Amonth into the U.S. coronavirus epidemic, with Seattle already reeling from 147 deaths, I found myself riding north of the stricken city with freelance photographer Karen Ducey at the wheel. Karen has crewed on commercial fishing boats in Alaska, meaning that I would trust her on hazardous assignments as much as I would any combat photographer. During my initial year as Los Angeles Times bureau chief in Seattle, we collaborated on topics ranging from Iranian-Americans detained at the Canadian border to the 7,000 dogs registered to come to work at Amazon headquarters.
On this assignment, Karen and I sped along empty highways into uncharted territory. It was March 27, four days after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had issued one of the nation’s first stay-at-home orders.
In the cab of Karen’s pickup, I fiddled with my mask, an unfamiliar accessory back then, trying to spare her from whatever germs I might have picked up covering a nursing home where residents were dying of the disease.
My editor had received a tip that dozens of members of a choir in Mount Vernon, Wash., had come down with COVID-19 after a rehearsal three weeks earlier. The outcome was particularly disturbing because the members of Skagit Valley Chorale, a renowned amateur group, had used hand sanitizer and tried to distance themselves, being careful not to touch items in common.
Despite the precautions, 45 of the 60 people who rehearsed in a rented church hall had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or contracted the symptoms. At least three had been hospitalized. One woman had died.
The toll stunned county health officials. They concluded that the virus was almost certainly transmitted through the air from one or more people who displayed no symptoms.
Did this mean that the deadly virus spread not just from respiratory droplets on surfaces, as we had been told? If airborne transmission were possible, it was crucial to warn the public.
The day before, in my Seattle home office overlooking Elliott Bay, I had tried to reach people whose names I found on the choir group’s website. I began by calling members who appeared to have the least influence in the organization, figuring they’d be most likely to talk. Some members were willing to describe what they had experienced. With their accounts in hand, I would be better able to persuade the choir director that the story should be told.
Members said that the woman who died was Nancy “Nicki” Hamilton, an 83-year-old soprano known for political activism and a love of travel. Hamilton, I would learn later, was a Smith College alumna, a government major in the class of 1957.
When I reached the director, he tried to head me off with a written statement. But once he understood that I wasn’t out to blame anyone, he conferred with a board member and decided to help.
The virus could be transmitted through aerosols—particles smaller than 5 microns that could float in the air for minutes or more.
I planned to visit the director when we arrived in Mount Vernon. But when I called him, he sounded not only sick but shaken. He had just learned that a second woman hospitalized for days had taken a sudden turn for the worse, succumbing to the disease.
Karen and I drove another half hour to Anacortes, an island city where we visited two convalescing couples. At each house, we spoke to them from a safe distance in the front yard as Karen took photos. One couple described singing to pass their time in quarantine. Sensing a photo opportunity, Karen did something courageous. She put on a mask, coat and gloves and entered their home, careful not to touch anything and grateful for a sea breeze.
Her photos of them singing at their piano would lead my story. I stayed outside, having learned years ago from a close call involving a Japanese volcano that reporters do better hanging back from eruptions.
In our Los Angeles newsroom, my editor, Alan Zarembo, had tracked down an expert on viral contagion. I called the researcher and another scientist as we drove back toward Seattle. The experts said that the outbreak was consistent with a growing body of evidence that the virus could be transmitted through aerosols—particles smaller than 5 microns that could float in the air for minutes or more. Singing could project aerosols and droplets particularly far.
I wrote the article as a narrative instead of a conventional news report. Using this approach entails asking sources to recall all manner of details that may seem trivial but bring the story to life. That wasn’t easy for people who were sick and grieving. I was grateful to them for it.
The moment the story posted on the L.A. Times site, my phone lit up, pinging each time someone retweeted it. The sound was relentless. I shut it off to sleep and woke up to constant pinging the next morning.
Ultimately 7.7 million readers clicked on the article, more than all but one other L.A. Times story ever—the news of Kobe Bryant’s fatal crash. People got the message.
Retweeting it, singer-songwriter John Legend wrote: “This story is for anyone even contemplating, considering, thinking, imagining, dreaming about going to church on Easter Sunday. And please send this to your older relatives who aren’t on Twitter.”
County health officials led a study of the rehearsal, which researchers call a “super-spreading event.” They attributed the outbreak to one person at the practice who turned out to have had cold-like symptoms and who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.
Scientists who study aerosols say that airborne transmission is the only way to explain the outbreak. Citing other studies and incidents—including outbreaks in choirs in Austria, Canada and the Netherlands—they are trying to get the World Health Organization to accept the evidence and issue warnings.
Yet the more our journalism was needed, the less money came in to support it. The newspaper’s advertising revenues plunged to near zero. What would anyone advertise during a pandemic? Soon we faced the prospect of newsroom layoffs, averted when California-based staff members volunteered to reduce work hours in a plan advanced by our union.
Employees in the Los Angeles newsroom had to cut back to four-day weeks just as protests broke out nationwide over the death of George Floyd, police brutality and racial injustice. Our news operation is hamstrung as we cover the biggest stories of our careers.
I continue my work, covering Seattle as a center of unrest as the officials manage a phased economic opening from the coronavirus lockdown. It’s not the beat I imagined when I took the job, expecting to roam the Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii in search of original, often quirky stories. But it’s a way to find meaning in troubled times, and occasionally to make a difference.
Read, a two-time Pulitzer winner and a former foreign correspondent, owes any success in journalism to late nights in Pratt editing The Amherst Student.