Lorna Benson [MPR
Lorna Benson reports on health care for Minnesota Public Radio. For much of the last few months, her news director asked her to focus full-time on pandemic flu; a colleague helpfully stepped in to cover other health-care stories. As a result, MPR’s coverage of H1N1 has been terrifically thorough. You can find Benson’s current and archived reports on MPR’s H1N1 page.
We invited Benson, who will also be presenting at FluPortal’s webinar on January 28th, to describe how she has been following the H1N1 story through its various twists:
Stories were straightforward and plentiful in the early weeks of H1N1′s fall flu wave. The outbreak severely strained the health care system, it threatened the lives of many young, healthy people and it caused logistical and ethical challenges for public health officials charged with distributing limited amounts of vaccine. We covered these situations and many, many more on a daily basis for months. But as the pandemic evolved our coverage evolved too.
During the first several weeks of the outbreak we reported on every Minnesota death that was conclusively linked to the virus. We focused on these early deaths because our listeners needed to know that H1N1 flu was disproportionately affecting children and young adults. But as the deaths continued and in a sense came to be expected, we dialed back on that part of our reporting. We shifted fatality information primarily to our newscasts, unless there was an unexpected surge in deaths that needed to be explained in a more in-depth report.
The vaccination campaign story was another aspect of our pandemic coverage that absorbed an enormous amount of our attention. For many weeks Minnesota had little more than a trickle of vaccine and demand for those doses appeared to be incredible. We devoted a lot of time to telling people where they could go to get vaccine.
But in the midst of the shortage, I also heard stories from some of my personal acquaintances and friends that they were able to easily get H1N1 vaccine, even though they were not in any high-priority group. I learned that several clinics had too much vaccine and had been quietly vaccinating anyone who wanted the doses. I found this particularly interesting because it was at odds with the information I was getting from state officials about the vaccine distribution process. So I reported on the discrepancy.
Shortly after our report aired several big local public health agencies announced that they were going to open up their vaccination clinics to everyone too, against the advice of the Health Department. They also had too much vaccine, and didn’t want the doses to sit on their shelves any longer than necessary. One county health official told me later that he decided to schedule a mass vaccination clinic, against Health Department advice, after hearing our report on the discrepancies in the vaccination campaign.
Eventually the urgency surrounding the outbreak and the vaccine campaign began to ease as fewer illnesses were reported and hospitals and clinics returned to normal operations. It wasn’t clear though if the virus would really disappear, or mount a comeback in a few weeks or months. So we asked some researchers who tracked flu in the Southern Hemisphere whether a third wave was likely.
For now it appears the H1N1 fall outbreak is over in Minnesota. That means we finally have the time to reflect on the pandemic and assess whether the response could have been better. In a recent report we looked at why public health officials relied so heavily on an already overburdened private health care system to give out H1N1 vaccine. For people in public health, the answers to these questions may be obvious. But they’re not for many of our listeners. Our reporting helped inform them about the state of their public health system.
We still keep tabs on the status of the outbreak. In fact we just experienced a slight uptick in influenza-like illnesses after the holidays. Is a third wave on its way? Who knows. We’ll just have to wait and see. But even if another wave doesn’t materialize there are still pandemic stories worth reporting. Of course the challenge is keeping listeners interested. We’re trying to do that now by asking the deeper questions that often fall by the wayside in the heat of covering a big story, but are worth revisiting once things have calmed down.
Update 22 January 2010: Listen to two of Benson’s more recent H1N1 reports below. Just click on the “play” arrow to start.
“New Zealand offers clues to H1N1′s future”
“H1N1 reveals weak spots in nation’s preparedness”