'Worst. Editorial. Guidance. Ever.' KQED Science Reporters Reflect on the Pandemic's Early Days

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A woman arrives at San Francisco International Airport from Wuhan, China, on Jan. 21, 2020. (Lesley McClurg/ KQED)

It was a year ago that we suddenly all found ourselves working from home and obsessively washing our hands as the novel coronavirus started to spread in the U.S. and the Bay Area. A lot has changed since then: how we live, work, parent, plan and communicate. The coronavirus is hardly “novel” anymore. It has altered all of our lives.

KQED science reporters Lesley McClurg and Peter Arcuni, along with science editor Jon Brooks, spoke with Morning Edition host Brian Watt about what it was like to cover an unprecedented global pandemic over the past year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been covering COVID-19 since before it was even called that. Can you take us back to those early days before we knew much about the virus?

Peter Arcuni:  I remember coming into work last January expecting to do a story about fish ears. But my editor pulled me aside and said, ‘Hey, we need you to roll on a CDC teleconference about an outbreak of this new virus in China.’ And that's when I learned about it for the first time. At that point, we didn't even know what to call it. It didn't have an official name, and what was a coronavirus anyway? As reporters, I think we were all just scrambling to figure out how serious it was.

Lesley McClurg: I think it was the exact same morning that I heard my first news clip about some virus circulating in China. I went back and listened and 17 people had died by that point. I was assigned to go to the San Francisco International Airport and just meet people coming in from a place called Wuhan and asked them, "What is it like in China?" So I raced to the airport. I had no idea even how to say the word Wuhan. I remember being really embarrassed about that. So I'm waiting for people coming in from customs and some are wearing masks and I start talking to them. I remember one woman, she was actually carrying her mask, and she was obviously not very worried about the new “coronavirus.”

Most people were pretty excited to come to San Francisco. It was Lunar New Year. That was the last direct flight to come in from Wuhan.

Jon Brooks:  What I remember clearly is talking to the head of our online engagement team in January after the first U.S. cases were reported. She was concerned about this coronavirus thing. I had seen things in the news and we hadn't really been covering it. And I remember telling her, “Yeah, don't worry about it.” Worst. Editorial. Guidance. Ever.

Even after that, we did have a lot of editorial discussion over how much attention to give this. I remember talking to our NPR colleagues about not wanting to overplay this because we didn't quite know what was happening. We did not want to panic anyone unnecessarily.

What is a story you remember doing that really sticks out in your memory?

LM: The virus hit home for me in April. I was interviewing this young guy named Colin Finnerty, a 21-year-old who works at a ski resort; he's a lift operator there.  The virus just took him out. This kid spent 10 days in the hospital. He almost didn't make it. And that's when I remember thinking, okay, this thing is not the flu.

PA: In the beginning the virus really was this scary unknown for people.  So as reporters, we wanted to start putting a face to it. The first person I got to know who had it was a cruise ship passenger named Carl Goldman who wound up in Nebraska in a biocontainment lockdown facility for a month. Nowadays, he would probably just spend two weeks at home isolating. But what struck me was Carl's super positive attitude. I remember him talking about doing his 10,000 steps in this tiny room in Nebraska.

I spoke to Carl a few weeks ago, and unfortunately he has some long hauler symptoms. He's actually been in a wheelchair due to a nerve condition that he and his doctors think could have been exacerbated by COVID-19. But Carl being Carl, he's kept positive. He even wants to book another cruise.

JB: I edited one of Lesley's stories about doctors and nurses who were absolutely exhausted and feeling “betrayed” by people who weren't following the guidelines. These health care workers were breaking down, witnessing so much death and pain. And they knew it didn't have to be this way. They knew if people had just followed the guidelines, they wouldn't be there in the hospital.

The other thing I remember is, I was live blogging everything. And then when the news came down that Major League Baseball was shutting down — that of all things hit me — because they played entire seasons during World War II. They did not stop. If they were shutting down Major League Baseball, exactly what were we dealing with here?

Things really were moving fast. You could go to the kitchen to get a glass of water and the whole story changed when you got back to your computer. So did covering the coronavirus change how you report your stories?

LM: As a science reporter, you really want science to be way down the line in terms of our understanding of something. It has to be vetted by journals and editors and peers. And you don't put it on the air until we really know that it's solid, factual science.

At this point in the coronavirus, we didn't know anything. And so we're putting stuff on the air that's a preprint, stuff that has never been vetted by peer review. You know, can you get the coronavirus from touching a surface? Is it airborne? We didn't know whether those answers were concrete, and we had to be vetting them on the air.

I think my takeaway is that, as science reporters, we need to do a lot more educating the public about the scientific process so they understand that's how science works. Because I think they were really confused that we had information that changed over time, and yet that really is science.

JB: It was not just “news you can use,” it was “news you must use.” You know: Your school won't be open tomorrow; in fact, don't even leave your house. What started as a science story, became a public health story, became an everything story.

The other thing was this was a very hard story to report and keep track of because the health officials sort of kept moving the goal post of what was important to them. Early on they were tracking these metrics that they called “indicators,” including contact tracing ability and protective equipment supply and other stuff. We tried to stay abreast of all that. It was a lot of work. But pretty soon they just ditched the whole thing. They scrapped it and started keeping track of other things that they felt were important. And, you know, I think they were kind of making it up as they went along and we had to go along for the ride.

As the pandemic continued, was there a sense of monotony ever, even though things seem to be changing a lot, did you start feeling like you were kind of saying the same stuff?

PA: Absolutely. As much as things were changing, there were other things that were staying the same: Stay 6 feet apart; do your activities outside; wash your hands; wear your mask. I started to feel like there were only so many times I could write that story before the audience would tune out or burnout or get fatigued. For us science reporters, I think one of the big things was sitting down and talking about how we can tell these stories in new, creative ways. So we did FAQs. We made a quiz for people to test how well they were doing in their stay at home bubble. I remember doing a PSA early on with my daughter to show people how to wash their hands and why it works.

The challenge, and really the hope, was to help the audience, without totally freaking them out or losing them. 

If another pandemic came around, what is your take away from this one?

LM: Well, I certainly wouldn't run to the airport the next time a virus is circulating. Hopefully we learned some of the basics. I also think I would focus more on the positive. I think journalists are kind of inherently skeptical, kind of picky people. I think we really focused on a lot of the concerns: Do masks work 100 percent? Is this vaccine 100 percent effective? And yet masks, we have learned, work really well, even if they're not 100 percent effective. And this vaccine is almost 100 percent effective, and I don't think we really stressed that enough

PA: And in terms of vaccines, you know, how fast we got them. A year ago, doctors were telling us it could be two years, maybe a year. We got three vaccines in less than a year, which is just crazy when you think about the decades it can take to develop other vaccines. We still don't have a vaccine for HIV. So even with all the uncertainty and the snafus with testing and the response on the federal level, there were some real bright spots for science.

JB: I will certainly remember how rapidly the rug can be pulled out from underneath the entire world. Just like that, things were shut down. But I will also remember the resilience of us, the human race. We're still here. Take that, coronavirus. We're going to beat you.

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