Three ace reporters talk pandemic coverage and the big stories to come

Published on
April 21, 2022

As COVID-19 infections wax and wane, health journalists are shifting their focus to how Americans can learn to live with the virus. Three veteran reporters gave tips to the 2022 California Fellowship on Wednesday via Zoom on what coronavirus-related topics to pursue as the pandemic transitions into its next phase.

San Jose Mercury News science writer Lisa Krieger told the fellows there are several big stories she’s tracking at the moment. “I'm paying a whole lot of attention to long COVID — what are we learning there? And what are we learning about how the virus changes? And then the rollout of therapeutics, and the design of the vaccine,” she said.

With so many Americans gaining at least some level of immunity either from vaccination or infection, the coronavirus is adjusting its strategy, too. How it adapts to our no-longer naive immune systems will be a big story going forward. “This virus that is going to succeed is one that will dodge our defenses,” Krieger said.

Public health officials are already worried about an autumn surge as the protection afforded by vaccines wanes. It also means our future approach to vaccines warrants more attention.

“The practicality of asking people to come in every three to four to five months to get a new booster, that's just not sustainable,” Krieger said. “We’re going to have to give up on the idea of preventing infection completely. What we want is a vaccine that's good enough to reduce severe death and disease.”

Ideally, she said, that would turn into a yearly COVID vaccine combined with the flu shot.

Krieger said we could know the composition of the next vaccine booster by May or June. But shots for children younger than 5 could take a while, because it takes longer to study vaccine efficacy as COVID levels recede. And therapeutics like monoclonal antibody treatments and antivirals haven’t been easy for people to get so far — obstacles have included supply, red tape, and availability of appointments, she said.

Krieger noted that as more people do at-home testing, case numbers are no longer as reliable. So reporters should consider paying attention to studies of wastewater for a more accurate sense of how prevalent the virus is, and which variants are dominant.

In addition, there is a massive research effort underway to better understand long COVID, which also could shed light on how to treat conditions like lupus and chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as the lasting effects of other viruses such as the flu. Stanford, for instance, released a study last week suggesting that long COVID may be linked to virus reservoirs lingering in the gut.

Health reporters might also scrutinize consumers’ rising out-of-pocket costs for COVID tests and treatments, as the government retreats from its “blank check” approach, she said.

Meanwhile, Alejandro Lazo, the California Divide reporter for CalMatters, has been examining how the pandemic is shaping California’s economy and whether it has widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots.

“The pandemic recession of 2020 may not have created more income inequality in California,” he said, likely because of temporary stimulus measures like enhanced unemployment benefits and child tax credits.

He’s also reporting on changes to the labor market. The warehouse industry has been booming in California’s Central Valley; Amazon has done a lot of hiring — will that continue? And what will be the broader effects of the shift to more remote jobs?

“People who worked in janitorial services, and even people who worked in restaurants who serviced people going to the office — where did they go and what is filling the gap?” he said.

Lazo said that inequality “now is part of everybody's beat.”

“It's so blatant now,” he said. “We came from this racial reckoning. Black and brown communities were the ones most affected by this pandemic. They're the ones who have been most affected economically.”

As Victoria Colliver, California health care reporter for POLITICO, pointed out Wednesday, the politics of COVID are changing too.

California lawmakers recently pulled bills that would have added COVID-19 vaccines to the list of required immunizations for schoolchildren and made businesses require the shots for employees.

It shows that vaccine mandates are a tough sell, even in the bluest of states. “If you can't do it in California, where can you do it?” Colliver said.

Public opinion has shifted since these measures were first proposed amid the omicron surge, Colliver noted. She pointed to a recent UC Berkeley poll that found only 4% of voters consider COVID the state’s top concern, turning their focus to “kitchen-table issues” like housing affordability and gas prices.

“People just think that the pandemic is over,” Colliver said.

Krieger, of the Mercury News, said she hopes news outlets retreat from the kind of “shock an awe” COVID stories that editors sometimes promote to garner clicks in favor of more nuanced reporting.

“You can't attract readers just by terrifying them,” she said. “You need to appeal to their innate curiosity about what we're learning. If you respect your readers, people enjoy that and value it.”