All through 2021, journalists around the globe have captivated and inspired our staff at STAT. Publications have tracked Covid-19’s twists and turns in the pandemic’s second year, from vaccine rollouts and inequity to the emergence of concerning and highly transmissible variants. Reporters and podcasters have documented other pressing issues, from air toxins and cancer risk to hospital pricing. Below is our annual list of STAT staffers’ favorite stories of the year, and that we wish we had written.
And in the spirit of our jealousy list, we should disclose that Bloomberg Businessweek first came up with the idea. Read its 2021 edition here.
Did Covid Change How We Dream?
By Brooke Jarvis, New York Times Magazine
There are some journalists whose bylines make me want to drop everything and lose myself in their latest piece. Whether she’s writing about deep-sea mining, “deported Americans,” or the unseen urgency of the fruit industry, Brooke Jarvis always manages to bring you deep inside someone else’s subjective experience. What better way to do that than through the science of dreams? As she writes, of the researcher at the center of this story, “They tended to stay with her well after she woke up, making nights feel like a time for slipping in and out of new worlds and adventures, often ones she’d read about but was now able to interact with and inhabit fully.” The piece strikes a complex balance, bearing witness to the collective horror of the pandemic while conveying an almost religious sense of awe and mystery at the workings of our own minds. It didn’t inspire envy so much as excitement: Reading it rekindled my own capacity for wonder and made me want to go out and find more stories.
— Submitted by Eric Boodman
Evolving threat: New variants have changed the face of the pandemic. What will the virus do next?
By Kai Kupferschmidt, Science
Kai Kupferschmidt wrote this important deep dive on the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the rise of the variants in August, when the Delta wave was swamping many parts of the world. Near the top of the piece, Kupferschmidt cited Aris Katzourakis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford who presciently warned that the most tumultuous period in SARS-CoV-2’s evolution may still be ahead of us. The piece was published three months before the emergence of Omicron. For my money, Kupferschmidt, a German reporter who covers infectious diseases for Science, has done some of the very finest reporting in the Covid-19 pandemic. He was the first person I saw who explored the phenomenon where a few Covid cases infect many people while most infect none. When I read one of Kai’s pieces, I pretty much always wish I’d written it. If he isn’t already on your must-read list, he ought to be.
I’m going to cheat here and add the work of a second person to my jealousy list: John Burn-Murdock’s Twitter account, found at @jburnmurdock. Burn-Murdock is the chief data reporter for The Financial Times and his Twitter feed is straight-up genius. I wish I could understand and explain data a fraction as well as he does.
— Submitted by Helen Branswell
Hospitals Hide Pricing Data From Search Results
By Tom McGinty, Anna Wilde Mathews, and Melanie Evans, Wall Street Journal
When hospitals lost their legal fight against regulations demanding unprecedented price transparency, they used sneaky, backdoor code embedded on their websites to hide the data from search engine results. These datasets are massive and difficult to work with, so the Wall Street Journal team coded a program that combed the contents of more than 3,000 disclosure webpages for the tiny tag designed to hide prices from patients. Shortly after publication, the Department of Health and Human Services banned the practice. The project is an envy-inducing example of the power of collaboration between reporters with technical and editorial skill sets in the newsroom to tackle a complex reporting challenge.
— Submitted by Rachel Cohrs
When public health becomes the public enemy
By Jane C. Hu, High Country News
This piece, about public health officials receiving death threats and harassment for trying to rein in an out-of-control pandemic, captures the tectonic plates of this moment: toxic partisan divides, the normalization of violence, a disbelief in science, and a disrespect for the humanity of others. I’ve thought a lot about how future historians will make sense of the present, how they could possibly understand the disorienting overlap of things that led to this, and Hu’s piece feels like an important future-history account from the center of the tornado.
— Submitted by Isabella Cueto
A cancer patient was sent to prison for DUI. Two months later, he was dead from COVID.
By Dave Altimari and Kelan Lyons, CT Mirror
Dave Altimari and Kelan Lyons’ story in the CT Mirror is a textbook, heartbreaking example of why local investigative reporting is so vital to our democracy. The authors, a veteran Connecticut journalist and a Report for America fellow, chronicle the life and untimely death of William Lamprecht, an immunocompromised cancer patient who contracted Covid-19 after being sentenced to four months in a Connecticut prison during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic for drunk driving.
It’s an evocative snapshot of how the pandemic has unevenly impacted the nation’s most vulnerable, including the prison population. While it’s no secret that prisons have been hotbeds for Covid-19 infections and deaths, few reporters have taken as much care as Altimari and Lyons in covering what it means when a short prison sentence turns deadly from Covid-19.
This story’s opening anecdote, where Lamprecht admits to a judge he’s worried about contracting Covid-19 in prison — only to have his one fear realized two months later — will continue to haunt me.
— Submitted by Nicholas Florko
“Maintenance Phase” podcast, “The Body Mass Index” episode
By Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes
After entering the boundless podcast landscape in late 2020, “Maintenance Phase” has blown up in 2021, for good reason. Every other week, Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes dissect American health and wellness in casual, entertaining, and completely rigorous conversations. It might have been an August episode on the body mass index that converted me from plain listener to devotee. Gordon and Hobbes trace the history of the BMI back to its roots, highlighting every inconsistent and unresearched decision along the way. As Hobbes says, it was “this completely arbitrary scale that was essentially arbitrary for more than 100 years, and then we kind of backfilled the science, because we had already agreed on this one number as the thing that had to be the center of our understanding of health.” By the end, I had a more comprehensive understanding of the scale than I’d ever gotten speaking to a doctor.
— Submitted by Theresa Gaffney
By Bill Adair, Air Mail
This was recommended by everyone who read it, and for good reason. It’s a nuanced story of someone who’s committed wrongdoing and, at its heart, shows the devastating impact of Alzheimer’s. Close to 6 million people in the U.S. have this disease, and it can be hard to grasp the impact for those patients and their families. I hugely value this story for such a tender portrayal of sickness and caring.
— Submitted by Olivia Goldhill
Babies Are Dying of Syphilis. It’s 100% Preventable.
By Caroline Chen, ProPublica
There should be a word for the awful stew of regret, jealousy, and awe that reporters feel when another journalist does a story on a topic they’ve been interested in — and does a stellar job to boot. I had been keeping an eye on rising congenital syphilis rates for some time, thinking that maybe eventually I would find a way to write about it. Then this story from Caroline arrived, movingly describing one public health department’s efforts to treat a pregnant woman for syphilis so she did not pass it to her baby, and noting that every case of congenital syphilis is preventable. Not only that, but Caroline also shows how the backsliding against congenital syphilis reflects the country’s broader neglect of public health issues that aren’t en vogue.
— Submitted by Andrew Joseph
Leaked SoCal hospital records reveal huge, automated markups for healthcare
By David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times business columnist David Lazarus obtained, from a concerned nurse, eye-opening screenshots revealing steep hospital markups for everyday items. The screenshots show price hikes of as much as 675%: Stitches that cost less than $20 were billed for close to $150. Blades for a cutting surgical tool that cost less than $100 were billed for more than $600. These “nonsensical figures,” as Lazarus called them, may be one reason Americans pay more for health care than anyone else in the world. The story shows the critical importance of medical insiders willing to provide information and details to journalists about problems they see within their institutions so those issues can be investigated and publicly discussed. As Lazarus said at the end of his column: “Maybe now that a smidge of sunlight has been let in, we can have a more honest conversation about fixing things.”
— Submitted by Usha Lee McFarling
Poison in the Air
By Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw, and Lisa Song, with additional reporting by Maya Miller, ProPublica
In this powerhouse interactive feature, ProPublica reporters managed to accomplish what federal regulators have for the last decade failed to do: share detailed data on the extent to which air toxins are elevating cancer risks for an estimated 250,000 Americans. Using software tools developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, ProPublica mapped the spread of cancer-causing chemicals from thousands of industrial emitters across the country from 2014 to 2018. By connecting the dots between air pollution and cancer in unprecedented resolution, ProPublica’s analysis shows in devastating detail how much deadlier the air is for residents in predominantly Black areas. Most shocking of all, their reporting revealed how the EPA told its own scientists not to publicize the data, in an effort to conceal the agency’s negligence in reining in polluters. Accountability journalism at its very best.
— Submitted by Megan Molteni
Unvaccinated Covid Patients Push Hospital Systems Past the Brink
Story by Drew Armstrong, data analysis and visualization by David Ingold and Paul Murray, Bloomberg
One of the many devastating turns in the pandemic this year was the profound impact of unvaccinated Covid patients on hospital systems and health care workers in the U.S. “It’s soul-draining,” one physician assistant working in Baton Rouge, La., told STAT in August. In a story published just this month, Bloomberg’s Drew Armstrong chronicles a surge of infections in Kentucky this past summer and fall. Armstrong’s reporting shows the strain on hospitals as cases spiked in counties with low vaccination rates, backed up by clear and helpful data analysis and visualizations from David Ingold and Paul Murray. “Like the man gasping for oxygen in one of the state’s many Covid wards,” Armstrong writes, “the outbreak starved Kentucky’s hospitals of air, consuming every resource: staff, beds, supplies and time.”
— Submitted by Sarah Mupo
Chart on Omicron appearing to outcompete other variants much faster than previous variants of concern did
By John Burn-Murdoch, Financial Times
Five quick tweets on the new variant B.1.1.529
Caveat first: data here is *very* preliminary, so everything could change. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry.
1) Based on the data we have, this variant is out-competing others *far* faster than Beta and even Delta did 🚩🚩 pic.twitter.com/R2Ac4e4N6s
— John Burn-Murdoch (@jburnmurdoch) November 25, 2021
As STAT’s data project manager, I’m most jealous of this particular chart from 2021. John Burn-Murdoch at the FT whipped this together before the Omicron variant even had a name, and this chart is how I, and many others, learned about the variant’s existence. I’m impressed by how quickly he pulled this together and also how clear it is. Anyone can look at this and see right away that this new variant is a different animal altogether.
— Submitted by J. Emory Parker
Where the Despairing Log On, and Learn Ways to Die
By Megan Twohey and Gabriel J.X. Dance, New York Times
First: This piece is about suicide and includes some details that I found difficult to read. If you are thinking about suicide and are in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Suicide has been a significant public health issue for years, and while the U.S. suicide rate dropped by 3% during the first year of the pandemic, the mental health care system is currently under quite a bit of stress. Finding a therapist who is taking new patients has become particularly difficult — especially if someone needs to find one that accepts insurance. So not only is the topic of this recent New York Times investigation critically important, but the reporting itself is nothing short of stunning.
Times reporters tracked down two people who they believe run a particularly pernicious website that promotes suicide. According to the journalists’ research, 45 people who were members of the site later died by suicide; many used a method described on the site. In addition to revealing the people behind the website, Megan Twohey, Gabriel J.X. Dance, and their colleagues also explain the legal and technical reasons why it has resisted a variety of efforts from regulators and survivors of suicide loss to take it down. I also appreciate that the Times team was transparent about their decision to include more details than what is typically recommended when journalists write about suicide. After interviewing mental health professionals and researchers, they wrote, they chose to disclose some specific information “in order to fully inform readers about the dangers they pose, particularly to the young and vulnerable.” I hope this story accomplishes that goal.
— Submitted by Kate Sheridan
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