‘The story of our lifetime’: What it’s like to cover the coronavirus pandemic
Joanne Kenen, the executive editor of POLITICO’s health care coverage, walks us through the COVID-19 outbreak and America’s slow response.
As the coronavirus pandemic has grown across the country, Joanne Kenen has spent these last few weeks like many Americans: phoning old friends, trying to entertain bored children, convincing her elderly mother to stock up on food and stay in. Then, of course, comes the demands of her day job — which at this moment, has become a day-and-night-every-day-and-every-night job — as the executive editor at the helm of POLITICO’s health care coverage.
“I realized in January it was a huge story. I don't think I realized until much more recently that it was the story of our lifetime,” Kenen said in an interview for a special coronavirus-focused episode of POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast.
She’s clear-eyed about the outlook for America in the short term (“I don't think we can get back to normal in a couple of months,” Kenen said), and though she sees some glimmers of hope, she describes herself as “extremely worried” about the toll this will take on the United States.
“I think we've made a huge amount of mistakes. I do see some of them being somewhat corrected. There's some governors who have really stepped up and taken control, at least in their states. But we have not had a consistent, accurate national strategy to make the best decisions we could make all along.”
What follows are excerpts of her interview with Anna Palmer, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.
Anna Palmer: For a lot of people, the speed of all the changes we've seen to daily life has been stunning. Everyone's grounded, stuck in their houses. What has happened in the last month that has surprised you?
Joanne Kenen: Within our office, people thought I was a little alarmist back in January, when I said things like, "We have to think about whether we'll be able to have normal elections, and we're gonna have to think about whether we can have a normal convention." People thought I was maybe overreacting. In retrospect, I think I was under-reacting: It is worse than I anticipated.
It's hard to measure what isn't happening. Do we know whether social distancing is "flattening the curve," making fewer people get sick at once, which allows our hospitals to cope with the people who are sick? I think it's probably working, but trying to get to a degree, trying to get data on something that didn't happen is hard. And because the testing in this country was so late and so insufficient in the opening days, we don't really know what the baseline is in order to tell whether it's getting better or worse. All we can do is hope. Our best tool is social distancing. We don't have a drug yet. We don't have a vaccine yet. And our hospitals aren't really ready. So stay home.
Palmer: I want to rewind a little bit and understand kind of how we got here. You were talking before about being almost perceived internally as an alarmist. When did you realize this was going to be a huge story?
Kenen: I realized in January it was a huge story. I don't think I realized until much more recently that it was the story of our lifetime. And I hope it is the worst thing that ever happens in our lifetime.
For me, as a mom, 9/11 was my very first day back from maternity leave with my second child. And I was in the White House — I happened to be at the White House when plane number one hit. That was the first time I was away from my baby. And I was with Laura Bush in a motorcade when plane number two hit. And I was on [Capitol] Hill when plane number three hit, and we could see the smoke from the Pentagon. I thought that was the biggest story I'd ever cover. That was the worst work day I ever had. This is a slower motion, less of a shock — we've seen it coming.
9/11 changed our world. And this is going to change our world, too, in ways that we don't understand yet. So it's not just the story of today and tomorrow and next week, it's the story of the months to come, and how do we heal, how do we recover?
Palmer: This, at first, was always being described [in comparison to] the flu — whether this was going to be worse than the flu — why do you think that was? Is it just because people didn't have anything else to compare it against?
Kenen: President Trump — and others, not just President Trump — was telling us it was like the flu. And in some ways, it's a useful comparison, because it's an invisible enemy that hits you, and It's hard to protect yourself. But it's way more dangerous than the flu. We don't shut down our economy because of the flu. The flu is really contagious, but the flu doesn't kill as many people.
In a pandemic year, I looked it up [for] 1957. And if I'm remembering the number correctly, something like 119,000 Americans [died]. A few weeks ago, I thought that's what we were looking at as a worst-case scenario. Now we know from the public health people, the worst-case scenario — and we may not get the worst-case scenario, it looks like it won't be — but it would be way more than 100,000 dead.
Palmer: One of the other issues that has really come up clearly is this lack of supplies — ventilators, masks. This could be the difference between life and death for a lot of people.
Kenen: Yes, because Patient A, who has coronavirus, if there's not enough protective gear, they can infect Patient B, who doesn't have coronavirus. We do think that might be part of what's going on in Italy: it spread within the hospitals. Secondly, if health care workers can't protect themselves — you sure do not want health care workers either getting sick or being quarantined for two weeks and then not being able to take care of those of us who do get sick.
So the personal protective gear — which means masks, gowns, gloves, all these things, the N95 masks — those are really, really, really important to the health care system. Had this country really woken up in January and started figuring out, "Where are they? How can we make more? How can we enlist other factories to make more? How do we get them? How do we come up with a national allocation system? How do you want to prioritize? It doesn't make sense to have a ventilator for every American, but we don't have enough."
So, A, we should have planned better. And B, we should have planned better over the years for the inevitable pandemic. If we really woke up to this in January, we'd have more things in place in March. And instead, in March, we're mobilizing to get things in place for May.
Palmer: The other big issue is the testing and the lack of the tests, and the lapse from when the people take the tests and when they actually get the results. What happened there?
