For a feature set to be published in the July/August issue of MM&M, we reached out to leaders from a broad range of media-adjacent organizations – WebMD, Health magazine, Outcome Health, Mesmerize, Publicis Health Media, CMI/Compas, Pascale Communications and WEGO Health, among others – and asked them a range of questions about the broader media coverage of the coronavirus pandemic. In this preview, we share responses from Dr. Judith Simmons, managing director of healthcare at Gather, founder of Lion Head Advisors and one of the health-media world’s most thoughtful voices.

Who have been your COVID-19 must-follows on social media?

Disclaimer: I’m a physician, so my picks might be a bit more clinical than most. Although I’m not currently active in clinical practice, I’ve been a “doctor on call” since March for my family, friends, clients and colleagues. I’ve been educating and advising about the virus SARS COV-2 and the disease it causes.

My aim in using social media has been to gather as much information as I could on the science, the epidemiology, the clinical aspects and the impact on the healthcare system. As a result, my must-follows are skewed in that direction – as well as towards New York, where I live and work.

There’s been so much terrific writing. Good curation has been key, and I have relied on trusted sites to guide me to important original sources. COVID updates from The New York Times, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, STAT, Nature Briefing, Science, The COVID Tracking Project, The New England Journal of Medicine, Kaiser Health News and the CDC have kept up with the rapid pace of important information.

I rely on my social media feeds for breaking news and up-to-the minute information from leaders like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who took decisive actions and kept the people of New York State exceptionally well informed. Current and former officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Tom Frieden and Andy Slavitt are experienced and valued voices.

Who have been the most authoritative and effective COVID-19 writers and voices in traditional media?

The New York Times has stood out in providing local, national and global views, reporting on the science and publishing beautiful data visualizations that have helped make information clear for readers. The NYT has also done a great job at communicating the human stories nationally and internationally, especially in the early months of the pandemic. Gothamist, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The Atlantic have consistently delivered quality in-depth articles.

Is there a piece of reporting or a feature story or even a social-media thread published between mid-March and now that sticks with you as especially smart, funny, touching or otherwise prescient?

Hearing from a wide range of people on the front lines has been so important from the beginning. Not only the voices and stories of essential workers in healthcare, education, groceries, restaurants and pastoral and funeral care, but also the voices and stories of those managing lockdown in remarkably creative and adaptive ways.

Dr. Craig Smith, chair of the Department of Surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center, started writing a series of daily letters that spanned a 50,000-foot overview to the ground level of his hospital. He shared important information with perspective, warmth, context and occasionally poetry. Each letter was a realistic and human assessment of the moment and collectively they have become a narrative of the pandemic.

What, if anything, has been missing or shortchanged in COVID-related coverage during the last few months?

The unprecedented breadth of achievements in six months related to this virus and pandemic. It is the novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2. COVID-19 is a totally new disease and when I look back on what has been accomplished in basic science, therapeutics, clinical management, vaccine development, transmission and adjustments in how people live and work – in just months – it’s amazing. 

It matters because we need to use the growing bank of facts and science that we have learned to guide us as we move ahead. We know a lot more now. The science has moved rapidly and there has been terrific collaboration at times. But there have also been serious missteps along the way, and we need to learn from all of it. It is by nature a nuanced conversation but one that is essential for the media to share with the public. Politics may impact what we do and how we act, but it has no impact on how the virus spreads, replicates and causes disease.

As the country continues to reopen – and, in some cases, re-close – what are the three things that you’d most like to see in health-media coverage?

In light of the current surge, somehow we haven’t communicated a clear understanding of how the virus is transmitted, how pandemics grow and how one person’s actions may affect others. Mask wearing has become politicized, rather than normalized, and that must change.

Despite all the public service announcements, we’re still not getting the message across. We need to work on that. We know so much more than we did even three months ago. We’ve got to keep refreshing people’s knowledge and presenting essential information in all ways across all platforms.

Information can both allay people’s fears and give them guidance on how to think about the future while keeping the pandemic at bay. This virus is not going away and we will have to adapt to it. We have to adjust how we interact, how we work, how we teach, how we play, how we celebrate and how we vote. More coverage of innovations and solutions needs to be shared, along with stories that capture COVID challenges economically, socially and emotionally.

The media should embrace the opportunity to address long-standing issues – health disparities based on race, income and neighborhood, and insufficient services for behavioral health – that have long been under-reported. The glaring implications of not having universal access or a truly comprehensive healthcare system has to be covered. So should the need to support our public health organizations at the local, state, federal and international levels.