‘Whole System in Crisis’: A Short Covid History in My Notebook12/29/2020
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When the coronavirus began to surge once again in New York City this fall, I pulled out a blue notebook from my desk, the one that I had kept for months from the earliest days of the pandemic.
As one of the lead editors of the Metro desk’s pandemic coverage, I had begun to keep a daily log of ideas, lists of articles in progress and notes of conversations in that notebook as a way to counter the many logistical challenges we faced after the newsroom closed in mid-March and we all began to work remotely.
That notebook now reads like a shorthand history of a spiraling outbreak and the countless ways the Metro desk covered it.
“Panic in the department,” read a line from one of the earliest entries, on March 16, referring to the reporter Ali Watkins’s observations about emergency responders. Those notes led to a series of articles by her about the fears and exhaustion those workers faced.
The work during that time was relentless, and by the end of each week I would feel emotionally and physically sapped. For the Metro staff, we were not only covering the epicenter, but we were also living in it. This crisis was happening in our neighborhoods.
On some days, the grim stories made me weep. But the staff powered on because we knew the coverage was important, and we hoped we could save lives by telling the stories of victims and their families and the health care workers on the front lines. I still hope that we did.
On March 17, I wrote down the notes of a conversation with reporters about which of the area hospitals would be the first to be overwhelmed. Someone predicted it would most likely be in the Bronx or Queens.
A week later we knew: On March 24, I wrote down that Elmhurst Hospital Center in Queens had been asking for reinforcements. On March 25, my notes show, we began to plan a story about overwhelmed hospitals in the city that would lead with Elmhurst.
“Whole system in crisis,” I wrote that day.
The story grew bigger than we had imagined. Elmhurst became the story.
With a team of nine reporters, we quickly put together an article that placed Elmhurst as the epicenter of the crisis in the city. (Included in my notes were the names of many Metro reporters and reporters from other desks who pitched in, an indication of the collective effort it took to cover this part of the pandemic.)
A first version of the Elmhurst story quickly caught national attention, and a final version would end up on the front page the next day. For many, the crisis at Elmhurst was the event that truly announced the virus’s arrival.
The worsening situation at hospitals across the city would soon become evident.
“Patients get ill very quickly. Few hours later they decide to intubate,” I wrote on March 26, referring to medical workers.
Later, I added “China/Italy,” suggesting New York City was facing the same dire situation we had seen weeks earlier in those countries.
Tracking the daily list of articles became one of the notebook’s important functions. “Slugs” are the names we give to articles. At one point, we decided that all of our articles about the virus needed to carry the tag “NYVIRUS” to distinguish them from the countless other virus articles in The Times. “NYVIRUS-TESTING,” “NYVIRUS-NURSES” and “NYVIRUS-HOSPITAL” became popular slugs, as we reused them as necessary on different days. Sadly, “NYVIRUS-DEATH” was frequently used, too.
On March 29, “NYVIRUS-INEQUALITY” appeared in my notebook for the first time. The premise was simple: How did income and racial inequalities play a part in how hospitals were able to treat virus patients?
Answering this question would take months of work by journalists, who combined data collection and reporting to show that your chances of survival were affected by which hospital you stayed in. When the article published in July, it became one of the signature pieces of our coverage.
“NYVIRUS-TICKTOCK” appeared in my notebook on March 30 and would end up as the first story that we put together about how state and city officials acted in the weeks leading up to the citywide shutdown in late March.
Looking at my notes, I’m struck by some of the questions we asked ourselves in the early days.
“Will we truly ever know how many people have died?” I wrote on April 8.
New York City lists roughly 25,000 deaths from the coronavirus on its data page. About 4,800 of the fatalities are listed as “probable deaths,” as officials believe people in this group had the virus but never tested positive. In truth, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever really know.
The notes also reveal how long the early days of the pandemic seemed and how news gradually eased as the virus became more contained. The period of March 15 to April 21 spanned the front of every page of the notebook. (I used both sides to conserve paper.) The backside covered April 22 to June 11.
I have since gone through another notebook while covering the pandemic and opened up a third one in September. The newest one has a green cover, and I’m probably a day or so away from needing another one.
Recently, I have been frequently writing NYVIRUS-VACCINE on my daily list of articles. I hope we see much more of this slug in the weeks ahead.
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