A pregnant reporter talks about covering the Zika outbreak in South Florida

Reporter Sammy Mack covers the health beat for public radio station WLRN in South Florida. (Photo by Scott Schoenleber via WLRN.org

Sammy Mack covers the health beat for WLRN, the NPR member station in South Florida. That means she’s been reporting on the Zika virus since early summer, when health officials began warning that they expected an outbreak to hit Florida. Locally acquired infections did appear in mid-summer, and Mack has been following the response from public officials ever since.

While the symptoms of Zika infection are often mild and pass quickly, the virus carries the threat of devastating birth defects in babies whose mothers becomes infected while pregnant. Mack, who has a master’s degree in public health communications, has watched the state’s response to the outbreak from a unique perspective: She’s four months pregnant. 

I spoke with her this week about the experience of reporting this story. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation is below. 

When this Zika outbreak first broke, you already knew you were pregnant, right?

Yeah, in fact, [just before the infections were announced] we hadn’t had any locally acquired cases yet and I was not telling people yet. I got an assignment to cover a story about how the threat of Zika was affecting conversations about prenatal care. In the course of the reporting, the first locally acquired cases were announced. That kind of changed the conversation a little bit. It was around the same time I was thinking about telling my editors that I’m pregnant. It was probably a few weeks before I would have done it, but in light of what we were being told, that’s when I started disclosing.

And probably also when you started just dousing yourself with bug spray, right?

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Yeah, as soon as we knew we had locally acquired cases, that’s when I started wearing long sleeves and pants and wearing bug spray all the time. 

Do you still get bitten by mosquitoes?

I really haven’t gotten bitten by mosquitoes since I started doing that, so I think it’s pretty effective. Normally, I’m the person in the room all the mosquitoes are on top of. When I see mosquitoes I tend to run away from them. I try to limit my time outside as much as possible. I’ve been avoiding the places the CDC recommends avoiding.

How has that worked out as a reporter, covering this?

Better than expected, actually. I work in a newsroom that is very, very supportive and very collaborative. Public radio tends to be a pretty collaborative medium. Pretty much every person in the newsroom has done a Zika story that for one reason or another I could not cover. My editors know that there are places I will not go and will preemptively ask another reporter who’s available to cover something they know is happening in one of these places. It has also meant that I am sharing tape and working with other reporters getting questions answered when we know a public official is going to be somewhere. In that regard it’s been pretty successful.

This is in a sense a story you’ve been preparing for a long time—it’s not just that you’re pregnant in the middle of it, but you have a master’s degree in public health communication, right? I thought the concerns you raised (in this episode of The Florida Roundup) about how the state has handled this, and in some cases mishandled this, were interesting. 

Yes. I’ve been doing health reporting for a long time. That background has given me a different lens for understanding how public health works and how health communication and crisis communication work. It’s also given me a different way of thinking about what is the responsible and ethical way to cover some of these things.

I think one of the ways that my training in public health and my training as a journalist are completely in sync is the idea is that you want to be as transparent as possible as soon as possible, and you want to be right. And that applies to public officials who are announcing new public health threats as much as it applies to a journalist.

You’ve also found, because you are pregnant, you have a unique ability to report on this story. You don’t have to go out and find pregnant women and ask hey, how’d that Zika test work for you? You’ve reported on your own inability to get your test results.

I have, a couple of times, ended up in the same conflicts that other women are facing, in the middle of the same challenges that other pregnant women are facing. Part of the challenge of reporting on this story has been access to what is happening on the Department of Health side of things. As a reporter, when I ask what is the hold-up on getting these test results back to people, I get these sort of vague responses that “we’re working on it” from the state.

But I’m in a position where, as a patient, I have a level of access that I wouldn’t necessarily have as a reporter. So I can call and ask about my test and try and figure out where on earth my samples are sitting in this process.

I have this perspective that, frankly, I would rather not have. I’d prefer for all of this to be working well. But unfortunately, it’s not. And unfortunately, I’m part of it. It’s to a point where I don’t know that I could tell the story of the backlog without reporting that I myself waited five weeks to get my results.

Have you finally gotten your results? 

[Laughs] I have. This is interesting. So Kate Stein, one of my colleagues who has been doing a lot of the stories I can’t do, she and I did a story that ran on a Friday about the backlog of these test results. Wouldn’t you know, a couple hours after that ran I got a phone call from someone in the health department who wanted to let me know that, “Ms. Mack, your test results are here at the county and we just wanted to let you know and to know who your doctor is to release them to.” Sure enough, I was contacted by my doctor that evening and she shared them with me and they were negative, which is great. I can’t emphasize enough here the sense of relief that comes with that. As soon as I knew they hadn’t been sent to the CDC, I pretty much knew they were negative, but to have them in hand was so profoundly relieving.

The flip side of that is I also know I have a microphone that literally hundreds of other women do not have. I’m going to keep reporting on it because anything I can do to put pressure on that process and draw attention to what’s not working will, I hope, encourage people who are in a position to fix it to do something.

At some point did you think, maybe I should just leave? This is my story, I should cover this story, but the risks are too great?

It’s an ongoing conversation that I’m having with my family. It’s not off the table. But we haven’t hit that point yet. I’m not sure what that point is, but we haven’t crossed that line yet. I have a toddler. I have a husband who has a job. Leaving is uprooting everyone. It’s not an easy decision.

The other thing too is, as scary as this is and it is scary, the most dangerous thing I do every day is probably getting in my car. Nobody has told me to stop driving for the sake of my unborn child.

Keeping that perspective can be hard. At this point, I don’t feel like moving is the best decision for my family.

What about the issue of covering this and coming out with this very personal information, not just to your bosses, but to everybody who listens to WLRN. Did it occur to you that you didn’t want to do that?

It did occur to me that maybe I didn’t want to do that. I spent a lot of time thinking about it. And I actually counted. I had nine people who urged me to keep a radio diary before I went public with the audience.

I mean, I would tell people who I was interviewing when I was reporting—disclose that way. In terms of actually reporting in the first person, I am far outside my comfort zone right now. But when it got to a point where I was reporting on these really hard challenges that I was also going through, it just felt like I don’t think I can ethically tell the story without mentioning that I am also going through it. That began to feel like a conflict.

It was not a decision that was made in isolation. These were conversations I had with my editors.

You could have also been facing some very serious medical consequences if you had come back positive.

Yeah, I could have. And that was part of the calculus. I’m not entirely through the woods yet, either. I took a first trimester test, but the recommendation is to get a second trimester test. So I’m going to be going through all of this again. This time around, on my to-do list is to call my insurance company and see what, if anything, they cover to go to a private lab. If that is an option, I’m going to take that, based on my experiences in the last round of testing.

I don’t know what I would have done if I had come back positive. I don’t know. But whatever I would have done, it would have involved conversations with my family and my editors.

I assume your editors would have supported you just sort of dropping out of this story if you needed to.

Yeah. In fact, on several occasions, they have stopped and asked do you want to do this? I love my editors. Have I mentioned that? I really love my editors.

You public radio people. You’re all so happy.

I know, we’re so earnest and collaborative. 

I did give myself a break and do a story on colonoscopy prices a couple weeks ago. So, yeah, there has been a little bit of self-care there.

But the other part of it too is if I didn’t have a way to be actively engaged in this, what would I be doing? I’d be sitting home festering with anxiety? I feel like I am maybe shining light where it needs to be shone, or doing something to help people understand what the risks are and what the process is.

So how do you survive those long sleeves?

Oh my god, it’s so hot. It’s sooo hot. But for years I’ve been complaining that one of our studios is an icebox. So the fight about office air conditioning is no longer my fight.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith.