2021 Notebook: The COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine rollout
THE BACKGROUND: The year started with a lot of promise. The world had vaccines.
And even as the planet reached 2 million dead by the middle of the month of January, people in many of the hard-hit countries, including the United States and Britain, began rolling up their sleeves and receiving the life-saving shots.
The rollouts were rocky at times — production problems delayed deliveries and rich countries received the lion’s share of the vaccines. But cases began to fall sharply in February, raising hope that a return to normal was near.
Then came delta. A highly transmissible variant of the virus swept across the globe as too many people remained unprotected. Some never had access, others, beset by rampant misinformation about the vaccines, refused to get the shots. Cases and deaths skyrocketed. Despite having vaccines, more people died in 2021 from COVID-19 than in 2020, the first full year of the pandemic. Many thousands of those deaths could have been prevented.
And even as the delta surge slows, we have a new variant: omicron, perhaps even more transmissible.
Here, some Associated Press journalists involved in the coverage reflect on the story and their own experiences.
LAURAN NEERGAARD, medical writer, Washington, D.C.:
The year started with an immense sense of hope because the vaccines were just beginning to roll out. Not only did one vaccine work, several different kinds worked and they worked incredibly well. It was a huge scientific achievement. And at first the story was about demand, how many people desperately wanted to get their shots while multiple companies were struggling to increase supplies of different vaccines made in different ways in different countries.
The surprise amid all of this hope was how quickly misinformation turned into its own epidemic. We expected some of that, of course. It is natural for people to ask questions, especially when they’ve been busy living their lives and not hanging onto every scientific development. But there was a firehose of information that required sorting the real, quality science from the baseless claims. And the amount of active disinformation was stunning. I hadn’t ever imagined having to write, “No, there are no chips inside the needles to track you.” And over time the false claims grew more sophisticated than that. So with the complexity of reporting the international rollout, at the same time, you had to address outright lies that were turning people away with potentially deadly results.
We had to find new ways to do the job. … Paralleling the pandemic was an epidemic of not just misinformation but disinformation. You couldn’t just say, “Well, I fact-checked that,” and move on. There’s a public responsibility to make sure that we give every opportunity for our readers and our viewers to get the right information, to get the facts. Because the facts are critical not just to making choices about vaccines and other safety measures for yourself or your family, but to ending the pandemic.
So the challenge was figuring out how to tell the story again, and again and again and be fresh and you know, maybe try different ways that might get people’s attention.
HEATHER HOLLINGSWORTH, reporter, Kansas and Missouri:
I live just 3 miles into Kansas, and Kansas and Missouri have both had their issues. They’ve got a lot of rural sections of the state, a lot of Evangelicals who’ve been sort of reluctant to get vaccinated and also to mask because the issue is of course, very political.
I first got involved in the national virus coverage in the fall. I have three children, but I felt like that sort of personal experience of struggling through this hot mess, honestly, kind of helped me. At first, I thought, “I don’t know how to do this.” What are we going do with these kids? This is awful. But in some ways, I think it was an asset to live the same mess that everyone you’re interviewing was living through.
What I noticed when I started was, you can tell in the voices of the people and the doctors. The worst of it, I think, was December, January, there were weeks where I felt like every third person I talked to started crying. I talked to a mother who lost her 20-something-year-old daughter, a man who had recently adopted three kids and then his wife died. I talked to a hospital CEO who teared up on the phone, doctors who teared up on the phone.
I would talk to these people and would say “you know you’re the third person who’s cried today on the phone, it’s okay.” Then it kind of got better and we were all so excited, you know. In May and June people took their masks off. But then the vaccination numbers in Missouri had really stalled at a remarkably low level, some of the lowest in the country. In the Southwest section of the state vaccination rates were in the teens and 20s and 30s. Like really, really low levels. And there’s always that nagging feeling that this is not great.
Then the Delta surge started, and it … spread through the South and I helped find doctors and nurses who were dealing with it and those stories were awful. There was one nurse in Georgia who talked about — they call it extubating when they’re taking them off life support — and she talked about people collapsing. This one mom, her son was in his 40s and was taken off life support and she talked about her just yelling at him., “I told you to get vaccinated!” So it was just really wrenching to have these interviews with these people. But I felt really honored that they were willing to open up to me. It’s been one of the most interesting years of my life, or I guess two years of my life.
SEBABATSO MOSAMO, video journalist, Johannesburg:
I was in Port Elizabeth (now known as Gqeberha, South Africa), and we were covering the vaccine train that was going all over the country trying to get people vaccinated. And it was in Port Elizabeth at this point. From a visual perspective, I needed somebody who was coming to get vaccinated instead of getting people who were already there.
So we met a lady who had come to ask about what this train was all about. She had seen it on her way to work and stopped and asked what was going on. And they told her, “We’re here to vaccinate people, we’ll be here for the next x number of days.” And she was very keen to get vaccinated and she said, “Can I come?” and they said, “Okay.”
So I spoke to her and we arranged that she would come the following day on her way to work, and she would get vaccinated. We arranged that we would follow her from her home. Because from a visual perspective, following her and telling the story through one person instead of just showing lots of people getting jabbed, I thought that would be a good way to tell the story, and we agreed.
We woke up very early the following day, met up with her at her home and suddenly her entire demeanor and attitude had changed. … She started getting very short with us and very irritated. Eventually we made the whole trip and when she got there she told the staff that she was really sick and tired of me. And it really was a bit of a shock for me. … I was told to stay back, which I did, and she decided not to get vaccinated after all.
I think that was the hardest thing for me, because there’s still a part of me that feels like maybe I may have influenced her, that my presence somehow affected her decision. And that broke my heart because I had no way of knowing and she never did tell me. She kind of just sort of slipped out of the line and disappeared. And when I asked the nursing staff, they said she decided not to get vaccinated after all, and there’s still a little part of me that kind of feels like somehow my presence may have had an impact.
It’s not a nice feeling. So, if it comes to a story that touched me personally, that would be it.
I think 2022, from a southern Africa and an African perspective, is going to be about how the continent is trying and learning and teaching scientists how to make their own vaccine. And that will be the answer to the inequality.
For a full overview of the events that shaped 2021, “A Year That Changed Us: 12 Months in 150 Photos,” a collection of AP photos and journalists’ recollections, is available now: https://www.ap.org/books/a-year-that-changed-us