaker 4: 14:57 Have a hearing. Yes.

Speaker 1: 14:59 Uh, now what does the VA say about its communications with veterans using ketamine and their healthcare providers?

Speaker 4: 15:04 So the VA said they'd been in communication with all vets and the vet psychiatrists and the private clinic about this transition. And that is completely not true. All the vets were blindsided by this decision as was the private clinic that had been treating these men and women in some cases for years. And there was no effort at all by the VA to work with the clinic to safely transition these patients. There's no consultations, nothing.

Speaker 1: 15:29 And what are the vets? And perhaps they have lawyers involved or advocates involved. What do they have to say about what may really be behind this here? Is it usually it's all about money.

Speaker 4: 15:40 Yeah. They all have their different thoughts and opinions. Um, there definitely is a concern about, about money. Um, this drugs, bravado is FDA approved, which means they can charge insurance for it. Whereas regular ketamine is not it's used off label. So, uh, that's you know, and the VA has to pay out of pocket for that. So it may be a financial incentive. It may just be a paperwork issue. It's just too much of a hassle for the VA to, to contract with these outside clinics. We don't, I don't know. And they, and honestly they don't know either.

Speaker 1: 16:10 And what's the next step. When might we get some bottom line answers to what's really happened here?

Speaker 4: 16:15 Um, I'd like to say soon, but the VA is making it really hard. Their spokespeople are not answering our questions or are providing blatantly false statements and not seeming to care when we point out that they're lying. Um, and as journalists, we often rely on public records laws to get information from agencies like this. Uh, but with the VA that can take months or even years to get those records. So maybe Congress will get answers quicker than weekend, but I honestly don't know.

Speaker 1: 16:41 So we'll have to watch, watch and see and see what Congress does and what the vets in the meantime are kind of caught in the middle.

Speaker 4: 16:48 Yup. Yeah, exactly.

Speaker 1: 16:50 I've been speaking with I news source reporter Brad Racino. Thanks, Brad. Thanks Mark. Extensive coverage of protest and sporadic violence. Following the police killing of George Floyd has again brought to the fore a deficiency in American newsrooms. Journalists of color are underrepresented. Joining me to discuss this as Laura Costa nada community opinion editor at the San Diego union Tribune. Hi Laura, thanks for joining us.

Speaker 5: 17:14 Yes. Thank you for having me Mark

Speaker 1: 17:16 Your recent column for the union Tribune examines, how newspaper television and radio newsrooms are largely white and male. When compared to the population, especially in California, what are some of the reasons for this disparity?

Speaker 5: 17:28 Well, you know what, Mark, I think this goes back a long way. This is nothing new. Um, I have been a journalist for almost 30 years, and I remember when I started in Chicago, which is my hometown. I remember walking into that newsroom, you know, when you're talking about at least a hundred or 150 people in the newsroom, and I could count on one hand the number of people that looked like me or had a last name like me, um, there's a significant, more black population in Chicago. So there was more representation, but Latinos were not represented, um, in that newsroom anyway, at the time fairly nor were Asians. Um, so this is nothing new. And you know, when you're a journalist, you're a journalist and you don't advocate you don't, you're not an activist. You don't, it's not really your job, but organizations started popping up. Um, I'm sure you've heard of the national association of Hispanic journalists, Asian journalists, black journalists. So, you know, this, this dialogue has been going on for quite some time. It's nothing new,

Speaker 1: 18:30 Right? There's an old adage that a journalist report on everything except what's going on in their own newsrooms.

Speaker 5: 18:36 True. And you know what I do also want to mention that, um, you know, I'm brand spanking new to the union Tribune. I just walked in the door on March 16th, if you can believe that. And, um, I had been a journalist for a long time in San Diego and decided to take a break and went into academia for about 15 years. And so I'm back in a newsroom back in a news environment, which I miss very much, but you know, what a time to do it. Right. And I, I really applaud, um, Matt hall, the director of the editorial and opinion section, because when I went to him with the idea, as we're starting to dissect some of the areas where we really think we need to have more dialogue and voices, um, regarding the black lives matter movement, I did mention journalism. And I said, you know, that is an area that people have been talking about for a long time. So I remember the, um, the headline that they used was something to do with, you know, looking in the mirror. And I thought that was appropriate because it is very hard to look in the mirror sometimes and admit that you have worked to do, or you could do better. And I think it was clear from the voices that were in those opinions that, um, that's really what was being suggested that we, um, there's dialogue to be had.

Speaker 1: 19:52 Right. And you mentioned the, uh, the timing here we are in unprecedented times, they've got the pandemic, all the social unrest that we've all been reporting on, and that expose our inequities in newsrooms. How's this prompting some journalists to speak up and call for better representation in newsrooms.

