Coronavirus Reminds Journalists To Prepare for Public Health Emergencies

March 11, 2020
Workers for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority sanitize a subway care in response to COVID-19. Photo: New York MTA. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Coronavirus Reminds Journalists To Prepare for Public Health Emergencies

By Joseph A. Davis

Whether or not the new COVID-19 coronavirus devastates the United States, experts remind us that the wise move is to be ready. Being prepared applies to journalists too.

COVID-19 may be a public health story — but like a good many other public health emergencies in recent years, it is also at least partly an environmental story. 

Think about Zika, Lyme disease, West Nile, the H1N1 swine flu and other viruses. Or think about foodborne diseases like the E. coli that has plagued romaine and other greens, Vibrio in crab meat and Salmonella in eggs. Or think about waterborne diseases like Legionnaires’ disease in Flint, Cryptosporidium in Milwaukee or microcystins in Toledo.

You probably don’t want to think about what would happen if a tank car full of chlorine gas or of hydrofluoric acid were ruptured in an urban area, or if methyl isocyanate was released in West Virginia. 

But if you are an environmental journalist, you probably should.


Preparing for the unknown

The environment is an important dimension in all these types of public health emergencies — all of which could potentially result in serious illness, injury or loss of life. 

Each is different. But being prepared to cover all kinds of public health emergencies involves some generalized skills and sources that environmental journalists may want to know about.

First thing is, you have to be ready for the unknown. 

Case in point: A spilled chemical polluted the drinking water in Charleston, W.V., in 2014. Nobody had ever heard of the chemical (MCHM) before and it was so rare it wasn’t really regulated. Even its toxicity hadn’t really been studied. Yet it was a health threat, and kept some 300,000 residents in nine counties from drinking their tap water (may require subscription) for months. 

Government agencies evaded reporters demanding answers, partly because they didn’t know, and partly because they didn’t want people to know that. Both the officials and the reporters were improvising — and dealing with unknown risks.


Do you have a “go bag” for journalistic 

emergencies? The best time to think about that 

was three months ago. The second best time is now.


Secondly, do you have a “go bag” for journalistic emergencies? The best time to think about that was three months ago. The second best time is now. 

There have been plenty of lists for what to include in an emergency kit (here's another). But environmental journalists may add special things for public health emergencies.

One such item would be an N95 or N99 breathing mask (thanks to COVID-19, they are probably sold out for now). How about a respirator that will protect you from chemical fumes? Here’s a user guide (and a government fact sheet and more guidance). 

Add some hand sanitizer and your favorite antihistamines. What about rugged binoculars for watching at a safe distance? A few pair of latex gloves don’t take much room. Better yet, a pair of chemical-resistant nitrile gloves.  

Third, do you have a phone app for hazmat emergencies and railcar spills? 

Some, like AskRail, are only for first responders. But the one known as UN Number is free and open. Better yet, put the CAMEO software suite (the one they carry on the hazmat fire trucks) on your laptop or smartphone

Weather radar apps are always handy. Especially in a hurricane.

Knowing the landscape ahead of time is good for at least two reasons. First, the key information may not exist or may be unknown to responsible authorities. Second, the authorities may not want you to know the information — they may hide it, downplay it or spin it. As with the developing COVID-19 story, unknowns and spin have been plentiful.


Story ideas

Some of the best stories are less about the headlines of the moment (which are likely to change) and more about whether we are really prepared for what could well be coming. 

