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A Letter From The Front Lines Of The Coronavirus Outbreak

Our reporter Albert Samaha spent three days in the country's first coronavirus containment zone. He wrote this letter to readers from quarantine in his apartment this week.

Posted on March 20, 2020, at 4:36 p.m. ET

John Moore / Getty Images

BuzzFeed News is throwing everything we’ve got at the story that changed our entire world in the last month.

Today, we want to share a little more about how we’re covering the coronavirus outbreak, share a letter from Albert Samaha, one of our reporters who spent three days last week in the country’s first containment zone, and let you know how you can support us in doing more work like this.

Obviously the pandemic has taken over almost every beat that we cover, meaning our reporters around the world are going deep on everything from the fate of the 2020 presidential primaries to the role of Silicon Valley in public life. We’re also digging into stories that we can cover better than anyone else, like how workplaces and frontline workers are experiencing the outbreak, the struggle against digital disinformation, and internet culture at a time when the physical world grinds to a halt.

And, of course, we’re lucky to have an incredible team of science reporters and editors with decades of experience between them and a deep network of sources in the scientific community. You can see all their incredible work here — it speaks for itself.

To keep all this going, we need your help in two big ways: The first thing you can do is become a BuzzFeed News member. Our members help us keep our quality news free and available to everyone in the world, and you can join for just $5 a month (or whatever you can afford). Our newsroom needs your support more than ever — and if you’ve enjoyed our work and want to support it, please sign up.

Secondly, talk to us — tell us about what you’re seeing and hearing and what you’d like us to cover. Ask us questions you want answered, and send in tips for news we can break. You can always email us — tips@buzzfeed.com — or if you’d like to reach out confidentially, see our tips page for all the different ways to do that. You can also sign up for Outbreak Today, our daily coronavirus newsletter, and our new Subtext service, where you can text with our editors.

And with that, over to Albert!

Albert Samaha / BuzzFeed News

Albert Samaha, in self-quarantine in his apartment today.

Hi. I'm Albert Samaha, a reporter on the investigations desk at BuzzFeed News. Like all of you, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to get my head around this new world we live in.

Just 10 days ago, I still assumed I'd spend the coming weeks finishing up long-term reporting projects while many of my colleagues covered the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis I was still thinking about like so many other crises I’ve lived through. I still hadn’t realized the scope and speed of a force that would soon pull every aspect of our lives into its orbit.

Last Tuesday, our science editor called me and said she wanted to send a reporter to New Rochelle, New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo had designated a containment zone around the largest cluster of confirmed cases at the time. Over my five and a half years at BuzzFeed News, I've reported under a range of challenging circumstances — I covered the unrest in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray, waded through floodwater in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and traveled along the edge of conflict zones in the southern Philippines. But the last week taught me that reporting on this pandemic is unlike any of that.

My reporting usually begins with going wherever people are — with face-to-face conversations, handshakes, and smiles in living rooms, barbershops, corner stores, bus stops, parks, bars, and blacktops. But what do you do when close interactions could put you and others in danger?

In our pretravel planning for New Rochelle, our security director reminded me to wash my hands regularly, avoid all physical contact, not touch my face, and if possible maintain a distance of 6 feet from the nearest person. I was equipped with a small number of N95-certified face masks, goggles, full-body protective suits, a bag of latex gloves, and various disinfectants. I watched a training video, shaved my beard so the mask would seal to my face, and tried on the full outfit, which I was to wear if I happened to interview people who'd been diagnosed.

Albert Samaha / BuzzFeed News

Preparations for the trip to New Rochelle.

On past reporting trips, safety directives centered on keeping me out of danger, but on this one the overarching concern was keeping me from putting others in danger. The orders were strict: I was to drive straight home from New Rochelle every night, commuting about an hour back to Brooklyn, and go straight to my apartment, sanitizing surfaces I touched on the way. We decided I risked exposure if I stayed in a hotel, where people passing through could spread the virus. Once I completed my assignment in New Rochelle, I would stay in self-quarantine for two weeks as a precaution in case I contracted the virus while interviewing people who lived near the outbreak. My editors had me stock up on groceries and extend the rental car reservation through the end of my isolation to prevent me from potentially exposing anybody at the rental car place. We played out hypothetical situations that came to mind and expected to encounter situations we couldn't plan for.

I ended up reporting in New Rochelle on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I took my temperature every couple of hours and kept in close touch with our security director and several editors on a WhatsApp group chat. Someone was online to check on me all hours of the day and night, an editor in London in the morning, New York during the day, and San Francisco late at night. It’s hard to overstate how much easier my job is when I can focus on reporting and trust the team that’s looking out for me, reminding me to eat and sleep, encouraging me, and approving the expenses necessary for minimizing risks in a potentially hazardous environment.

A week later, I feel no symptoms, though I have no way to know if I was exposed. Almost none of us do.

The conditions I found in New Rochelle last week look quaint by today's standards. Most people had stopped shaking hands, adopting elbow bumps, but most restaurants were still open, if emptier. A half dozen protesters gathered in front of city hall demanding the closure of all 11 local schools. In the evenings, a local McDonald's a quarter mile outside the containment zone became a hopping social center for local high schoolers stretching their legs after being home all day; meanwhile, their teachers scrambled to adapt lesson plans to a solely digital classroom.

There are no visible markers denoting where the containment zone starts — the area is largely residential. The National Guard came in and distributed food donated by a local pantry, handing out bags of nonperishables to people who filed through the ground-floor hallway of an apartment complex. The state government rushed to increase testing capacity, constructing a drive-through facility and organizing scores of emergency workers to conduct tests in people's homes. Within days, thousands in the city were tested.

On the ground, I saw the magnitude of this mobilization in the rush of emergency workers zipping through the command center, the 40-by-80-foot tents going up for the drive-through testing facility, the piles of donated food — the toil and resources that go into containing an outbreak. The state had acted quickly to address a known hot zone: At the time, New Rochelle, a city of 80,000 people, had more diagnosed cases than New York City, population 8 million. Every day, more and more cities surpass the number of confirmed cases that first drew national attention to New Rochelle. Resources stretch thinner.

The pandemic touches everyone. I have close relatives who have lost jobs, work in hospitals, or worry they may have contracted the virus. I’m fortunate to have my job, the means to hunker down, and a health insurance plan. This week, confined to my home, I spoke — via phone call, email, text, and Signal — with about 100 people working jobs that have kept them outside. One was an ER doctor who tested positive for the virus last Saturday. Some were retail workers whose employers declined to close stores, even as disinfectant supplies dwindled, leaving them faced with choosing between their paycheck and the safety of their families. Others included the workers in essential jobs that keep us fed and healthy — grocery store clerks, pharmacists, and the people who transport, pack, and deliver supplies to our doorstep.

I wish I could say I’d found these sources through reporting savvy, but they came to us, reaching out through our tip line channels, risking their jobs to share their experiences. After we published a story on Wednesday about stores that remained open, hundreds more tips have poured in. As soon as I finish writing this note, I’ll be back in the inbox — you can reach me at albert.samaha@buzzfeed.com — trying to figure out what is happening in places I’m unable to visit at the moment.

Over the last two days, some of the companies we’ve reported on have closed offices, allowed more employees to work from home, or issued new safety protocols encouraging social distancing. The next part of my job is seeing if the policies are implemented, and to what effect.

Once my two weeks of isolation are up, I don’t know when or where my next reporting trip will be, how hard it will be to get there, nor what risks we’ll need to assess. We still don’t know much about this new virus, even less about the ripples of its impact. I’m grateful to be in a position to help report on it. Thank you for your support.

Stay safe,
Albert Samaha


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