Stories That Matter: How Health Reporter Helen Branswell Introduced Us to the Threat of COVID-19

With experience from reporting on the 2003 SARS outbreak, STAT's senior writer saw what COVID might become well before the U.S. reported its first cases.

Helen Branswell, the global health and infectious diseases reporter for STAT, the medicine, health, and life sciences site from the parent company of the Boston Globe, joined the publication at the time of its launch in 2015. The 15 years of experience reporting on health with the Canadian Press that she brought to the site — she first reported on infectious diseases during Toronto’s 2003 SARS outbreak and has since covered Ebola, Zika, the H1N1 flu pandemic — would prepare her for perhaps one of her most difficult assignments to date.

In the summer of 2004, Branswell was embedded in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a CDC Knight Fellow. In 2010 and 2011, she focused on polio eradication as a Nieman Global Health Fellow at Harvard. Today, she leads STAT’s coronavirus pandemic coverage.

Read Helen Branswell's STAT Stories

We talked to Branswell about the reporting and writing of her early 2020 coverage — which was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize — of the first reports of a “mysterious and growing cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases in the Chinese city of Wuhan,” which introduced the United States to the escalating coronavirus crisis.

Reading these stories now is pretty eerie, being where we are now with COVID. I remember the first whispers of a possibly new virus coming out of China in mid-February of 2020, but you were on the scene well before that. Can you talk a bit about how a global health story like COVID first lands on your radar?

Branswell: Before I joined STAT I was based in Toronto working for the Canadian Press, and Toronto was one the only places outside of Asia that was affected during the SARS outbreak of 2003. A lot of what is happening now — and happened in 2020 — happened then: no public gatherings, hospitals stopping everything but essential services....

That was my first time covering an outbreak, but it was a critical experience for COVID. It set me on the path of trying to focus on infectious diseases. I’ve covered all sorts of health stories, but whenever I’ve had time, I focus on infectious diseases.

Fast forward to 2019, New Year’s Day. I had the day off. I’d gone to Canada to spend Christmas with family, and that afternoon I got an email from ProMedMail, a listserv run by the international society for infectious diseases. It’s essentially an early warning system for disease outbreaks.

Like many listservs, they send out a lot of emails, multiple each day, but this one, the subject line was something like unexplained pneumonia and China, and that caught my attention right away. A new disease coming out of China is not unheard of; it’s a place where this happens. There’s a very unique intersection of lots of people and a variety of cultures; there have historically been various food-borne diseases that have come out of China.

But this email reminded me immediately of 2003 and SARS. That afternoon I tweeted something like, Hopefully this is nothing but it’s giving me SARS flashbacks. And I started pinging some people and sources fairly quickly.

I got back to work January 2nd. I had a major piece coming out, this very long, magazine-length piece on an Ebola vaccine. When I got back to the office I had edits on that, which took the better part of the next few days. But I had my ear to the ground on the cases of this new disease in China. I definitely didn’t know we were going to get to where we are now, but I knew I needed to follow this story.

What were the differences in reporting between the work you were doing in early 2020 and the 2003 SARS epidemic?

Branswell: In the first SARS outbreak I wasn’t covering it until it became apparent that Toronto had cases. I wasn’t writing about the outbreak in China; I was writing about what was happening locally in Canada.

This time I started from the very beginning. The story was in China so I was reporting on what was happening there, and how that had the potential to spread outside of China like SARS did.

Would it be fair to say that reporting on SARS in 2003 prepared you for reporting on the early days of COVID?

Branswell: Yes, definitely. The reporting I did on SARS sort of predisposed me to see the early COVID news as important, and that experience gave me a mental list of people to approach.

I’m glad you mentioned that. I really wanted to ask about your sources for those early stories. How much were you able to rely on existing sources and experts, and how did your list of sources change or evolve?

Branswell: In my early COVID reporting I was using mostly people I had spoken to a lot over the years. As the outbreak got established in the U.S. I was using a much broader range of expertise in sourcing, but initially it was mostly people I’ve known for quite a long time.

What, if anything, would you say changed about the work that you were doing between these early stories and post-March of 2020, when lockdowns started going into effect in the U.S.?

Branswell: For starters, I left the office. I stopped going into the office before it closed. I couldn’t afford to get sick, and I knew it was not prudent to be going to the office anymore.

I don’t know that I would say there was any kind of a quantifiable shift other than the story just became exponentially larger. Initially it was me covering it, and then it was me and my colleague Drew Joseph, and then it was me and Drew and Sharon Begley. Then it was everybody. There were just so many angles to it. And so much other stuff just stopped. There weren’t a lot of high-profile cancer studies being published in 2020, you know? It was always too big to handle. It was difficult to try to find out where to bite into the apple, if you will; what was a story that still needed to be covered that wasn’t being told by dozens of other outlets already.

