No Simple Answers: A COVID Q&A With NYT's Apoorva Mandavilli
March 25, 2021
Photo courtesy of Apoorva Mandavilli
We sit down with New York Times’ science and global health reporter Apoorva Mandavilli to answer listener questions about the pandemic.
Listen to the full episode, read the transcript below or scroll down for more information.
NOTE: This episode incorrectly states that more than 125 million people had received vaccinations at the time the episode aired. More than 125 million doses had been administered, but fewer than 90 million people had received at least one dose.
Apoorva Mandavilli: Often what we know about this virus is very nuanced, so I can’t give you a simple answer because the answers are all very murky.
Dan Gorenstein: Today, we sit down with one of the top COVID reporters in the business to answer your questions.
AM: My name is Apoorva Mandavilli. I’m a science and global health reporter at The New York Times and for the past year, I’ve become well-acquainted with this virus and its many ways.
DG: From the studio at the Leonard Davis Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.
DG: Do you have a nickname like, look it’s Apoorva, the COVID Queen or something like that?
AM: “COVID Whisperer” came up a couple of days ago. I don’t know how I feel about that because that makes me feel like I am being described as somebody who’s close friends with covid or feel some affection for covid. And that is not the case.
DG: Do you actually feel like you have a relationship with the virus?
AM: I feel like I have a very professional relationship with the virus. I actually think that that has been my saving grace throughout this pandemic. I think I’ve escaped a lot of the anxiety and stress of the pandemic because I have treated this virus so much like it’s just something I write about. And I’ve tried not to get carried away by my own emotions and my own stresses so that I can report on things without being overwhelmed by it.
DG: Do you have an example of how you feel like you’ve tried to do that?
AM: Well, I think the kids in schools issue is a good one. I have tried not to have a personal stake in it. Obviously, that’s impossible to not have any opinion or any feeling about it, but I’ve tried to stay as much out of it as possible and not be so colored by what I want for my own kids to think about it more in terms of, what does the science tell us? And I want to think about how this affects a parent in Iowa? How does this affect a kid in California? Rather than how does this affect me, Apoorva and my two children here in Brooklyn.
DG: You’ve been reporting on a very fast moving story where facts can last a few hours. What sorts of compromises have you had to make to report in that sort of environment?
AM: I would say that I’m typically a very cautious reporter. I like to know where I’m treading before I go there. And with this pandemic, that hasn’t been the case at all. I’ve had to report on a lot of things before we knew really much about it at all. For example, preprints, you know, these papers that haven’t been vetted by peer review. Before the pandemic, I never used to report on them, just had a rule, and I just couldn’t have that rule during this pandemic. So I’ve had to know that in a situation like this, the readers need to know information a lot sooner than scientists or scientific journals can process it.
I’ll give you an example of a time when I covered something that changed essentially overnight. I wrote an explainer in January about the variants
News clip: A lot of focus, a lot of talk about variants all over the world. UK, South Africa, Brazil.
News clip: Tonight, the highly contagious UK variant now confirmed in at least 19 states.
AM: This was Martin Luther King weekend and I reported on it. I talked to a bunch of scientists and then I filed it over the weekend. So when I wrote it, all the experts said to me, yes, this variant is circulating, but the vaccines will absolutely work, don’t worry. And then Monday I heard about a new study from South Africa essentially saying the vaccines don’t seem to work as well against the variant that was there. And I called all of the people I had talked to back and every one of them backtracked and said I did not expect this. This wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. So it completely flipped the conversation in 48 hours. And I’ve never experienced anything like that where things have changed that dramatically in such a short time frame.
DG: What does that say about this time, this story, this phenomenon that is this virus?
AM: More than anything else, it says to me that our need for clarity and certainty just has to be something we have to put aside during this pandemic. We just cannot ask for those guarantees. We cannot ask for clear yes and no answers to anything. We have to get comfortable with uncertainty. We have to get comfortable with nuance. We have to get comfortable with having things change on a dime.
DG: And the evidence continues to evolve, right? We still don’t know precisely how the vaccines stack up against the variant identified in South Africa.
Early studies suggest they might be less effective at preventing infection, but still do protect people from serious disease and death.
Ok, now, let’s turn to some of our listener questions.
This first one, Apoorva, comes from Mike Pantoliano in Vancouver, Washington.
Mike Pantoliano: With young children not likely to be cleared for vaccinations until 2022, what does the rest of 2021 look like for a family of small kids all under six? Should we be mentally preparing to continue to be locked down until 2022? Thanks.
AM: The good news is that Pfizer and Moderna are both testing vaccines for ages 12 and up, which doesn’t really help this particular listener. But Moderna is also getting ready to test in kids six months and up, and we hope that some of those answers will be available in the summer or fall. And so vaccines might actually be rolled out to kids by then. But even before that, I would not think of it as, do we have to lock down. I think we’ll still need to be careful. Kids will probably need to wear masks when they’re in school. But I am fully expecting that in the fall, kids will be back at school in something that looks close to normal.
DG: We got a bunch of questions from listeners who are among the more than 125 million people in the U.S. who’ve been lucky enough to actually get the vaccine. So we’d like to do a little bit of a lightning round on their behalf. They all three are nurses. We’re going to start with Robin Cogan, a school nurse from New Jersey. And Robin wants to know what we know so far about how long immunity from vaccines will actually last.
AM: We don’t know. I really hate to have to say that all the time, but it’s true. We know that the immunity from natural infection seems to last a good amount of time, maybe a year. And we hope that the vaccines will be similar. The way we’re going to find out how long the immunity lasts is by actually having that amount of time elapse.
DG: Another nurse, Susan Allison-Dean wants to know about boosters and whether we’ll need boosters from the same company that we got our first shot from, so Pfizer, Moderna, J&J.
AM: We will almost certainly need boosters. Which boosters they will be, whether they will be third doses of the same vaccines you’ve had before or whether they will be a new booster that’s designed specifically for B.1351, which is the South Africa variant? All of those are open questions.
DG: Final question from a New York nurse, Barbara Glickstein.
Barbara Glickstein: When will we know if fully vaccinated people who contract COVID are infectious? Thank you.
AM: We don’t know the answer to that yet, but we’re hoping that in the next few weeks to months, we will know. There are a lot of natural experiments going on, meaning there are a lot of people who are being vaccinated, millions and millions in lots of different countries. And some of the countries are tracking the infections pretty closely. So we should be able to know if vaccinated people are getting infected in large numbers. So far, it looks like it’s pretty low. But until we know that for sure, the recommendation is that people still wear a mask because they could be transmitting to others.
DG: When we come back … what we’ve learned about communicating in a pandemic, and the rewards and risks of a pandemic platform.
DG: Welcome back.
We’re talking with New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli, and we’ve been talking a lot about COVID in the U.S., but we know this is a global pandemic, and vaccines are not being evenly distributed so far.
Apoorva, if there are lots of people in mostly Western countries that are able to get vaccinated, but large numbers of people in poorer countries are not, what would that mean for public health and the future of the pandemic?
AM: This is a question that I find particularly enraging and upsetting. We know now that the richer countries of the world have bought close to a billion doses actually more than they need while there are countries where not a single person has been vaccinated. Some of those countries probably won’t see any vaccines until 2023 or 2024, which means that the virus is going to be circulating in those places and we will probably see new variants come up. We already know that this is a very interconnected world. This is how the coronavirus came to us at all. So if there is a new variant that pops up anywhere else in the world, we can be pretty sure that it will also come to America. So this idea that we’re just going to vaccinate our own citizens and not worry about the rest of the world is extremely shortsighted.
DG: One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced, Apoorva, during the pandemic is figuring out how to deliver clear, concise information in this fast-changing landscape.
And that challenge is the essence of our next listener question.
Lindsey Leininger: My name is Lindsey Leininger. I am a public health educator at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a science communicator at Dear Pandemic. I would love for Apoorva to speak to how those of us who are communicators and scientists can help with the healing when the time comes, when we’ve lived through this acute phase of the pandemic. We want to help be part of the solution and we want to do it correctly. So any tips or wisdom would be most appreciated.
AM: I think one lesson we’ve learned during this pandemic is that we should not ever lie to the public for their own good or for any other reason. For example, with the masks.
News clip: Right now the CDC is saying masks should only be worn if you’re sick or if you’re taking care of someone who is.
AM: The CDC and the WHO both said later on that they had not recommended the masks right from the start because they were worried about a run on the masks and they wanted to reserve them for the health care workers.
News clip: We were thinking we would run out of masks and other things for them. So the recommendation was not to wear a mask because of the shortage of it.
AM: If they had said from the start, this is this case, this is the situation, but you should all have cloth coverings I think it would have gone a long way to preventing the huge sort of misunderstandings and the hot mess over masks. So transparency, I think, is really key, but also to be humble and to say we don’t know. I’ve seen a lot of the general public be very upset that things have changed. And I don’t think that the experts or the agencies have always done a great job of saying, “This is what we think now. This is subject to change as we find out more about this virus.” I think in trying to give a clear message, sometimes they have erred on the side of sounding too sure about what they know and that has actually backfired.
DG: And I think to get to the heart of this question, how can you communicate, the tact that we’ve taken and it sounds like you’ve done the same, is to trust your audience, to be transparent, to share with them the full picture and not believe in their ability to handle that nuanced picture of reality.
AM: Absolutely, and I also think to just respect their intelligence, I mean, one thing I’ve been really struck by during this pandemic and I think my editors have been too, is that there has just been an enormous appetite to learn very complicated things in biology. You know, just the average person wanting to know how antibodies work and what are the T cells. And, you know, I wrote a very, very nerdy article about this metric called the cycle threshold, which is in a PCR test. It’s a sort of proxy for how much virus there is. Never in a million years would I have thought that I would write about that in The New York Times or that it would be read by millions of people. It’s just not something you would expect. And yet people were willing to go there to read about that and to submerge themselves in these very arcane scientific concepts.
DG: And so that’s the rewarding side, perhaps, of the work that you’ve done, but there’s also a difficult side it seems like. I think many people would consider you to be one of our country’s preeminent COVID reporters. So that means that people look to you, they respect you, they trust you, they need your information. Your information changes how they’re thinking, which is a huge responsibility. And at the same time, you faced a fair amount of blowback, right? You’ve gotten hateful things tweeted at you, said to you, written about you whether they be racist or sexist. I’m curious what sort of toll that has taken on you as a person?
AM: You know, I think there’s a cumulative effect to things like that. So for me, the North Star is always what do the readers need and what do the readers want? And I have always tried to keep that in mind as I’ve been writing these stories, that it’s not about one person that is angry. It is not about one source that is angry. It is about doing my job, which is to serve the readers with information that they need to know. And that actually has carried me for a good part of this pandemic. I think it really served me well for a long time. I’ve gotten better at ignoring it and tuning it out. I have a sort of mental rule, I suppose, of blocking anybody who starts cursing at me or calling me names, immediate block. I don’t want to sound naive, of course, I know that people can be absolute jerks and I know they can be nasty, but the degree of nastiness and the ease with which people have said things to me that are just horrific, that has really shocked me. I think I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I have gotten emails saying that I deserved to be beheaded. That that is the only good outcome for me is to have my head chopped off in the middle of the public, something like that. And that to me to say that to somebody who has just been reporting on a virus is just unbelievable. So, yeah, I guess I would say that I’m a little little more cynical than I was.
DG: You’ve been horrified by some of the responses you’ve gotten. Is there a part of you also, though, when you talk about the fact that people are geeking out over your deep science writing or that more people understand and see and acknowledge the inequity that exists not just here in the United States, but around the world, is there a part of you that is more hopeful? And I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish in asking that question, like you’ve seen some of the best in people over the last 12 months and some of the worst. Where does that leave you, Apoorva?
AM: I’m glad you said, you know, I’ve seen some of the best because I don’t want to give the impression that it’s all negative. I do think that I’ve seen an enormous amount of interest in deep science, people being extremely kind and sweet about not just the science writing, but about, you know, the spelling bee, which I tweet about a lot and just being, you know, very sociable and friendly and warm. And, you know, I have regulars, if you want to call them that. You know, the people who always respond to every tweet essentially and who are extremely nice. I don’t know if that extends to wanting equal access to vaccines, for example, for everybody in the world. I think that we are still kind of in the phase of everyone for themselves. I hope that as more and more people are vaccinated and people are a little less afraid, they can see beyond their immediate danger to what this means for the rest of the world and care. But, yeah, absolutely. I do think there is a lot of good out there, too. And I would like to think that there are a lot of people who in the course of this pandemic have really come to care for their fellow citizens, whether it’s of the country or the world.
DG: Apoorva, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us on Tradeoffs.
AM: Thank you for having me. This was a very interesting conversation.
DG: Apoorva answered more listener questions than we had time to fit in this episode.
You can find those in our Friday newsletter. Subscribe by hitting the link in our show notes or by going to our website tradeoffs.org.
I’m Dan Gorenstein, and this is Tradeoffs.
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Related Coverage of COVID-19:
Covid variants could fuel ‘another avoidable surge’ — here’s where they’re cropping up and what you need to know (Cory Stieg, CNBC, 3/24/2021)
When will kids and teens be vaccinated against Covid-19? (Lauren Mascarenhas, CNN, 3/23/2021)
Rich Countries Signed Away a Chance to Vaccinate the World (Selam Gebrekidan and Matt Apuzzo, New York Times, 3/21/2021)