Kenen: Our test didn't work. We decided to use a CDC test — and the CDC is usually able to do this. But this time, the CDC made a test, and it simply did not work. There was probably some kind of contamination in the manufacturing process; it's still being investigated. What we do know is it worked in the CDC, and when they sent it out into the state labs, into the communities, it simply did not work. Taking weeks and weeks to get a test that worked put us way behind the curve. And we were slow. Some medical schools and academic medical centers were developing their own. There is a way to use emergency powers to approve those things quickly. Finally, the FDA figured it out, they started expanding. But it took them weeks to expedite. They had those tools.
President Trump is saying it's the fault of the prior administrations tying their hands. No. Whether the test worked or not has nothing to do with whether you can quickly get another test. Germany developed tests, South Korea developed tests, China developed tests, the WHO was sending its tests out to something like 60 countries by February, and we decided not to use that.
The CDC has now said, ‘Well, we didn't think their test was good enough.’ Well, we didn't have a test. If you wanted to develop the perfect, gold-standard test, fine. But I don't know anybody, outside of the government, who thinks it was OK to not use another test, at least as a temporary bridge. Use what's available, and then try to make a better one. We’ve created this dichotomy: we’re going to use nothing, or wait for the perfect one instead of using the best available at the time.
Palmer: You run our health care team. A lot of the coverage that your team has done has focused on the administration's response and some of the infighting at the agencies. What are one or two of the bigger stories where your team has been able to kind of plant a flag?
Kenen: We have been way ahead of the curve on the testing problems. We're not the only outlet — there's a lot of really great journalism — but we have been really ahead of the curve. We have a reporter who specializes in testing and diagnostics. I've written about the WHO and the international testing and testing gaps.
You can say, "Well, the personality conflicts … it doesn't matter right now who likes someone, or who's up and who's down.” It does matter if it's affecting clear, consistent policies from moving ahead, or if people are fighting and we're not sure who's in charge, or there's somebody different in charge every day. It took a long time for the president to get FEMA — they didn't get involved until a few days ago. So all these fights over who's making decisions, who's in the good graces of the White House, they aren't “petty” to the extent that they are preventing us from having a coherent and cohesive national strategy.
Palmer: You started out as a reporter at Reuters mid-80's. At the time, there was a little-understood but high mortality rate disease: HIV/AIDS. How does this moment compare to now?
Kenen: I think the stigma around AIDS, because the populations that it affected — and I was not a full-time health reporter then, but I was living in New York, so I did report on it. Remember: our society has changed a lot about how we treat and think about our gay friends and family. It was much more stigmatic in the 1980s. Drug use was the other main way it was spreading. America was not always at its greatest. There was a lot of stigma, a lot of fear — and there's fear now, but it was different: it was a fear of specific people. And here, it's more a fear of a really dangerous germ. It was harder to treat; it took us years. It's not exactly the same, because this is a pandemic that's spreading so fast and everybody is vulnerable to getting it. So there are some parallels, and it's new and frightening. But the way we've responded is not the same.
Palmer: This is clearly a time when people are very uncertain about what the future holds on pretty much every front. Every conversation I have with family and friends, it turns to: "When is life going to return to normal?" Do you have any sense of that?
Kenen: I don't think we know yet. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has talked about another 10–12 weeks of this "hunker down" stage. President Trump is tweeting that maybe we can't go that long. I think that it'll be interesting to watch that dynamic. By the time people listen to this, we may have more clarity about what the president is going to say. I don't think it's years. I don't think it's two weeks. I think that we are in for a period of disruption. And it'll be prolonged until we're back to whatever "normal" is, post-pandemic. I don't think we can get back to normal in a couple of months, but we may get over this really intense "hunker down" stage.
It's really important to understand that when public health works and things don't happen, then people think, "Well, we didn't need to do all that: There were only X cases!" But that means it worked. It doesn't mean that we didn't need it.
Palmer: I want to end on, hopefully, a more positive note. We don't know when this is going to end. There's a lot we don't know about supplies and what our future is in the short term. But given all that you do know, is there anything giving you reason to hope right now?
Kenen: You know, without really solid data, we’re trying to figure out: are we bending this curve, are we flattening this curve watching? In New York in particular, it looks like the supply chain is improving a little bit. It’s not where we need to be, but it looks like it's incrementally getting better.
I was more worried about the worst-case scenario a few days ago than I am right now, which doesn't mean I'm optimistic or I don't think it's going to be bad. I do think it's going to get bad.
The challenge for those of us living this and covering it is that we’re also participants in it. So trying to take care of myself, taking care of my family — those in the house and those that I'm talking to remotely — sort of balancing my sort of human reactions and my professional reactions.
I am still extremely worried. I think we've made a huge amount of mistakes. I do see some of them being somewhat corrected. There's some governors who have really stepped up and taken control, at least in their states. But we have not had a consistent, accurate national strategy to make the best decisions we could make all along.
A week or two ago, a former public health official sent me an email for all of Politico, saying “Your coverage is helping save lives.” And that's probably the most important thing any of us in this virtual political newsroom will do and be able to be proud of going forward.
To hear more, listen to the full podcast episode here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.