It was great to have the help. We’re not a very big operation, but with this story consuming everything else, we really had to coordinate more with one another. And at that point everyone was out of the office, so we were also learning to work remotely together.

What would you say was your specialty once everyone — both at STAT and in so much coverage in outlets across the country — was working on a COVID story? Or when every story was a COVID story?

Branswell: People still looked to me for the trajectory of the outbreak. Since everything else, health-news wise, was really gone and I was our original global health and infectious diseases reporter. I’ve also written a lot about vaccines and the science of vaccine development, so I’d say I became the one to focus on long-term implications and possible trajectories.

Your January 22nd, 2020, piece, “The Basics: What We Know — and Don’t Know — About the Virus Spreading in China and Beyond,” is a massive info dump/update on everything COVID. At the beginning of the piece you write, “It’s only been three weeks since Chinese authorities alerted the World Health Organization about an outbreak of unusual pneumonia cases.” Can you tell us what those three weeks were like?

Branswell: Ha. I had a trip to Hawaii booked for January of 2020. I was to leave on Friday the 10th and come back the weekend of MLK Day. I took a red-eye and was back in Boston on Sunday, the 19th. After I’d written my second COVID-related piece, I sent an email to my editor and said: “I can’t tell you how big this is going to be, but I also can’t tell you it’s going to be small, that it’s going to be wrapped up soon. I can cancel my trip if you want me to cancel my trip.”

The STAT editors didn’t think I needed to do that, so I was gone for a week in mid-January. The day I got back, my editor called and said, “We need a story.” The numbers in China had jumped pretty significantly over the weekend, from about 100 to about 200. So we put together everything we knew so far.

And I’ve written, I think, every day since then.

The word that comes to mind when I think of working on a breaking news story that was still very much a breaking news story for five months is agony — can you share a bit about the emotional and psychological work that went into writing and reporting these early stories?

Branswell: I’m a reporter and this is my beat. Any time you’re covering a breaking news story you get really engrossed, and the thought of walking away and not writing about it just isn’t really the way we work, as journalists. And the world was in such a strange place that working was almost a relief. I know some people who were not working in the spring of 2020 and they found the time long, and some of them spent a lot of time fretting because all they had to do was read stuff and worry.

After the first SARS outbreak I spent a lot of time reporting on pandemics, mostly thinking about flu pandemics, but how a major worldwide outbreak might unfold, how we might get vaccines, how long it might take. There was a lot of pandemic planning being done in the years after SARS and I reported on that. So, mentally, I had a fairly good picture of where things were going to go. They went there a lot faster than I had thought: I knew there were going to be shortages of PPE, but I didn’t know health-care professionals in the U.S. were going to be wearing garbage bags in the spring of 2020.

But there was about a week in March of 2020, near the end of the month but early on in the work-from-home and ordered lockdown, where I had a really hard time, mentally. I was really worried about how bad it was going to get. I was worried that there might be violence, that unemployed people would go looking for food to feed their kids and who could blame them, but I was afraid there could be significant, pandemic-related social unrest. I was scared, I guess I would say. I was looking down the tunnel or down the line and I was afraid of what I saw there. And I was having a really hard time.

My editor was really responsive, the Globe has an employee assistance program, they were able to help me find a therapist who could take me on, and I did a few sessions with a counselor who helped me put things in perspective. Things were better after that.

It’s certainly been long. This past March, maybe there’s something about the anniversary, I was beyond exhaustion and had to take a week off, which I’d sort of been avoiding doing. I didn’t think a week in my apartment could be very therapeutic, but I got to the point where I had to take some time off and I did.

Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Predict: What Happens Next?

It’s a weird, big story, and it continues to be,” STAT’s Helen Branswell says of the COVID-19 pandemic. “There’s no end in sight, really. I am still on the COVID beat, and I think it’ll be that way for a long time.”

“COVID is going to be with us,” she adds. “There will be a time when it is not a crisis, when the acute phase of the pandemic ends and this is just something that maybe flares in the winter like flu, or infects fewer people due to immunity, and I’m looking forward to that. At that point I think it will be part of the mix of things that I cover, but right now, this is what I’ll be writing about for quite a while.”

Read: More of STAT’s COVID-19 Coverage

Meet: About the Author

Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based freelance writer and bartender. Her writing can be found in Catapult, MEL, Eater, Greatist, Bustle, Boston’s alt-weekly DigBoston, and other digital publications.