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ProPublica’s COVID-19 Stories Win Polk Award for Health Reporting

ProPublica won this year’s George Polk Award in Journalism in the health reporting category, honoring the newsroom’s investigative work on the coronavirus pandemic. The award recognized two series — one that illuminated the depths of disproportionate deaths among Black Americans and another that explored how the meatpacking industry ignored pandemic warnings, blindsiding health officials and exposing essential workers and their communities to COVID-19. This marks the ninth Polk Award for ProPublica and the sixth consecutive year in which the newsroom was so honored.

Reporting for the series on the coronavirus and racial disparities began early in the pandemic. ProPublica assembled a team to cover what it suspected would be a disproportionate and devastating impact on Black Americans. An article by Akilah Johnson and Talia Buford focused on Milwaukee, one of the few places in the U.S. that was then tracking the racial breakdown of infections, giving the earliest look at an emerging pattern of racial disparities in deaths that would become a profound toll.

Four days after this first story was published, President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the disparities for the first time at a White House news conference. Trump pledged to release the data. ProPublica stayed ahead of the coverage by moving past the easy explanations often given for disparate outcomes in African Americans — that they were simply less healthy and that the causes were entrenched and nearly impossible to fix — to drum home that many of these deaths were avoidable.

This work included spotlighting stories of the first 100 people who died in Chicago, 70 of whom were Black. Written by Duaa Eldeib, Adriana Gallardo, Johnson, Annie Waldman, Nina Martin, Buford and Tony Briscoe, the story exposed the flaws of one-size-fits-all guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about when and how to seek care. In New Orleans, reporters Waldman and Josh Kaplan reported on hospitals sending infected Black patients home to die against the wishes of loved ones, to be cared for by those relatives without the proper protective equipment.

The data began to show that 40% of people dying of COVID-19 were diabetic. Lizzie Presser detailed how Black Americans with diabetes lose limbs at a rate triple that of others, a sign that quality preventive care isn’t reaching the people who need it most. As a result of her reporting, federal legislators introduced a sweeping bill to reduce unnecessary amputations, the most significant legislative reform to date. The American Diabetes Association also introduced an initiative to reduce unnecessary amputations.

The reporting showed that Americans suffering from kidney failure were more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than anyone else on Medicare. Presser found that while kidney disease affects people of all races at similar rates, Black Americans are three to four times more likely than white Americans to reach kidney failure and are far less likely to get a transplant. She wrote a piece about one Black life in the crosshairs, rooted in intimate interviews and years of medical records.

A sweeping story by Martin and Johnson detailed how the virus is killing young Black men with deadly efficiency. The reporters collected the stories of two dozen of these men and explored a theory called John Henryism, which helped put into context the underlying conditions that left them so vulnerable. The piece was accompanied by an explanatory video on the theory by Joe Singer, Nadia Sussman and Derrick Dent.

ProPublica’s reporting on COVID-19 and the meatpacking industry began with reporter Michael Grabell, who had written extensively about the industry. In March, he wrote a story warning that the nation’s meatpacking plants were poised to explode with COVID-19. This first story became the start of a quest to not only document the horrors unfolding at the plants, but to investigate how the industry had ignored decades of warnings to prepare for just such a pandemic.

Grabell quickly teamed with reporter Bernice Yeung. With the help of research reporter Claire Perlman, they filed 180 public records requests to state and local health departments, mayors’ and governors’ offices and agriculture departments across the country, asking for their real-time emails and text messages as the virus hit local plants. The resulting trove captured the panic and despair of local officials as sick workers overwhelmed them, plant managers ignored them and state officials failed them.

Grabell and Yeung did what the government didn’t, meticulously tracking positive cases and deaths tied to meatpacking plants, using data from public health agencies and news reports. Unconvinced by the public narrative that meatpackers, like everyone else, were caught off-guard by COVID-19, the reporters dug into a decade’s worth of pandemic planning, and they found that the industry had ignored repeated warnings that a pandemic would cause exactly the sort of problems that unfolded. Worse, meatpacking companies chose not to maintain basic contingency plans the government requested or stockpile masks as recommended by Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Meanwhile the government agencies that ostensibly exist to protect essential workers did not do so. OSHA ignored thousands of complaints from non-health care workers and advised its inspectors to give employers the benefit of the doubt, even if they weren’t following guidelines set by the CDC. Buried in a public records request, ProPublica discovered that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had allowed the industry’s trade group to submit a draft of a presidential executive order that eventually helped meatpackers stay open despite rampant disease outbreaks in their plants.

Finally, reporters traveled to Waterloo, Iowa, where the local Tyson pork plant had the nation’s largest-known workplace outbreak. There they wove together two powerful, gutting narratives: The story of a town realizing that when the virus struck, Tyson was in charge, and the history of a place that captures the sweep of how meatpacking was once a path to the middle class before the industry transformed, setting itself up to become a hotbed of COVID-19.

ProPublica’s early, prescient reporting and the full arc of its coverage dismantled the meatpackers’ narrative from every angle. The stories were cited in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee, the House Small Business Committee and the Joint Economic Committee. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus cited ProPublica’s work in requesting a meeting with Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia and a Government Accountability Office investigation of COVID-19 in the meatpacking industry. And 20 attorneys general noted ProPublica’s reporting in urging Trump to do more to enforce worker health and safety standards.

See a list of all this year’s Polk Award in Journalism winners here.

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