As the coronavirus hit the borderland of the Rio Grande Valley hard, strong planning and coordination led to AP's first reporting from a COVID-19 maternity ward in a powerful all-formats package.
A new mother who had unknowingly contracted the coronavirus saw the harsh reality of the pandemic in the Rio Grande Valley first hand: The first moments Clarissa Muñoz spent with her baby were not only cut cruelly short, but she couldn’t even hold the infant. To see her newborn, she would have to call the nursery over video chat.
That image, documented in photos, video and text, is just the first example of the stark contrast between this part of the United States – with a combination of poor health and poverty – and other regions with more hospital beds and the other resources needed to fight the virus. As Austin-based reporter Paul Weber wrote, “The U.S. failure to contain the pandemic has been laid bare.”
Few places in America have been as hard hit by the pandemic as the Texas border, and AP was thorough in planning and delivering this all-formats package that was widely used by some of our biggest customers. The reporting took Weber, San Antonio-based photographer Eric Gay and Houston video journalist John Mone inside two hospitals struggling to deal with an overwhelming number of cases. Full protective gear was expedited to Texas for the team, which ran into another obstacle just as they were about to leave – Hurricane Hanna made landfall over the region, sending Gay and Mone racing to the coast, juggling two major assignments at once.
But in the Rio Grande Valley, the toll of the virus was impossible to miss. Besides Muñoz, there was Martha Torres, a nurse who had spent whole shifts calling other ICUs to accept patients needing to be airlifted from Starr County Memorial Hospital for the help they needed. Some patients were sent as far as Oklahoma City, nearly 700 miles from the border of Texas and Mexico. Many did not survive after the long flights.
And there was the mayor of Rio Grande City, who made the pointed statement that this predominantly Hispanic part of the U.S. was “no less American” than anywhere else. “Our house is on fire,” he said. Help was coming in the way of a field hospital after a month of begging, but for many, it was already too late.
Gay’s photos, showing makeshift doors built with duct tape, medical workers embracing while wearing masks, and nurses holding up smartphones so mothers could see their babies, were undeniably moving. Video from Mone showed hospital personnel working in tandem to flip COVID-19 patients from their backs onto their bellies using sheets – a jarring but necessary sight to make it easier for patients to breathe. And the carefully composed photos protected the privacy of patients.
The video was used on ABC’s “World News Tonight,” the “CBS Evening News” and “Good Morning America.” The Dallas Morning News used the text and photos as its front-page centerpiece. The story also was one of the most engaged of the week on AP News.
For pulling off a compelling and hard-to-report all-formats package – and handling coverage of hurricane along the way – Weber, Gay and Mone win this week’s Best of the States award.
See AP’s hub for comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.