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Houston team vividly documents the grim reality playing out inside a Texas hospital

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With coronavirus cases spiking in Texas and other states, AP journalists David J. Phillip, John Mone and Nomaan Merchant went beyond the daily numbers to show the reality in a small Houston hospital. In a gut-punch story that landed in newspapers and nightly newscasts, the trio’s work included the last moments of a woman’s losing battle with the coronavirus.

But the package – Phillip’s photos,Mone’s video and Merchant’s text story – captured more than just a moment. It showed the grim realities facing frontline workers as cases rise nationally. Weaving details from their day spent inside the hospital with what was happening in Texas and beyond,a broader story emerged. While Texas said it had more than 100,000 available hospital beds, the team learned that they weren’t necessarily in urban centers where the virus was surging. The scenes the trio witnessed were almost certainly playing out in other hospitals around the country.

Reaction to the story was massive. It was featured on ABC,CBS and NBC’s nightly national newscasts,and both Rachel Maddow and “Face the Nation” started their shows with it. The Guardian led its website with the story and The Washington Post used Phillip’s photos. A Houston TV station used Mone’s footage to tell their own version of the story,notable because it was from their market. It got more than 115,000 pageviews on APNews.com and the mobile app. The video was the most used U.S. story of the day – to a degree rarely seen.

Throughout the process,Phillip,Mone and Merchant worked to tell the story with empathy toward their subjects. They also took considerable precautions to get the story,following the same strict medical protocols as hospital staff: changing out of their clothes and into three layers of PPE,including double sets of gloves taped at the wrists,two masks and a face shield. They interviewed patients and cpersonnel throughout the 117-bed hospital,always changing the outer layer of protective gear as they exited and entered each wing of the unit.

They spent time with caregivers. They spoke to a woman and her daughter who were treated side-by-side. They talked to a 51-year-old woman who cared for her son and husband when they were sick with the virus, only to get sick herself with worse symptoms.

Then there was the 66-year-old widow who arrived at the hospital days after she hosted a 100-person funeral for her husband,who had died of cancer. Mourners were mostly maskless,and the woman conceded to her daughter before her death that they should have been more careful. Her death and its immediate aftermath were captured by Phillip,Mone and Merchant,including Dr. Joseph Varon’s call to the woman’s daughter to report her death. Paying attention to every detail during their visit, the team noted that the doctor’s bluish gray eyes were filled with tears by the time he hung up the phone.

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From left, Houston staffers, reporter Nomaan Merchant, video journalist John Mone and photographer David Phillip, pose inside the coronavirus unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, July 6, 2020.

The AP got the story through groundwork laid by Phillip and Mone in the outbreak’s early days in March. The visual journalists met Varon while covering the opening of one of Houston’s first COVID-19 testing sites in the parking lot at the doctor’s hospital,United Memorial Medical Center. Phillip saw Varon again at a testing site in late June,when the virus’s surge in Texas was beginning,and he asked if the AP could chronicle a day in the life of the hospital. The physician gave an unequivocal yes.

For compelling,empathetic and revelatory storytelling from the frontline of the coronavirus fight,Phillip, Mone and Merchant win AP’s Best of the Week award.


For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus:

AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.

Lives Lost: stories behind the victims of COVID-19.

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