How does a local health reporter cover a pandemic? Lots of trust

Emily Woodruff is a second-year Report for America corps member, who covers health care and public health in southern Louisiana for The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate with a focus on the New Orleans metro region.

Headlines at the end of March blamed Mardi Gras for the potential spread of coronavirus, calling it a “perfect incubator” and a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the weeks-long celebration played a “significant role” in transmission.

Emily Woodruff

When news broke out that New Orleans became an epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic, the national audience was quick and willing to say, “Of course, this happened in New Orleans,” explained Emily Woodruff. “It’s a tiresome narrative that doesn’t actually help people who live here.”

“While statistics and large numbers can make a good news splash, people in New Orleans actually want to know why this is happening and what to do about it,” said Woodruff. As a health reporter, Emily started writing about coronavirus very early on — her first piece was on January 30. Her newsroom had been tracking the progress of the virus, waiting for it to get closer. 

Woodruff even interviewed John Barry, who wrote an award-winning book on the 1918 flu pandemic. She had also built relationships with staff in the region’s hospital system over the course of her past year with Report for America. Gradually, responses went from “we are fine; there’s nothing to worry about here” to “please send help.” 

Woodruff’s news organization set up a Google form to solicit tips and questions from community members. It garnered over 200 responses. Some medical professionals sent inventory lists to show how dire the situation was. At first, people mostly had medical questions, like how the disease is transmitted and if getting COVID-19 made you immune. More recently, readers are concerned about what it means for New Orleans when hospitalizations and ventilator use fluctuates.

Most surprisingly though, Emily says responses from the general public showed that, “People were actually reading my stuff. Covering the impact of coronavirus in New Orleans is about trust, and our community trusts us.” 

People wrote Woodruff and her newsroom questions and concerns, even pointing out nuances in data they had shared. “It has been encouraging for me as a reporter, to see that people cared and were asking really thoughtful questions.” 

The community’s need for information has pushed the newsroom’s reporters to cover everything through the lens of coronavirus. “I have never been on so many collaborative pieces,” Woodruff said, pleasantly surprised. While she is the health reporter, every reporter in the newsroom has made her job easier because together, they can cover a lot more stories. 

Woodruff recently spoke about how the. coronavirus has changed the way she works in an interview with CNN. Most importantly for her, Woodruff misses connecting with people in New Orleans. New Orleans still has a population that believes in the power of community: a nonprofit called Krewe of Red Beans raised over $160,000 to feed hospital workers amazing food from locally owned businesses, supporting the hospitality industry that has been hit hard by a lack of tourism and state-wide shutdowns. 

More personally, she recalls writing a story about a woman whose father died in the hospital from coronavirus. Normally, Woodruff would go visit that woman in her home, bring a photographer along, and meet her in person. “Now, I have to do it over the phone. It’s definitely not the same, but we have to make do.”