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Health News Florida reporters check in as we approach the pandemic's third year

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Daylina Miller/WUSF
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WUSF's Stephanie Colombini is a health care reporter who's been covering the COVID-19 pandemic since the start.

As we approach the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases have been surging in Florida — though the spread of the Omicron variant is slowly beginning to decline. That doesn’t mean many people are not getting infected.

We continue to report on the numbers, on testing, treatments and vaccinations but people feel COVID fatigue. They feel tired of hearing stories about SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19.

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WUSF’s Stephanie Colombini in Tampa checked in with WLRN’s Verónica Zaragovia in Miami. They’re part of the Health News Florida reporting collaboration and have been covering the pandemic from the start. They discussed their own struggles covering it and what they’ll be looking at this year.

VERÓNICA ZARAGOVIA: You know, Stephanie, one challenge we face at this point reporting on this pandemic is how the guidance changes so quickly – be it isolation or quarantine recommendations, what masks to use. The response also keeps getting more politicized in Florida so I feel like I can’t use science to explain state government’s decisions. How about for you?

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI: Yeah, that has been really tough, and I think also for me, the hardest part has been the repetitiveness of it all. This latest surge is the fourth or fifth time in the last two years we’re reporting in crisis mode, and so just when you think things are starting to wind down and we can shift your focus to other important health stories – because there are so many to tell – we get caught up in another wave and it’s back to case numbers and testing sites and hospital surges. We’re battling the same fatigue everyone else is.

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Elmo Lugo
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WLRN's Verónica Zaragovia reporting a story during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ZARAGOVIA: Yeah and it can be risky reporting in-person at times, and so I think twice before heading to interview someone because I might put them or myself in danger of getting another coronavirus infection.

COLOMBINI: So how do you keep it fresh and keep people interested?

ZARAGOVIA: I try not to only focus on numbers. I’m interested in impacts to the cruise or hospitality industries, for instance. And sometimes I try to personalize stories. I recently had COVID myself, and I like to share as much of my own experience as I can, aside from reported stories, to help listeners with what I learned in the experience. I try to find those silver linings as well because if I only depress listeners, I get depressed, too!

COLOMBINI: So true, especially this far in the pandemic. Anytime we can find everyday people in the community, like listeners, area residents or people working in professions affected by the pandemic, and then amplify their voices, it feels so much fresher than hearing from the same politicians and health experts all the time.

Have you heard voices that have inspired you or kept you going through this?

ZARAGOVIA: I’ll always carry with me the voices of people I interviewed about their loved ones who died from COVID-19, when I was working on obituaries, to personalize these awful numbers and keep their memories alive. The enthusiasm of doctors, nurses and epidemiologists who keep explaining the virus and COVID-19 and care workers who continue working with patients inspires me every day, so that’s been really memorable. How about for you?

COLOMBINI: I would definitely agree with that, and in my personal life, when I can take my own knowledge of the pandemic from reporting on it so much and share that with friends and family, I know what I’m doing is worth it because it’s clear so many out there don’t have as much information, or at least reliable information. I’ve helped a lot of people get vaccinated which is cool.

ZARAGOVIA: Yeah, that’s really great. It's good to have those little victories because it’s been a long couple years. Stephanie, looking ahead, what do you look forward to covering?

COLOMBINI: Stories that don’t mention the word ‘COVID’! I dream of that day, but in all seriousness there are so many ripple effects of this pandemic and we are only just starting to scratch the surface of some of the long-term effects, good and bad, that COVID and our response to COVID will have on the community – whether its education, the workforce, public health … I look forward to exploring some of those angles.

ZARAGOVIA: Same here! As part of our Health News Florida collaboration we’re reporting on staffing shortages at nursing homes and we’re following the legislative session. Here in South Florida, I’ll be reporting on HIV care, abortion access and efforts to reduce cervical cancer in Florida – so I’m really looking forward to our reporting ahead!