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Reporting 2020: Michigan journalists on covering a news year like no other

illustration of nurses and doctors wearing PPE
Kevin Kobsic
United Nations / Unsplash

While we can’t know for sure the number of COVID cases in our communities, the number of confirmed cases has just rounded the 500,000 mark today. As we reckon with these huge numbers, we spoke with Michigan Radio reporters Kate Wells, who covers Southeast Michigan, and Dustin Dwyer, who covers West Michigan, about what reporting on COVID throughout the state has looked like over the past 10 months.

What was it like in the early days?

Just before the lockdown started, Dwyer was in the hospital for heart surgery and got a look at an ICU before anyone was sure of what was happening. When he was speaking with one of his nurses, she mentioned how bad the flu season had been. Dwyer even reported on school closings due to the flu back in January of 2020.

“It had just been this bad flu season and they were already full. The ICU, when I was there, there weren’t any available beds.” Dwyer said. “And so, my thought was, if this coronavirus does happen, if it is as bad as they say it’s going to be, where will the people go?”

When did how serious the situation was hit home?

Wells was on the 2020 election beat before the pandemic hit. The election was set to be the biggest story of the year, but when it became apparent that COVID-19 was going to be a disaster, she switched gears to help cover the pandemic full time. She remembers the first press conference from Beaumont Health, where reporters started standing six feet apart from each other.

“My partner is an emergency medical doctor and I remember at first he felt like this was sort of being overblown,” Wells said. “I remember us sitting outside a bar a couple of days later when it really hit everybody that this was going to be extremely serious, that this was real, and that this was right here in Michigan. And the two of us just looking at each other and being completely terrified of what this upcoming year would be and what he and his coworkers were starting to see inside of these hospitals in Southeast Michigan."

What has been the impact on health care workers?

While the pandemic has impacted everyone in some way, healthcare workers were thrown into the frontline against the pandemic. Hospital staff have worked to fight not only the disease, but also misinformation and people not taking COVID-19 seriously, Wells said.

Doctors and nurses have experienced severe burnout and exhaustion, which will likely stay with them for long after the vaccines are distributed, says Dwyer. One nurse he talked to quit her job because the emotional and physical exhaustion was too overwhelming.

“There was another nurse who spoke to me in Muskegon who worked in the ICU who said she lost every single patient for two months straight, not one of her patients survived. And these are not experiences that these people will get over any time soon."

What are some remaining questions?

It’s now 2021, and while more is known about the virus than in March of 2020, many questions and concerns remain. Dwyer said he's waiting to see what the caseload might be in the coming months as the first round of vaccines rolls out.

Wells said she is wondering when we will have enough data to know whether transmission of COVID-19 is possible after vaccination. She’s also concerned about the logistics surrounding vaccine distribution, which has begun in hospitals, but not without some issues.

“What is this going to look like as we try to broaden this to more people? I think that’s what everybody is wondering right now.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.