Keep these tips in mind when covering Biden's COVID-19 response

Published on
February 5, 2021

Since taking office last month, President Joe Biden has launched an ambitious plan to stem the pandemic in his first 100 days in office.

Amid the change in leadership, journalists must continue to bring context, perspective and accountability to their coverage, and that means closing examining Biden’s plans and their impact, said Amy Goldstein, a staff writer for The Washington Post who covers health care policy.

“The pandemic is still the pandemic no matter who is in the White House,” Goldstein told fellow reporters in a Center for Health Journalism Covering Coronavirus webinar this week. “Part of our role is a form of accountability journalism.”

Goldstein joined Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, to explore Biden’s policy agenda and share ideas for covering the new administration’s pandemic response.  

What’s new and what’s not

Even in daily stories, it’s important for journalists to set news within a broader context, Goldstein said. When a new policy is announced, examine whether the previous administration had laid any “seeds” or groundwork for it. Consider how the plan compares to other possibilities, and who opposes it. 

While the pandemic’s chronic problems remain, a new administration offers the opportunity for a “compare and contrast situation,” she said.  

One clear change: While the Trump administration was eager to defer to states in areas such as testing and vaccine distribution, Biden wants the federal government to have a stronger role. There’s also a shift towards leading with science. And, Biden has emphasized his commitment to inequalities, addressing health disparities in underserved and minority communities.

In covering the new administration, it’s helpful to divide actions into two categories: What Biden can do on his own and what requires Congressional support, Goldstein said. Biden was quick to issue executive orders in areas such as mask wearing and renewed support for the World Health Organization. But he’ll need Congressional support for his 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan.

Lessons learned

Dr. Leana Wen, an expert in pandemic preparedness and response, highlighted several lessons we’ve learned so far.  For one, we now understand the importance of having a coordinated national response in areas such as personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution and testing, as well as the need for strong data collection.

It’s become evident that hospitals are the last line of defense, not the first. Wen described leaving a tough shift in the emergency department only to see people dining indoors without masks, eating and drinking together — it underscored the importance of taking pro-active measures before people end up in the hospital.

Another lesson: Public health depends on public trust, something that’s hard to recover. That trust can be undermined when there’s a disconnect between public health guidance and elected official messaging. When there are shifts in scientific guidance, the changes need to be explained well.

Finally, COVID-19 dramatically exposed problems such as health disparities and underfunding of public health infrastructure. Now, there is an opportunity to address the problems the pandemic unveiled, she said.

Follow these story threads

Goldstein highlighted several story threads reporters should keep at the forefront of their coverage. Vaccination is the biggest tool the country has to curb the pandemic. Examine how the vaccine is being distributed in your community. What happens if one member of a family is vaccinated and others aren’t? 

Take a look at virus variants and how prevalent they are in your community. The country has lagged in genomic testing. Monitor whether that’s changing under the Biden administration.

Another key area: the ripple effects of the virus. Explore how well the Biden administration is addressing job and health insurance losses. What does health insurance loss mean for local hospitals and health centers? Biden has announced the reopening of the Affordable Care Act health marketplace. Follow that move with accountability stories: How many people are enrolling in your area?  Take a look at Medicaid rolls as well, especially since the economic decline has devastated state budgets.

Wen echoed Goldstein’s advice on accountability reporting. She suggested reporters follow Biden’s plans to distribute vaccinations through pharmacies. What happens if they’re underperforming? Who is keeping track? Are equity issues being addressed through such tracking? Should there be racial prioritizations with the allocation of vaccines to ensure groups most impacted by the virus receive shots?

Wen recommended closely tracking the Biden administration’s vaccine goals, while asking, Should the numbers be set even higher?

“What we really need is a man on the moon moment,” she said. “We need to be bold and aspirational.”

Wen would like to see more good stories of vaccination, such as community vaccination drives in schools or pop up clinics. Share these best practices and inspire others to do the work, she said. Consider creating a dashboard of vaccine bottlenecks in your community. Is there a particular pharmacy or hospital that is holding up distribution efforts? What’s holding up faster distribution at the local level?

Explore the tradeoff between speed of vaccine distribution and equity concerns. While vaccine hesitancy in community of colors is real, it should not be used as an excuse, she said. Take a closer look at whether access is driving inequities in distribution.

Cover scientific disagreements among experts, examining the “gray zones,” in public health policy. For example, one ongoing debate is whether states should give as many first doses as possible or hold doses back to guarantee second doses.

Finally, track where people are getting sick. As more contagious variants spread, Wen is increasingly hearing that patients don’t know how exposure occurred. What activities are no longer safe because of the variants? Where is transmission happening and what are the implications? How is behavior shaping the spread and what does that mean for your community?

“What I really hate is to see schools being closed only for playdates and birthday parties to be happening,” she said. “I hate to see restaurants being closed — and hurting livelihoods — only to have people gathering at their homes having dinner.”


Watch the full presentation here: