When coronavirus is both work and worry

When the news first surfaced in December of a flulike outbreak in China, a lot of us here at Science News felt our spidey senses tingle. China has sparked earlier outbreaks of diseases that travel from animals to people, notably SARS, which emerged from a live-animal market in 2002 and killed 774 people worldwide. I covered that outbreak, and it was scary. The virus spread easily, had about a 10 percent fatality rate and overwhelmed hospitals trying to quell it. SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, was ultimately stopped by rigorous infection control and quarantines — classic public health responses.

So far this new coronavirus appears to have a lower case fatality rate than SARS but is harder to intercept, because in most cases the symptoms are milder, raising the odds that people infected with the virus, called SARS-CoV-2, can spread disease without even realizing that they are ill. That may be the case with an Episcopalian reverend in Washington, D.C., who was diagnosed after presiding over services attended by more than 500 people.

The Science News office is less than two miles from that minister’s church. News of this coronavirus case, the first in Washington, D.C., was announced on March 8. I had dinner at a restaurant a few blocks away from the church on March 6 and got my hair cut nearby on March 7. This brings the epidemic close to home in a personal way.

Of course, we are all worried about the health of our families, friends and colleagues, and how we can keep them safe amid the uncertainty. At the same time, the Science News team is deeply invested in providing rigorously accurate news and context on the outbreak, such as Tina Hesman Saey’s deep dive into efforts to repurpose existing drugs to combat the new virus. We need to figure out how to stay healthy while also covering the pandemic, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says could continue into next year.

Before the new coronavirus, we had started working on systems that would make it possible for us to do our jobs outside of our Dupont Circle townhouse. Back then, the complications we were preparing for were the basics, a snowstorm or a busted HVAC system. Now we’re hustling to deploy an electronic production system so that we can work remotely if the schools close, or if we’re quarantined at home, or if, God forbid, one of us gets sick. Some old-school publishing practices, like hand-correcting proofs on paper, are going by the wayside. And our weekly Thursday teatime, an enjoyable chance to step away from our screens and visit with colleagues, may become “virtual tea” so that we can still enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company — from a safe distance.

Rest assured that you will continue to find our coverage of coronavirus and news from across the sciences in these pages, as well as at sciencenews.org. And our coronavirus update newsletter will send the latest to your inbox twice a week: Sign up here. Stay safe; we’ll stay on the beat to keep you informed. And we’d love to hear from you. Let us know what you’d like to know about the outbreak by e-mailing us at feedback@sciencenews.org.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.