From the editor: Covering COVID-19

A woman holds a sign during a reopening protest in Raleigh. Photo via Robert Clark, North State Journal

RALEIGH — As the new year approaches, reflections on what happened in 2020 permeate news websites and Facebook timelines.

In that spirit, I wanted to take a moment and explain North State Journal’s coverage of COVID-19.

As the coronavirus pandemic spread from China across Asia, Europe and eventually the shores of our country, there was hope it would turn out to be like other respiratory viruses that threatened, but didn’t ultimately lead to, severe impacts — 2003’s SARS epidemic being one example.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

March 3 was a significant date in that the first person in the state tested positive for the virus on the day of the state’s primary elections. So much about the next eight months can be traced to what happened on that date.

In a few more weeks, sports leagues paused, businesses sent their workers home, schools were thrust into remote learning, and the world as we knew it looked different.

Covering what became, quite literally, matters of life and death was sobering. But getting answers from our government was uneven. After attending briefings from the state’s Emergency Operations Center, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration shifted to virtual platforms that silenced questions from some outlets, ours included.

In mid-April and May, frustration from those who depended on industries shuttered for their livelihoods began to protest. Their stories deserved to be heard.

“Reopening,” as it became known, also became controversial. It broke largely on political lines as so much else in our nation. The struggle reached courtrooms as many felt religious liberty was under attack. In another story we reported, a quote from Federal Judge James Dever became a rallying cry for some. In a lawsuit filed against Cooper, churches prevailed, and Dever said, “There is no pandemic exception to the Constitution.” The quote was also used by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany later in the year.

Two more terms that have taken on new meaning this year are “science” and “data,” given their prevalence during Cooper’s media briefings. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services publishes daily updates on testing, hospitalizations and more. Putting that data in context has also proven to be important.

Often on our front page, we have published the number of people who have recovered from the virus. This report, published weekly, can be difficult to find on the NCDHHS website and in other outlets. The number of cases is going to always go up. There are better ways to measure how far the virus has spread.

Thankfully, at no point did our state’s hospital capacity come under strain. Despite warnings, we were able to gather the data via public records that COVID-19 did not stop hospitals from being able to serve all people. An anticipated “field hospital” in Charlotte, for example, was never built.

Our pursuit of answers from elected leaders will continue as the historic effort to produce vaccines for COVID-19 is already bearing fruit.

Perhaps most amazingly, a record number of North Carolinians made their voices heard at the ballot box this year. Once all ballots were counted, turnout reached a shade over 75% of registered voters.

Finally, the pandemic did touch our staff in the worst, and best, of ways.

We grieved loss and celebrated the birth of new life.

As the calendar flips, NSJ will continue to work tirelessly to keep you, the reader, informed as we do our best to continue to elevate the conversation in North Carolina. Cheers to 2021.