What We Thought: One Year Into The Pandemic, Our Reporters Reflect
On today's program: The COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, protests for racial justice, an election and the vaccination effort; reporters from the WESA newsroom explain what information we had when the state went into lockdown a year ago, how the pandemic impacted the biggest news events of the year, and they’ll discuss what has changed since then.
March 16, 2020: Gov. Tom Wolf orders the state into a lockdown
(1:00 — 7:00)
On March 16, 2020 the first lockdown was ordered in Pennsylvania.
Over the last year, much has improved regarding suggested safety procedures, what is known about transmission of COVID-19 and how to protect oneself.
“The goal [of the shutdown] was to buy time,” explains WESA health reporter Sarah Boden. “It was to flatten the curve long enough for us to get our ducks in a row to make sure that when people did need medical care because of COVID, our facilities were ready.”
Later shutdowns were more targeted, she says, because public health officials had more information.
“The biggest [early misconception] was that it was believed that the main concern of the virus was surface transmission,” says Boden. “It’s not that that is not a risk, but really the main source of transmission, it appears to be breathing in the virus.”
“Once we realized that masks were absolutely necessary to survive the pandemic, and people were being told then to wear a mask, people got really confused.”
The revised messaging, says Boden, became a reason for some to oppose mask wearing and undermine public health officials by saying the changing guidance meant officials were untrustworthy.
Boden says opposing the first lockdown and later lockdown orders became an emotional, symbolic act.
April 9, 2020: Gov. Wolf announces schools will be closed for the remainder of the semester
(7:27 — 13:07)
On April 9, 2020 Gov.Tom Wolf announced that schools would be closed for the remainder of the academic year.
By then, 21,500 people had died from COVID-19 nationwide. In Allegheny County, 68 people had died from the disease.
Schools were scrambling to get technology into students’ hands as districts conducted learning online.
“Students with disabilities and English Language Learners have been in almost an impossible situation,” says WESA education reporter Sarah Schneider. “I’ve spoken with parents who have seen their children regress in troubling and upsetting ways.”
Schneider says districts are considering ways to help students who may have fallen behind, but none have officially announced what that help would look like.
“The issue that teachers have expressed to me repeatedly is that they think so many of their students are depressed, and students who were already marginalized and vulnerable before the pandemic, their situations have just been exacerbated.”
Most Pittsburgh Public Schools students have been in remote learning since March, but other private and suburban districts have managed some in-person education, or a hybrid mix of in-person and remote.
“This might not be a lost year,” says Schneider. “Students were still learning in some ways, but in order to be equitable, to care about our kids and the situation, there needs to be a lot of flexibility, and teachers have to sit down individually and figure out what each kid needs.”
May 25, 2020: George Floyd’s death sparks a wave of racial justice protests
(13:22 — 18:49)
May 25, 2020 is the day George Floyd was killed under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. About 102.000 people had died around the U.S. from COVID-19. In Allegheny County, 208 people had died.
A wave of protests swept across the country for weeks, despite the pandemic.
“I think most people paying attention to the pandemic were really worried that these protests would become so-called ‘super-spreader’ events,” says WESA reporter Kiley Koscinski. “But contact-tracing through the county proved that just didn't happen.”
Koscinski says most participants she saw while reporting over the summer were masked, and the demonstrations were outside.
Guidance to prevent COVID-19 urged people not to gather with people outside their household or “pod.” But Koscinski says protestors were allowed to do so, as “an example of the First Amendment prevailing above all else in the United States.”
“A lot of activists have called this a time of two pandemics: Institutional racism as one and COVID-19 as the second,” says Koscinski. “Studies have shown that Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and that was often a theme in these gatherings in calling for better health care access for this population.”
Koscinski says the protests seem to have inspired change. She cites the formation of racial justice organizations, like Pittsburgh, I Can’t Breathe and work to put measures related to policing on the May 18 ballot.
June 2, 2020: Pennsylvania’s primary election
(19:01 — 26:17)
On June 2, 2020, Pennsylvania held its delayed primary election. As of this date, about 109,000 people had died of COVID-19. In Allegheny county, 214 people had died from the disease.
“I remember thinking: An election is kind of the perfect way to spread the coronavirus,” says Lucy Perkins, WESA government and accountability reporter.
“The in-person voting was one thing, and then the other logistics thing that the county had to figure out was how they were going to handle voting-by-mail under this new state law that allows anyone to vote by mail without any reason.”
Perkins says much of her election reporting during 2020 changed: Instead of attending campaign events, she fielded questions about the logistics of voting, specifically by mail.
“I thought [vote counting] would take a lot longer, and it did take a lot longer,” says Perkins. “We were planning for the contingency that we wouldn’t know who won at all on election night and so we were trying to think about, how do you talk about an election that is technically over but we don’t know who won yet?”
Despite the challenges, Perkins says it’s clear that voting by mail expanded voter access, but it’s yet to be seen if such high voter turnout carries over into future elections.
February 27, 2021: Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is approved for use in the United States
(26:32 — 36:15)
On February 27 of this year, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine received emergency use authorization.
At that point, about 512,000 Americans had died of COVID-19, and in Allegheny County about 1,700 people had died from the disease.
This is the third COVID-19 vaccine to get FDA emergency approval.
State health leaders knew vaccines were coming, but the actual distribution, from manufacturer to arms, hasn’t been smooth.
Last week, President Joe Biden announced that every adult in the U.S. would be eligible for a vaccine on May 1.
“I want to caution, this doesn’t mean everyone’s gonna get vaccinated at the beginning of May because as of right now, it looks like there won’t even be enough doses to vaccinate everyone on May 1, though the president says there will be enough by June,” says Sarah Boden, WESA health reporter.
Pennsylvania is estimated to have at least partially vaccinated 3 million people this week.
“That puts Pennsylvania just barely above the national average [of population vaccinated],” says WESA reporter Kiley Koscinski.
The vaccination effort in the state also lacks equity.
“When you look at the proportion of white and Black Pennsylvanians and how the vaccines have been distributed between those two populations, not enough Black people in Pennsylvania are getting vaccinated,” says Boden. She says the state has also failed to track vaccination of other minorities like the Latinx population.
“It just seems like a lot of state governments were caught flat footed,” says Koscinski about the vaccine rollout. “I was surprised at how messy this has gone.”
The data for COVID-19 deaths nationwide is from the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Research Center. The data for COVID-19 deaths in Allegheny County is from the County Health Department’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.