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AP team embeds in West Virginia city seeing a resurgence of addiction amid the pandemic

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As the COVID-19 pandemic killed more than a half-million Americans, it also quietly inflamed what had already been one of the country’s greatest public health crises: addiction.

To tell that story, a multiformat AP team — enterprise writer Claire Galofaro, enterprise photographer David Goldman and video journalist Mike Householder — spent time in Huntington, West Virginia, exploring the resurgence of addiction in a community that had made progress against the epidemic of drug abuse. Then came COVID.

Experts had warned early on that the pandemic was worsening the county’s existing crisis of “deaths of despair,” from alcohol, suicide and drugs, but national data on overdose deaths is always months delayed. So the journalists explored locally available data and turned to sources in the field to determine where to root a story about the pandemic’s toll on those suffering addiction.

The AP team embedded with Huntington’s Quick Response team for a week, seeing through their eyes the devastation on the ground as they visited people who had survived overdoses. The trio carefully discussed with residents whether they would be willing to tell their story, and many agreed. The result was a unique window into the suffering those with addiction have endured as the pandemic cut off access to support systems and health care resources.

The journalists later learned that a competing national television crew arrived in the area the following week,trying for a similar story. But with the trust AP had built with members of the community,AP was able to get a sense of the competitor’s efforts, then make informed decisions about the timing the AP project.

The final package was a truly all-formats collaboration. Goldman’s haunting photography included a series of portraits shot on color film with a medium-format camera,while the field journalists also collected audio,working with the multimedia team to deliver in-depth audio story produced by Samantha Shotzbarger. Dario Lopez and Phil Holm contributed to the strong visual presentation, and Marshall Ritzel put together a graphic for the online video edit.

The work resonated with readers. One called Galofaro “a gifted and evocative writer” and the photos “phenomenal.” Another said,“I’m usually good for about 50% of an article,but I couldn’t stop reading and the photography was excellent.” Yet another called the writing “masterful — articulate and emotional yet subtle, too.” Buzzfeed also included the story in their “8 photo stories that will change your view of the world” segment.

One of the most gratifying responses came from the main subject,Larrecsa Cox,who leads the Quick Response team. She said she was “ecstatic” about how well the story captured the world she sees very day: “The article has been by far the best anyone has or will ever write … (you all) did an absolutely fantastic job.”

For sensitive and compelling coverage that furthers the AP’s efforts to explore the rippling consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic,the team of Galofaro, Goldman and Householder wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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