ROCHESTER, Minn. — I knew things had changed for health reporting the first time I dialed into one of those COVID-19 media calls.
Our time set aside for asking questions of the commissioner, I quickly realized, had been colonized by some seriously suave personnel from the 10 o'clock news.
The pandemic was here, and health reporting was no longer going to be the same. My once-cozy snooze of a news beat had become a gladiator's arena of scoops and sharp elbows.
Though some of us got into health coverage to probe the miracles and quiet mysteries of medicine, this was officially a scrum.
The readers now wanted the latest in case positivity rates, and staffed ICU counts, and new cases per 100,000 residents.
Your statistical spaghetti will need sleek graphics, we soon learned, all of it stratified by county. Fail to deliver, and your readers will find some sleep-defying, number-crunching data visuals monster who can.
And writing up the numbers behind COVID-19, that's the easy part. It's the questions put to the pandemic that could quickly maximize your exposure, and not in a good way.
Did that new spike in cases mark the sign of more COVID to come? Or was it just a drop-off in testing over the long holiday weekend?
Be careful how you answer that!
Did the commissioner of health really answer your question just now? Or was that reply the informational equivalent of ketchup?
Too late, your time is up. The ten o'clock news has a question about a testing scam in the suburbs.
What about "cases no longer in isolation?" Isn't that like tracking the blades of grass shorn on hot a July day?
Might want to skip that one too, unless you want to get mail.
How about masking outdoors? As long as we're kicking this health policy nest full of murder hornets. Where's the reasoning behind covering your face in a breeze — besides as a talisman against evil spirits?
Today's question that will get you in trouble: Why the sudden collapse of confidence among those fleeing hospital jobs in fear of the jab?
How is it, to be specific, that some 200 anonymous signers suing 20 regional hospitals could lose all faith in the knowledge system under which they have trained, served, and until 2020, entrusted their lives?
To answer that, we might have to look back into history.
Nicholas Christakis is the author of "Apollo's Arrow," the first major book on COVID-19.
"It's almost in the nature of epidemics," Christakis said in a 2020 interview on NPR, "that denial and lies about what's happening is itself ... an intrinsic part of an epidemic.
"That in other words, everywhere you see the spread of germs for the last few thousand years, you see right behind it the spread of lies."
As the nation's new Woodwards and Bernsteins, health reporters are supposed to save the world from all of these liars and their lies, wherever they are. It's a tall order.
But the alternative is watching the temperature creep ever upward.
"This is the biggest crime in human history," one email in my inbox now warns me.
The sender was writing to explain why the Mayo Clinic nurses for whom they claimed to speak "are leaving the profession because they know they are dead if we take the jab."
This is where I am obliged to interject something important. Death is not a known outcome from COVID-19 vaccines.
It's hard to say how many Mayo nurses plan to leave over vaccine mandates, if any at all.
But at least two Mayo employees have signed on to a lawsuit against the call for mandatory vaccination, with dozens signing on from other hospital systems in the state.
The same writer told me the vaccine was a "bioweapon," a claim so deep into the miasma of airport fiction that a proper disclaimer seems impossible.
The letter exhorted that "this needs to be shown to the public."
I drew the note my way after I had quoted from a COVID-19 expert in the news, causing my correspondent to fill in their subject line as follows: "he is lying to you."
Since this was the greatest crime in human history that needs to be shown to the public, I presumed some of these witnesses would want to talk to a reporter and politely spell their name.
I wrote back. I said I hoped they might put me in contact with some nurses who could speak on the record about their concerns. My trail went cold.
Though we face the greatest crime in history, saying so on the health page is still a bridge too far.
Paul Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and Forum News Service. He is a novelist and an award-winning magazine journalist based in Rochester. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 507-285-7726.