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Joint investigation reveals ‘leadership vacuum’ after backlash against public health officials

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AP Providence, Rhode Island, reporter Michelle Smith was working on another project in June when she created a spreadsheet with the names of a dozen or so public health officials who had quit, retired or been fired. Sensing a trend, Smith and reporters Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber at Kaiser Health News continued to track those departures as the pandemic worsened and the backlash against public health restrictions became more strident.

With yearend approaching and pandemic deaths mounting even as vaccines were arriving, the reporting team dove deep to take measure of how the U.S. public health system was holding up — or whether it was even sustainable.

The journalists contacted officials in all 50 states and interviewed dozens of people. They found that 1 in 8 Americans lives in a community that has lost a local health department leader,leaving a leadership vacuum as the nation enters the worst period of the pandemic and a mass vaccination campaign. The team also found organized efforts to erode public health powers, including legislation to that effect that has been crafted in 24 states.

The resulting story conveyed those stark findings but also included the human stories of these public servants who toiled through the pandemic only to be reviled by their neighbors — including the wrenching story of Tisha Coleman,whose husband would not even follow her recommendation to require masks in the family hardware store. The couple were both infected and likely spread it to Tisha’s mother, who died two days before publication. The team had developed such rapport with Coleman that she contacted the reporters shortly after her mother passed away.

The timely all-formats story,which included a data distribution, interactive graphics and a sidebar with portraits and quotes of a handful of public health officials,attracted attention and engagement. A number of news organizations used the data to localize stories for their readership.

For a deeply reported package that examines a vital component of the pandemic response,Smith,Barry-Jester, Recht and Weber earn this week’s Best of the States award.

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