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As cases peak, AP duo embeds in a French ICU for a 24-hours in the battle against COVID-19

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Just as a second surge of coronavirus cases peaked in France, Associated Press journalists secured exclusive, hard-won access to an ICU ward, dramatically documenting for AP clients in all formats exhausted medical workers desperately worked to keep even one bed open in the struggle to save lives.

Spending 24 hours straight in southern France’s largest hospital, AP freelance photographer/video journalist Daniel Cole and AP global enterprise reporter Lori Hinnant delivered a searing package of photos, video and text.

Cole fought for months for access to La Timone hospital in Marseille. In early November, he had managed to photograph a small military hospital ICU in the region. The main doctor at that hospital was so pleased with Cole’s respectful coverage that he recommended him to a colleague at La Timone. Backed by that doctor, Cole got a green light from local public health authorities and then successfully pressed for more than the usual couple of hours inside the facility, to set AP’s coverage apart for its clients.

Cole and Hinnant prepared methodically for their 24-hour stay. They stocked up on PPE to protect themselves against the virus, as well as bottled water, bread, fruit, cheese, ham and rice cakes.

They spent most of their time observing and documenting the ICU,staying far enough out of the way of the doctors and nurses but close enough that they could see and hear what was happening as the day turned into night and then turned into the next morning. They snatched a few hours of sleep in a meeting room.

“The biggest challenge was to be both non-intrusive and present at the crucial moments of the day and night,” Hinnant recalled. “I spent a lot of time chatting with the doctors and nurses with my notebook closed,and then,when they’d go off for a task,frantically recapping the conversation in my notebook along with the time. And both of us wandered around a lot until something caught our eye,checking records without anyone trying to conceal details,room numbers,asking what was happening at a given moment.”

By spending 24 hours embedded with the ICU team,rather than just doing a series of short interviews and then dashing out to file, they came away with an intimate knowledge of how the medical staff and patients were coping with the virus surge.

The photos, text and video captured the exhaustion,loneliness and dedication in compelling detail. The ICU was full and busy,but the rest of the hospital was quiet and empty as Cole and Hinnant documented what it was like to desperately try to save lives and keep the whole medical system from collapsing at a time when pandemic fatigue has set in across the world.

Emerging from the ICU after morning had broken,Cole and Hinnant immediately set to editing and producing their finished products. Their quick turnaround delivered the reporting with newsy timing for AP clients: On the day the all-formats package ran, France’s ICU admissions from the surge peaked.

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Cardiology nurse Pauline Reynier pauses briefly during her second day in a makeshift COVID-19 ICU ward at La Timone hospital in Marseille, France, Nov. 12, 2020. Reynier had been called up to reinforce a fatigued and dwindling nursing staff at the peak of France’s second surge of coronavirus cases. – AP Photo / Daniel Cole

Cole fought for months for access to La Timone, the largest hospital in southern France.

The work grabbed attention across Europe and especially in France. The photos appeared on multiple French news websites,while the reporting fed into a French podcast and the video was used by French broadcasters.

Cole’s video and six-minute edit was used by more than 120 channels and had nearly 600 hits globally.

The pair’s impressive work is already bolstering efforts to open doors at other facilities. And the World Health Organization appeared to reference the reporting in a briefing,seemingly borrowing wording from Hinnant’s poignant and exquisitely detailed text.

For their dogged pursuit of access,tireless reporting and sensitive,compelling and timely storytelling, Cole and Hinnant earn AP’s Best of the Week award.

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