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Station Spotlight: Local Programs Provide Answers About COVID-19
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PBS39 Health Reporter Brittany Sweeney interviews a doctor about the pandemic's impact on Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley.

Public media’s commitment to serving the public interest has perhaps never been more essential. As Americans clamor for news about the pandemic, PBS member stations have spent many months providing up-to-date information responsive to the needs of their audience.

“Public broadcasting’s greatest potential is realized when it serves the unique needs of local communities,” the PBS Editorial Standards state. “No one is better qualified to determine and respond to those local needs than the public television stations licensed to their communities.”

With a dedication to the core editorial principles of accuracy, fairness, and inclusiveness, some stations have strived to answer questions such as when will the COVID-19 vaccine be available to the general public, will it be effective, and how much will it cost.

PBS39 tackles misinformation

PBS39 and NPR member station WLVR regularly provided important information to their eastern Pennsylvania audiences with Community Update on Coronavirus. The half-hour program initially started as a daily update in mid-March 2020, soon after Pennsylvania went into lockdown, and continued for several months. With a surge in COVID-19 cases, the program was revived in December 2020 and continued until June 2021. It aired live on PBS39 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was re-broadcast on WLVR. Medical experts, business owners, government officials, school leaders, and others came together to answer questions and provide details for the community.

The impetus for launching the program came from the confusion and lack of information when the pandemic first began, health reporter and host Brittany Sweeney said.

“There was a need for answers from reputable sources,” she said. “When it comes to misinformation, we ask the professionals. We make sure if there is a rumor or piece of information out there that does not seem to ring true ... we address it with the medical experts invited on the show.”

The program has covered a range of issues such as staying healthy during quarantine, the financial impact on hospitals, and the more contagious strain of the virus that has recently shown up in the United States.

During the Dec. 30 episode, guest Dr. Timothy Friel, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Lehigh Valley Health Network, said he hopes the more transmissible form of the virus convinces people it is in their best interest to get vaccinated.

“This pandemic is not going to end until we achieve a high enough level of immunity among our communities, both within this country and throughout the globe,” Friel said. “The vaccine is the quickest way, and the safest way, for us to get there.”

Friel explained that as data about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine grow, there will be greater confidence among the public.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in late November 2020 indicated that the percentage of people intending to get a COVID-19 vaccine was rising as people gain assurance about the development process. Still, those views were not uniform. Only 42% of Black respondents said they would get the vaccine, compared to 61% of white respondents and 63% of Hispanics.

Minority groups appear to be disproportionally affected by the virus.

Black Americans are more likely to know someone who has been hospitalized or died due to COVID-19, according to the Pew survey. While 54% of all Americans say they know someone who has been hospitalized or died, that number climbs to 71% among Black respondents.

Rhode Island PBS focuses on Latino communities

Rhode Island PBS Weekly, which launched in November 2020, has covered how economic and health disparities are making the pandemic difficult to control in Latino communities.

The PBS Editorial Standards encourage producers to “incorporate diverse perspectives as a way of making content more inclusive, accurate, and complete.”

One powerful episode of Rhode Island PBS Weekly highlighted the struggles in Central Falls, a COVID-19 hotspot in the state with a large Latino population. The report detailed the need for more testing, lack of transportation, and pressure to keep working.

Thousands of undocumented immigrants live in Central Falls. They do not have access to primary care doctors and cannot collect unemployment. Many are scared to get tested and go to the hospital. One third of the population lives in poverty in the city.

“The virus treats everybody equally. Our society doesn’t treat everybody equally. And that inequality is what’s making it so that people of color and people who are immigrants and people who are working every day who might be considered low income, that’s where they’re getting hit,” Dr. Michael Fine, the city’s chief health strategist, said during the report.

Vegas PBS addresses vaccination efforts

A recent episode of Nevada Week, a public affairs program produced by Vegas PBS, focused on that state’s vaccination plan.

Nevada is last in the United States for its flu vaccination rates, according to Heidi Parker, executive director of Immunize Nevada, who was a guest on the program. So health officials are focused not only on being ready when the COVID-19 vaccines are available to distribute, but more immediately the flu vaccine.

Vaccination rates are particularly low in minority communities. “While we saw gains in those populations, in those communities, it’s still not where we want them to be. And it’s really driving some of our outreach for this flu season to ensure that we’re reaching those populations,” Parker said.

Low vaccination rates are not the state’s only problems related to the pandemic. Soon after the mandated closure, Nevada also had the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. along with some of the widest housing, education and healthcare gaps across the country, said Kipp Ortenburger, moderator of Nevada Week.

Nevada Week has prioritized accuracy over breaking news, he said.

“There was no way a weekly talk show could keep up on the deluge of information,” Ortenburger said. “But what we could do is dually provide how/where to access resources and ease anxiety through more context and perspective—in our case, long-form and more in-depth interviews from trusted leaders that went beyond sound bites.”

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