From NJ's first COVID case, to the first vaccine: Health reporter reflects on the pandemic
Many have questions about how the COVID-19 vaccine will roll out in NJ, so reporter Lindy Washburn asked health experts for answers. Hosted by Mike Kelly. NorthJersey.com
In early December 2019, I sat in a conference room at the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, listening to its director, Dr. Robert Redfield, answer a question: Is America ready for another major infectious disease like Ebola or the Zika virus?
Redfield's response reiterated what most public health experts knew, but coming from him, it was jarring. "It’s not a secret,” he said. “Our nation is not prepared for a flu pandemic.”
He was certain such a pandemic would one day arrive, and although he couldn't foresee when, he knew it would be bad: “It’s going to be a huge loss of life.”
Little did I — or possibly even he — know how prescient his response was. Substitute "flu" with the generic word “virus,” and it’s clear the leader of what was then regarded as the world’s premier public health institution saw trouble on the horizon.
I was in Atlanta along with a dozen other members of the Association of Health Care Journalists for a weeklong program called “Inside the CDC.” We covered it all, from databases to diabetes, vaping to vaccinations.
After three decades of covering health care in New Jersey, it honestly was a thrill. I was past security and inside the black box, the sanctum sanctorum of health care.
We toured the CDC emergency operations center, with its giant wall of interactive maps and screens. We sat in its conference room, whose windows can be fogged for high security video chats with the White House. We heard from the disease detectives — members of the Epidemic Intelligence Service — who had first identified Legionnaire’s disease and HIV.
Despite all this — and Redfield’s honest assessment of the next big thing — I had no idea what was about to hit me and the North Jersey community I write about.
But when reports began to emerge from China at the end of December about a novel virus infecting people in Wuhan — one never before seen in humans — I could picture what was happening at the CDC. Back in New Jersey, I pricked up my ears. I paid attention.
The first CDC teleconference for reporters about the virus took place on Jan. 17. Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC, announced plans for travelers arriving in the United States from Wuhan to undergo health screenings at airports.
Four days later, she was back. The first case of the novel coronavirus in the U.S.— it wasn’t named COVID-19 for several more weeks — had been diagnosed in a Washington State man who had arrived from China before the screenings began. "CDC activated emergency response center,” my notes read. “Expect additional cases in United States and globally," and “believe the risk to the public is low.”
And so it began.
Messonnier, who once sought to calm our fears, dramatically changed course on Feb. 25. “This could be bad,” she warned the public. She explained that community spread of the disease was imminent and urged Americans to prepare.
After that, she and the CDC were largely shunted aside.
That's when I warned friends on Facebook. Not to be alarmist, I wrote, but "It's time to have a plan. Figure out whether you can work from home, consult the doctor without visiting the office, and what you'll do if schools close. Buy canned food and antiseptic wipes."
Since then, I have joined more than 150 press conferences via Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and phone, with the CDC, the federal Health and Human Services Department, and Gov. Phil Murphy. I have written more than 400 online stories and about 150 for print, all but a handful about the coronavirus. I have lost sleep, canceled vacations and declined a corporate buyout offer. It has been the story of my career — and it’s not over.
It’s shocking how much has changed since those first days.
It has been an emotional roller coaster — for me, as an eyewitness to what front-line health care workers have had to endure, and for those whose lives the virus has disrupted, and ultimately destroyed.
In early March, I started a file in which I attempted to list every patient diagnosed with the coronavirus in New Jersey — not each fatality, mind you, but each patient. That's when each day’s report by state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli contained fewer than 10 new patients. Tests were few and far between.
The first was James Cai, who was admitted to Hackensack University Medical Center on March 4. Now, we’re up to a statewide total of over 479,000 cases — more than 5% of New Jersey’s population.
My attempts at such a list, of course, were soon overwhelmed. What followed was far more grim.
On March 24, Alan Finder, my friend and a onetime Record editor who also was an esteemed journalist at the New York Times, died at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood. My husband, a USA Today reporter who had taken the buyout I declined, wrote his obituary for The Record.
The deaths came quickly back then. Each was a story like Alan’s: a tragic loss, deeply mourned. At The Record, we decided to try to memorialize them — as many as we could. That's how the statewide Loved and Lost series, now coordinated by Montclair State University, began.
We wanted to ensure that the grandparents, parents, children and other loved ones lost to COVID were not reduced to a set of statistics, and to remind readers that these victims were the life and blood, the unique and important threads that helped stitch together the beautiful fabric of our community.
My own role has been to spotlight the health care workers who have died — literally in the line of duty.
Loved and Lost: Emmanuel 'Manny' Carrillo, a family man with a megawatt smile
For me, this job has never been so emotional. Despite all the newly familiar jargon — flattening the curve, PPE, test positivity rates and rates of transmission — for the doctors, nurses, nursing home aides, patients and family members I’ve interviewed, these pandemic months have been a crucible of anxiety, frustration, exhaustion, and horrific loss.
I think of the nurse’s aides who told me in early April of the unseen, smoldering outbreaks at nursing homes around the state, where personal protective equipment and test swabs were locked away, and of their co-workers who were falling sick — sometimes fatally — and of the residents who were dying so quickly they couldn't even be tested.
The residents of one Jersey City nursing home were crying, a nurse there told me. “They're afraid they're going to die. We tell them they'll be OK,” she said. “But we know they won't be." During that interview, she herself was at home with a 103-degree fever.
I think of Arlene Van Dyk, a critical care nurse at Holy Name Medical Center, who told me in late March about the sights and sounds of a 12-hour shift in the intensive care unit where 19 patients were on ventilators. Her patients were sedated into paralysis, but still she spoke words of encouragement to them. They are not “COVID-19 patients,” she said. “They are people.”
And I think of Sofia Burke, whose entire Elmwood Park household of eight became infected with COVID as the result of a single act of kindness — her mother giving a lift to an elderly friend. Sofia’s father died, her mother was hospitalized, and Sophia herself spent Thanksgiving and Christmas on oxygen in the hospital.
She couldn’t help but think of her father’s death and her family’s struggle at home. "Every time I cry,” she said, “my oxygen level goes down.”
There are so many other stories I tried to report: the desperation of family members unable to visit their loved ones in nursing homes, frantic as long-term care deaths mounted. The trauma of nurses who ran out of body bags and toe tags and feared the pandemic’s second wave. The lack of transparency about hospital staff outbreaks. The slow recovery of a man who’d been on a ventilator for nearly a month.
I found I wanted to do something more about COVID-19 than write about it. So in September, I joined a clinical trial for the Moderna vaccine. I hoped it would yield an interesting story and also allow me an inside glimpse of the research process and the “warp speed” race to develop a defense against the virus.
I still don’t know whether I received a vaccine or the placebo, although based on my reaction, I believe it was the vaccine. Both Moderna’s vaccine and another, similar vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, were recently authorized for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration. This month, I wrote about some of the first vaccines being administered to health care workers in New Jersey.
I’m paid to report fact, not share my opinions. But I’d be kidding you if I didn’t admit that the next time a CDC director tells me disaster is looming, I hope that person is wrong, or that we’ve learned from this disaster — and do something about it.
Lindy Washburn is a senior health care reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up-to-date about how changes in the medical world affect the health of you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.