Speaker 5: 20:08 I think it's like everything else. I think people have had it. Um, a lot of the salaries are not equitable. A lot of the, um, hiring the representation and, and also in management positions, you know, I don't, I, I did not write that to point fingers at anybody. And I'll tell you that before, you know, when I was in the classroom, um, I have engaged in serious conversations with a lot of the managers in San Diego, and I even was representing some people as a talent manager for awhile. Um, so, so I had to have those conversations and it was never meant to point the finger at somebody, but more so to say, you know, let's talk about this and how can do better. And there are newsrooms in San Diego that do not represent the numbers in this community. So that's really what, you know, I'm hoping that by that it starts some serious dialogue so that we can see some change.

Speaker 1: 21:02 Well, locally, the San Diego union Tribune published a series of guest columns by local reporters telling how they've experienced racism. What did you see in those stories? What'd you learn from those stories?

Speaker 5: 21:13 I learned that there is, um, a wide variety of opinions. I've learned that, um, a lot of journalists of color feel like a double responsibility when they go out to cover stories in their own communities. Like there was, uh, some, some of the reporters were mentioning things that happened in their own personal lives. And, you know, you don't, you want to make sure that you're not going to be biased when you, you know, but I have seen another, um, on social media that some African American reporters, some black reporters and other cities were pulled off of covering the black lives matter movement because, um, you know, they, their managers didn't feel it was appropriate for them to cover. And I got to say, you know, I think that should be done on a case by case basis. Um, if somebody feels that they can do a better job because of language or because of culture.

Speaker 5: 22:02 Um, and sometimes if they've already been dealing with people in that community, they're going to have better connections. So, you know, I think everybody needs to be, to be realistic about that and not always send the Latino to the border and always send the person of color to, you know, Southeast San Diego. But I think we, you know, that's where all of this conversation and it's uncomfortable. I mean, let's face it, it is an uncomfortable conversation to have because we're not activists, we're covering news, we're covering stories, but, um, I think it has to start at home,

Speaker 1: 22:37 Right. And a lot of people would say, well, maybe there's just a simple solution to this hire more women hire more people of color. And some outlets will say, well, we just don't have a diverse pool of candidates, but you're saying that just speaks to the need for better networking and nurturing earlier in the careers and in the pipeline. And in academia,

Speaker 5: 22:56 I really do believe that that could make a huge difference. I mean, internships are great. And, um, you know, even in the smaller markets where you're gonna find entry-level people starting out their careers, but right now we're in a horrible, horrible time for anybody to be thinking about, um, launching their career because of the pandemic. And I know that a lot of companies are not going to be hiring right now, but, um, you know, I still think that there's ways for all of us who are veterans and who've been around the block to try to mentor. I spent 15 years in the classroom, um, mentoring people in a paid off, because now I can tell you that I've had stewed former students that made it to the weather channel and Telemundo network and, um, Chicago and New York, they're all over the place. So I know for a, I can speak for myself that if you mentor and you nurture and you give people hope because, you know, when they there's disparities everywhere, but once journalism students go to their university or their community college, and they don't see professors in that looked like them, you know, it kind of starts there.

Speaker 5: 24:02 It's like, what makes me think I can be a journalist, but if you give them hope and you nurture them and mentor them, I really do think that all of us can make a difference.

Speaker 1: 24:11 And the union Tribune recently made some changes to its editorial board. And you're now a member what's different now

Speaker 5: 24:18 While there's three women there, which I think is the first time we also have some millennials, which makes a huge difference because as all the newspapers are trying to figure out how to equally, um, charge their digital, um, programming and their digital content that, you know, we all ages, all races, all religion. It's just, I've always made the statement. The more diverse your newsroom is, and your editorial board, the better and stronger your editorial board of newsroom are going to be when I walked into the newsroom at KTTV and in 95, when I got there and I saw how few people of color there were, how few Latinos there were and how few people that spoke Spanish in the newsroom, I was just flabbergasted. I don't know what other word to use. Um, so I think that, you know, in this community, because we're just at the hip with Mexico, we, you know, we, we just really need to do better and we can do better. We can do better. And, and maybe it takes these uncomfortable conversations for us to encourage managers that we're here to help. We're not trying to criticize. We're here to help.

Speaker 1: 25:28 I've been speaking with Laura, the community opinion editor at the San Diego union Tribune. Thanks, Laura.

Speaker 5: 25:35 Thank you for having me

Speaker 1: 25:36 That wraps up another week of stories at the KPBS round table. I'd like to thank my guests, Abby Alford of CBS eight, San Diego, Brad Racino of I new source and Laura Casta, NATA of the San Diego union Tribune. You ever miss our show? You can download the KPBS round table podcast on your favorite podcast app. I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for being with us today and join us again next week on the round table.

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Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.