Angles can range from local to global. Among them:

  • What is the hospital surge capacity? Are your local emergency rooms prepared for a large mass-casualty event? Do they have enough beds for a public health emergency? How about isolation beds? Do they have enough ventilators for something like COVID-19 or a large release of chlorine? What happens if hospital staff are injured, sick or quarantined?
  • What will happen in your community? If it is struck by a serious and contagious disease, are there any plans or preparedness for a large-scale lockdown like the one in Wuhan? What will schools do? What will parents do if schools close? Which businesses will close? What will happen to transit and other public facilities?
  • What is the state of vaccination programs?  In your state or locality, have there been any outbreaks of vaccinatable diseases like measles? Do people resist vaccination?
  • Are there any chemical-handling facilities? Does your area have facilities that could produce mass casualties? Check via RTK-Net. What are the preparations for such an event?
  • Could your area be safely and quickly evacuated? Don’t assume that in a public health emergency evacuation is always possible (it isn’t), or even that a good plan exists for managing it.
  • What would happen if your community had to be quarantined? Are there plans for quarantine or “sheltering in place”? How would people be supplied with necessities like food and water?
  • What are the channels for communicating public health messages to the public? How does your media outlet fit into this? 


Reporting resources — federal agencies

We almost hate to say this, but federal agencies are (or should be) key information sources in a public health emergency.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is both a boon and a bane to journalists. But the CDC employs many of the real experts on public health threats (waterborne, foodborne, vector-borne and otherwise transmitted). There is a lot of accurate and trustworthy information on their website. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the CDC can be uptight with the news media.
  • The National Institutes of Health is a collection of sub-agencies primarily devoted to scientific research on various health topics. Right now, with COVID-19 in the news, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (directed by Dr. Anthony Fauci) is the media focus. But environmental reporters should be aware of others, like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or the National Cancer Institute.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, well-known to most environmental journalists, often plays a key role in certain public health emergencies. It may field incident managers in a variety of situations, especially oil and chemical spills, toxicity situations and radiological releases. There may be a highly informed scientist at an obscure lab, and they may be willing to talk to you. But EPA’s press office is often surly with the media.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, gets involved in a variety of disasters, many of which have both a public health and an environmental component.
  • The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is a specialized agency that investigates health problems that may be caused by either chemical or biological agents.
  • The American Public Health Association is a nonprofit non-governmental organization with a professional membership that advocates good public health policies.  


Reporting resources — state and local agencies

Barring a global or national catastrophe, your public health emergency may happen at the regional, state or local level. To prepare ahead, establish contacts, sources and rapport with the public health agencies in your area.

Virtually every state has a public health department, and these are a key component of a national network that collaborates with CDC and other federal health agencies. They are also a key checkpoint in health surveillance and the compilation of statistics. 

Find your state public health department and talk with it before an emergency happens. The CDC has a list of those agencies (and here’s another). Often these are the agencies that compile cancer registries and similar data.

County public health departments are generally where the rubber meets the road, healthwise — real professionals working with real cases. If you can’t find your county health department, there is a directory here which may help, or check in with the National Association of County and City Health Officials for further perspective.


Reporting resources — media sources & journalism groups

When the government is giving you bad information, or no information, it is good to know where you can turn for accurate, reliable facts. 

Surprise! That may often be some of your fellow news media (but not always). Skip the cable nets, Facebook and Twitter. But do go to specialized media experienced and knowledgeable on the subject of interest. 

Here are some we know and trust:

A number of journalism groups work in advance of public health and other emergencies to collect resources handy in disasters. 

Here are some relevant ones:

  • Committee to Protect Journalists: The CPJ’s Journalist Security Guide is a treasure. Its Emergencies Response Team could save your butt. And its checklist for covering COVID-19 was published before it was cool.
  • Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press: The stalwart engine of press freedom in the U.S. All their publications help, but bookmark their Legal Defense and FOIA Hotline for when you are in a bind and need legal advice.
  • Society of Environmental Journalists: The SEJ website and meetings are a wide-ranging resource for info on covering public health emergencies. One good strategy is searching on our website for specific keywords related to your topic.
  • Association of Health Care Journalists: This professional specialty group embraces a range of health-related topics. They have been all over the COVID-19 story.
  • National Association of Science Writers: NASW has a range of resources to help journalists stay scientifically accurate, including public information officers.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet and Reporter's Toolbox columns. Davis also directs SEJ's WatchDog Project and writes WatchDog Tipsheet, and compiles SEJ's daily news headlines, EJToday.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 10. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

SEJ Publication Types: