It has been a long, tough year unlike any other.
As the new coronavirus tore around the globe, journalists have been tracking Covid-19’s every move with heartbreaking personal accounts, stunning investigations, and a steady stream of breaking news. And they’ve made time to produce other great health, science, and medicine stories. Below is our annual list of STAT staffers’ favorite stories of the year, and that wish we had written.
We also have to customarily admit that Bloomberg Businessweek had the jealousy list idea first — check out its 2020 compilation here.
By Markian Hawryluk and Rae Ellen Bichell, Kaiser Health News
Nurses, and other frontline workers, have been top of mind this year, and many stories have highlighted their herculean workload during the pandemic. Markian Hawryluk and Rae Ellen Bichell’s article brings attention to a lesser-known dynamic in nursing — traveling agencies. The pandemic created a huge opportunity for these jobs that come with big pay, but also plenty of risk. Travel nursing positions can also be tough on hospitals — luring some staff away while frustrating staffers who do the same job for far lower wages. It’s a compelling example of how Covid-19 has further stressed so many of the existing weaknesses in our medical system.
— Contributed by Alissa Ambrose
By Yiyun Li, The New Yorker
This essay does not belong on a “jealousy list.” But it does belong on a “most-affecting-pieces list,” and I can’t stop thinking about it. As I read it, I sat at my kitchen table and sobbed, more than I ever have when I’ve been at my most bereft. Once I calmed down, I moved through the whole essay again. This has been a year of incomprehensible loss. I’ve read countless careful memorials to the dead. I’ve written a few myself, kept up all night by the impossibility of the task. No one I’ve read this year has captured the complexity of grief that way Yiyun Li has, and the utter mystery of someone else, which only deepens once they’re gone.
— Contributed by Eric Boodman
‘I’m going to keep pushing.’ Anthony Fauci tries to make the White House listen to facts of the pandemic
By Jon Cohen, Science
By now, we’re all used to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaking Covid-19 truth to White House power. But back in March, when Americans were first coming to grips with the fact that the far-away problem was spreading rapidly here, Fauci was trying to use soft power rather than blunt talk to influence the Trump administration’s approach to the outbreak. And then he talked with Jon Cohen, who writes for Science and has covered Fauci for decades. Fauci’s exasperated “I mean, seriously Jon, let’s get real, what do you want me to do?” blew Fauci’s cover and blew up the internet.
— Contributed by Helen Branswell
By Ed Yong, The Atlantic
No science reporter’s jealousy list would be complete without the inclusion of at least one story from the inimitable Ed Yong, science writer at The Atlantic. This story opens with a classic Yong anecdote about ants, and quickly transforms into a tragic, eye-opening warning for Americans about critical ramifications of the pandemic and the old behaviors and patterns that would lead us — seemingly inevitably — to those ends. “Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster,” Yong writes. “They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months.” As we all know too well at this point, the world did not return to normal. Even now, as 2020 draws to a close, Yong’s forethought — and his unique ability to succinctly summarize critical guidance from epidemiologists and health care leaders — remains sharply relevant to seeing us through this public health emergency. I can only hope the rest of the country, and the world, takes it seriously this time.
— Contributed by Erin Brodwin
By Julie Wernau, James V. Grimaldi, and Stephanie Armour, The Wall Street Journal
The linchpin of a $250 million federal program to promote Covid-19 vaccinations? You guessed it: Santa Claus. In one of 2020’s funniest, saddest, and most revealing scoops, the Wall Street Journal detailed a planned quid pro quo between one of President Trump’s top health care aides and the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas. The deal would have given Santas front-of-the-line access to vaccinations in exchange for participating in PSAs promoting coronavirus immunizations. Oh, and there’s a Dennis Quaid cameo. Needless to say, this particular PSA campaign didn’t pan out. But it did serve as an emblem of the Trump administration’s broader difficulties, missteps, and untruths on all things Covid-19.
— Contributed by Lev Facher
By Erika Hayasaki, The Atlantic
At the time of writing, more than 320,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the U.S., each one of whom fought against a terrifying new disease with no straightforward treatment. Erika Hayasaki tells the story of Chloe Le, a woman desperately pushing against a failing system so that she can donate plasma to her dying husband. This article highlights the systemic difficulties of plasma shortages and uneven treatment methods, and reveals the heartbreaking personal impact through one family’s struggle.
— Contributed by Olivia Goldhill
By Jeneen Interlandi, The New York Times Magazine
I’ve hungered for synthesis, to make sense of the noise of daily case counts, frequent policy changes, and hopelessness. One piece that helped me cut through that was Janeen Interlandi’s New York Times Magazine feature showing how underfunding public health led to this crisis, and left the U.S. so behind in facing it.
—Contributed by Matthew Herper
As told to Eli Saslow, The Washington Post
As a reporter who’s been covering Covid-19 for almost a year now, I’ve struggled with how to capture the monumentality of the pandemic — how it’s affected just about every aspect of life, and how the country has failed to both respond to the virus itself and support people trying to navigate life during this time. Each installment of this “Voices from the Pandemic” oral history series captures certain facets of what people in this country have been put through. You’ll hear from a superintendent, paramedic, local health official, and others discussing their experiences with food insecurity, long Covid, the politics of mask wearing, and more. By letting individuals tell their own stories, the series has to me captured the pandemic in the most memorable and moving ways, forming these indelible portraits.
— Contributed by Andrew Joseph
By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker
This is a stunningly eye-opening piece that starts out as a sober look at how the Covid-19 pandemic has ravaged the people who work in poultry plants, turning jobs that were already “among the most dangerous and worst paid in America” even more deadly. Author Jane Mayer doesn’t stop there. She uses the story to illustrate the myriad ways President Trump has, again and again, made it even easier for corporations — in this case, a major poultry processing company whose owners backed Trump financially — to exploit their employees during this unprecedented time.
— Contributed by Erin Mershon
By William Wan, The Washington Post
The opening lines of William Wan’s story instantly got me emotional: “If only Dan Goerke could hold his wife’s hand. Maybe she would talk again. Maybe she would look at him and smile as she used to. Maybe she would eat and stop wasting away.” His words and Kevin D. Liles’ photographs perfectly captured the helplessness and heartache that many families — including my own — have felt this year as our visits with loved ones in facilities for dementia care have been at best severely limited to prevent the spread of the virus. The changes in demeanor and health are unmistakable — and painful to observe. As Wan writes of Goerke, “the isolation was killing his wife, and there was nothing he could do but watch.”
— Contributed by Sarah Mupo
The Secret, Absurd World of Coronavirus Mask Traders and Middlemen Trying To Get Rich Off Government Money
Stories by J. David McSwane, ProPublica
Private jets, federal contracts, and a juicer salesman all feature in J. David McSwane’s articles in ProPublica chronicling the motivations and machinations of mask profiteers. One of his first articles about a daylong scramble to find masks the VA hospital system was counting on was published right on the heels of a New England Journal of Medicine article about the extreme lengths one hospital executive went to in order to buy PPE. His work over the last six months has unlocked a fascinating world of third-party mask brokers and inexperienced contractors. Ultimately, a lot of taxpayer dollars will have been spent on the pandemic response — and we all deserve to know where exactly that money went.
— Contributed by Kate Sheridan
By Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic
I’ve admired Sarah Zhang’s writing on genetics and genealogy for a long time. She takes such care in capturing the nuances of complex issues of ethics, identity, and science. This story on prenatal testing and Down syndrome is no different. It raises profound questions — about the gulf between private choices and public sentiments, about the boundaries of technology, about the judgments we make — and navigates them with compassion.
— Contributed by Megan Thielking