Category Archives: COVID-19

Award-winning journalist explains how to build meaningful connections with sources

Emily Woodruff

Emily Woodruff, a health care reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, was recognized as one of the winners of AHCJ’s 2021 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the beat reporting and health policy (small) categories at Health Journalism 2022.

Her winning local COVID-19 coverage offered a vivid picture of how Louisiana’s hospitals, health care providers and residents were coping with the ongoing pandemic and other events impacting health in communities, such as hurricanes, the opioid epidemic and other diseases. In many of her articles, Woodruff provided readers with a sense of connection to people featured in her stories. 

In this “How I did It,” Woodruff shares her process for building trust with sources and enlivening her stories. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you create captivating scenes in your articles? What are your top tips?

You can probably tell in the stories when I was there with someone as an interaction unfolded or when I got to meet someone in their environment. I think that helps a lot. During COVID, we weren’t able to do a lot of that, and it’s something I missed. I think health care reporters in general, have to spend more time interviewing someone for any given story. Often [health reporters] are interviewing people who aren’t used to talking to the media. For a lot of these stories, you have to spend some time [with them]. You have to indicate that you understand where they’re coming from. So, a lot of times that looks like just being informed about whatever issue it is that they’re facing.

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The Monkeypox threat and what we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic

An electron microscopic (EM) image depicting a monkeypox virion. (Image courtesy of the CDC Public Health Image Library.)

The world isn’t done with the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic, and now another pathogen has public health officials on high alert: the monkeypox virus.

Monkeypox is a rare viral disease seldom detected outside of west and central Africa, where the disease is endemic. Recently, it has emerged in places globally where it isn’t endemic and impacted populations that aren’t typically vulnerable to the virus, which causes a rash, skin pustules, fever and body aches.

As of May 21, the World Health Organization reported 92 laboratory-confirmed cases and 28 suspected cases in 12 countries where the disease isn’t endemic, including the United States. On May 23, the CDC said there has been one laboratory-confirmed case in Massachusetts and four suspected cases in three U.S. states — Florida, New York and Utah. Those infected are mostly men, but in the past, monkeypox cases have mostly occurred in children.

Monkeypox showing up in places where it isn’t endemic and affecting a different population is concerning public health officials. The initial sequencing of the monkeypox cases shows the strain is similar to the endemic virus in west Africa — raising questions about how it was transmitted — as many of those who have become sick never traveled to Africa.

“The emergence of the virus in separate populations across the world where it doesn’t usually appear has alarmed scientists — and sent them racing for answers,” wrote Max Kozlov in a  May 20 Nature article. Much of what scientists know about monkeypox is based on 1,500 cases as of 2018.

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FDA Commissioner Califf sounds the alarm on health misinformation

Photo by Paola RodriguezRobert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., speaking with an attendee at Health Journalism 2022.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., M.A.C.C., isn’t easy to rattle.

During a Q&A on Friday, April 29, at Health Journalism 2022 in Austin, he told journalists that after “surviving a harrowing confirmation process” he’s feeling confident about the FDA’s ability to tackle all of the challenges before it, including food safety, children’s COVID vaccines, teen vaping, among others.

Though the agency has been hit with criticism from lawmakers, industry and the public, he’s taking it in stride.

“I’m 70 years old. I’m relatively impervious to critique. What are they going to do to me now?” he said during the session moderated by AHCJ’s core topic leader on patient safety Kerry Dooley Young.

But the issue that keeps him up at night, he said, is the proliferation of false and misleading health information, particularly online — and the distrust in institutions, data and expertise that it has wrought.

“I believe that misinformation is now our leading cause of death,” he said, naming ongoing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, the number of people taking Ivermectin and the prevalence of vaping as examples of the problem. “Historically, the FDA has been relatively quiet and puts out definitive information through guidance or labels or regulatory actions … that would be transmitted to consumers and patients through trusted intermediaries. But the world has changed at this point.”

All this, he argued, had fueled the drop in life expectancy in the U.S. compared to other wealthy nations, and he urged reporters to avoid clickbait, lean into fact checking, make sure the headline matches the copy and take other steps to responsibly convey news about COVID-19 and other pressing health concerns.

“People are distracted and misled by the medical information Tower of Babel,” he said. “But journalists like yourselves play an important role here and your work has a tremendous impact on public trust.”

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Why the US nursing home system is ‘in desperate need of an overhaul’

A recent comprehensive and detailed report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for a revamping of how we care for, finance, and manage nursing homes in the United States, and an overhauling of how employees are hired and trained.

The 600-page report, released on April 6, identified seven major areas requiring transformation to provide high-quality care to all nursing home residents. Strengthening the nursing home workforce, improving emergency preparedness, and increasing the transparency and accountability of nursing homes’ finances, operations and ownership are key goals among the report’s comprehensive recommendations. Efforts will require true collaboration between state and federal authorities, providers, payers and advocates, according to the report’s authors.

The report provides an opportunity for journalists to hold CMS, state officials and owners more accountable for how care is delivered and received for some 1.3 million people in more than 15,000 nursing homes throughout the United States.

“The way in which the United States finances, delivers, and regulates care in nursing home settings is ineffective, inefficient, fragmented and unsustainable,” said Betty Ferrell, Ph.D., director of nursing research and education and professor at City of Hope Medical Center and chair of the Committee on the Quality of Care in Nursing homes, during an online presentation of the committee’s conclusions. (The committee’s work is sponsored in part by the John A. Hartford Foundation, which also sponsors AHCJ’s aging core topic area).

“The committee has delivered a blueprint to build a system of care that honors those who call the nursing home their home and the dedicated staff who care for them,” Ferrell wrote in the report.

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Former CDC leaders say agency needs more funding and better communication to restore trust

Former directors of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered for an online debate last week to discuss ways to retool the nation’s largest public health agency and regain the public’s trust.

Two years after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, only 44% of Americans say they trust the CDC for information about COVID-19, down significantly from April 2020 when 69% of Americans said they trusted the agency, according to this NBC News poll.  

There is a myriad of reasons why trust in the agency has eroded, including the botched rollout of COVID-19 testing at the very beginning of the pandemic, increased political polarization that has deepened distrust of federal institutions and scientists, lack of timely COVID-19 data and challenges within the agency in communicating public health guidance about the pandemic.

“Worldwide, people have lost faith in institutions,” William Roper, M.D., M.P.H., CDC director from 1990 to 1993, said during the April 5 webinar hosted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “CDC is unfortunately a part of that.”

He added that the ongoing challenge for CDC is to do a better job of explaining the uncertainty of the scientific process, which, if detailed more clearly, could help restore the public’s trust.

“I’m not criticizing any decisions recently made or done or whatever,” he said. “But I think it’s important that each time CDC or any other health official makes a pronouncement, to say with humility…. ‘This is what we know today. And this is our best advice given what we know today. We may know [something different] tomorrow, and if it is different from what we know today, we will change our advice tomorrow.’”

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