PORTLAND, Ore — Even as Oregon and Washington have expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone older than 16, the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are going up. The Oregon Health Authority said this week, those numbers in some counties are beginning to look like they did last fall when they started to peak.
The KGW Vaccine Team's Cristin Severance and Pat Dooris were guests this week on Straight Talk to pull the curtain back on how they work to get answers from state health officials and gather the latest information on the COVID vaccine.
Dooris said viewers never see much of the work they do behind the scenes.
"On a typical story, we'd make all kinds of phone calls, we'd run out and do some interviews, we'd gather information, compare facts, and present what we believe is most accurately true on the air," Dooris said.
Covering the vaccine story during the pandemic has not been a typical story. Gathering information and getting answers from officials has been frustrating.
"The Oregon Health Authority from the beginning has seemed just completely overwhelmed, and so getting information out of them has been really difficult," he said.
Dooris said that's gotten better in the last few weeks, but still can be a laborious process. The goal is always to bring viewers the best possible information.
"We are churning all kinds of information. Then, we step back and say what's really happening here, what are the trends, and give the information to folks in ways that makes sense to us, not in some highfalutin way, just the facts," he said.
Cristin Severance said they get questions from viewers every day about the pandemic, the vaccine, and how to get appointments.
"Pat really does his best to answer them. When he puts on the glasses you know he means business," she said.
A team approach
Severance said from day one, it's been all hands on deck with a team approach to covering the vaccine story.
"You see Pat every single day at the top of the shows with the big vaccine story of the day. I've been able to do some deep dives and accountability stories. We have Galen Ettlin doing other stories like community groups helping others find vaccines. We have producers and digital reporters on this. We went after it with a team approach, and it's really paid off," she said.
As part of her work on the vaccine team, Severance has investigated misinformation about vaccines spreading online and worked to verify what’s true and what’s not. She’s also researched vaccine hesitancy, best ways to get a vaccine, and vaccine passports.
“Cristin digging deep on stuff and taking time to really zero in on the Verify reports, it’s just been spectacular. So has the rest of the team," said Dooris.
"You look back and say 'I can't believe this is happening'"
Dooris and Severance have covered every aspect of the pandemic since it started more than a year ago. From the first COVID-19 cases to emerge in Oregon and Washington to the state shutdowns to flatten the curve; and from the growing number of hospitalizations and deaths to the eventual development and distribution of a vaccine. They said it's been a historic and remarkable experience to cover these unprecedented events.
"We are in the trenches every day," Dooris said. "Every once in a while, you look back and say 'I can't believe this is happening.'"
Severance pointed out how quickly researchers and scientists developed a COVID vaccine.
"Sometimes I'm astonished. We have come so far. I remember when COVID first hit more than a year ago and look where we are now. We have a vaccine," she said.
She thinks the next big story the team will be covering after the initial vaccine distribution will be vaccine hesitancy. Recent data shows 23% of Americans remain reluctant to get a vaccine.
"The whole point of this is you want to reach herd immunity where enough people are protected from the virus, so that the virus has nowhere to go," Severance said. "There are a lot of reasons people are vaccine hesitant. The next big story, 100%, is overcoming vaccine hesitancy."
"Fascinating and awful"
Dooris said he remembers watching movies about a virus outbreak and thinking how awful that would if it really happened. And then it did.
"And 2,400-plus people in Oregon who otherwise would not have died have died because of this," Dooris said. "It's been fascinating to cover [the pandemic and vaccines], but awful all at the same time."
Severance and Dooris also discussed tips and tricks to find vaccine appointments, misinformation about vaccine passports, and whether a third dose or COVID vaccine booster will be necessary.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Friday morning at 4:30 a.m.
Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.