Audio Astra: Expertise has been escorted from the building

November 19, 2021 3:33 am

A “prone team,” wearing personal protective equipment prepares to turn a COVID-19 patient onto his stomach in an intensive care unit. Hospitals across the country have faced tough choices with an influx of largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

The Public Health Officials Under Siege

The Daily, Nov. 11, 2021

TPiH 001 – JoAnn Rivera

That Podcast in Hutch, Nov. 11, 2021

In the early days of the pandemic, my wife and I took long daily walks with our dog. We often saw the silhouettes of our neighbors against the Kansas sunset as they strode toward us on the sidewalk.

We would reel in our dog, veer from the sidewalk and retreat to safety on the opposite side of the street. Even from that distance, I imagined those neighbors not as people at all, but as enormous green-and-red cartoon coronaviruses chasing me with human legs and infectious spikes for arms. The image is silly now, but the fear was real then.

My other pandemic pastime during spring 2020 was renovating my son’s bedroom. I made trips to Lowe’s with a fretful energy: How could I sprint through the store most quickly while avoiding human contact? I remember holding my breath (while also cursing under it) if someone dared turn down the aisle of light bulbs where I stood. 

“Please pick out your LED bulb and leave so I can exhale, sir.”

Add to this the endless wiping down of Amazon packages and groceries, and we can see how misguided we were during those first weeks, when experts were still searching for answers. 

As two podcasts make clear this week, the pandemic has taught Kansas health experts brutal and instructive lessons. Medical directors have learned the life-saving potential of monoclonal antibodies. Nurses have learned to push aside the trauma of seeing a coworker die in their own ICU.   

But as both episodes show, we, as fellow Kansans, have unfortunately succeeded in changing these health care experts — for the worse.

From the New York Times, “The Daily” podcast sits atop the national podcast charts for news each week. On the day that I write this, its two most recent episodes fill the #1 and #2 spots among thousands of news podcast episodes. When producers of the show dedicated an episode to Kansas last week, something significant was happening. 

In their search to document how American public health officials have been sidelined and villainized during the pandemic, “The Daily” traveled to Wilson County, Kansas, to speak with Dr. Jennifer McKenney, a public health inspector, school board member and physician.

Her pandemic story, told through public meeting testimony and interview excerpts, begins at the moment when everyone — regardless of political party —  huddled around public health officials. In those early stages, we listened to every evidence-based word they had about masks, social distancing and lockdowns. We almost uniformly obeyed. 

McKenney retells the unique rural experiences of the pandemic: How small Kansas towns were enraged by having to close their businesses during a time when the virus was essentially absent from their counties but rampaging on the coasts. The people of Wilson County and other sparsely populated areas wondered why they were shutting down their lives when there was so little risk on their sprawling farms and in their 1A high schools.

She describes how that frustration whipsawed into skepticism of her as a public health official. In the eyes of many in Wilson County, the policies she and fellow public health officials recommended were both unjustified and unjust. 

“It was them basically saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks,’” McKenney recalls of local reaction to her public health advice. “We don’t need you anymore.”

The cruel truth is the guidance from McKenney and other experts was overwhelmingly correct. As reporter Mike Baker puts it, “And by the time that COVID really does come for Kansas, by the fall of last year, the sentiment in the community is creating problems for Dr. McKenney.”

The episode documents how Wilson County public meetings devolved into attacks on her, even from people she considered friends. At one meeting, she was escorted from the building by law enforcement officers to ensure her safety.

“But what will they think of next? After our guns. After our kids. After everything we’ve ever known in our lives. Is this America?” one community member says to a rousing ovation during public comment.  

COVID-19 warfare has claimed trust and good will as its casualties. McKenney says she doesn’t know how folks can forgive and forget “in a small town like this.”

Baker’s reporting — including this 3,500 word shared byline on the same topic — reveals troubling national trends connected to this particular Kansas story. New laws in many states (including Kansas) limit the authority of public health officials and hand the authority over to politicians without medical training. In response, public health officials are leaving their jobs. Finally, Baker says that the new public health officials “openly oppose the science of Covid.” The gutting of expertise seems both thorough and systematic. 

Meanwhile, the microphone of Jason Probst and his “That Podcast In Hutch” remains steadfastly pointed at middle America. Yet, this week’s episode pairs interestingly with the New York Times’ rare glance at Kansas. As Probst interviews JoAnn Rivera, the director of patient services in the intensive care unit at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center, he stands in for each of us as nonexperts saying that he didn’t know what to expect during the first days of the pandemic either.  

Rivera describes nurses stripping down in their garages and showering immediately after arriving home to avoid spreading COVID to their families. And Rivera gives a nod to how that instinct to disinfect ourselves likely had limited benefits — just like my silly sanitation routine with our family’s grocery bags. 

Rivera, even as an expert nurse with decades of experience, relied on the expertise of coastal nurses. They explained how to sterilize N95 masks so that they could be reused and reduce the strain on a supply chain that was stressed for medical equipment. 

We hear how Rivera, a trained professional, had the humility to rely on fellow experts. She heroically realized that even strangers thousands of miles away can help us discard our irrational instincts.

If only we could show similar intellectual openness to the experts living in our own hometowns.  

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.