SALT LAKE CITY — The conversation between Deseret News reporter Ethan Bauer and his editors began more than 10 weeks ago. The nation was already weeks into a shutdown, as the words “flattening the curve,” “ventilator” “personal protective equipment” and “shortage” became household words.

The virus was affecting everyone, either directly or indirectly, and we wanted to supplement our in-depth coverage and daily reports with compelling vignettes, artful tellings of personal stories from the points of view of those living through the crisis.

Stories like Utahn Lynne Hewett’s, who left her Kanab home and traveled to New York City in late March to put her nursing skills to critical use, and became the first person profiled by Ethan in “People of the Pandemic.” An excerpt:

“Hewett sees COVID-19 killing people every day. And she knows she could be next, along with her colleagues and parents and friends.

“She often sees familiar faces as her patients are removed from ventilators, deemed too sick to recover. With nowhere to go, they’re often left in a corner. Their families can’t visit; they could get infected. Nurses can’t pay much attention; they have too many patients. So at the end of her shift, Hewett tells her replacement that the patient is dying.

“‘They’re just a warm body,’ she tells herself, ‘that’s not going to be around in the next couple of hours.’” But she knows better.

“The warm body is also someone’s sister, someone’s dad, someone’s grandparent — knowledge Hewett carries as she walks 20 blocks south to her apartment. The first two nights, she cried under the weight of this burden.”

Ethan profiled 50 people in 10 weeks — usually in about 500 words — and he learned a few things about people, humanity and the virus that will be with us for months to come.

“I spoke with people on all seven continents, and my big takeaway is that people are facing the same problems almost everywhere,” Ethan told me. “Even Antarctic researchers have to account for this thing. But through the struggles — often very painful struggles — people are eager to find joy, to get excited. Whether for a first date, or a church service, or for a birthday, or for getting drafted into the WNBA, people are resilient, and from the Philippines to Brazil, they want to help.”

Here is the rest of our conversation, a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to chronicle the personal stories of a pandemic.

Question: What surprised you during this project?

Ethan Bauer: The many forms of the virus, and how little we know about it. Wes VerHoef, the postman outside New York City who got COVID, ended up in the hospital for a week. His wife and kids also got it, but they only got mildly sick. One woman’s daughter broke out in a virus-induced rash. Some people I spoke with recovered quickly. Others endured lingering effects.

Question: Is there any individual story that stays with you, one whose story is so impactful you ponder it over and over again?

Ethan: Definitely the one about Jared Misner and Alison Schwartz, the 29-year-old People magazine employee. (Misner wrote the obituary of his best friend, Schwartz). Alison went to the same university I did, worked at the same student newspaper whose logo I have tattooed on my arm and was only five years older than me when she died. We hear all the time that the virus targets older people, and the statistics back that up. But whenever I see one of my friends doing something irresponsible like going out to a bar or a crowded restaurant, I immediately think of Alison, and I worry that same thing could happen to them. Or to me, if I’m not careful — even if the odds are low.  

Question: Did this reporting experience change you?

Ethan: It made me more aware of the virus than I would have been otherwise. It was easier to take the pandemic seriously when at least once a week I spoke with someone who’d endured something terrible because of it. ... It also taught me to look for joy amid something so draining and deadly. Like an impromptu wedding celebration or a sunrise over Bryce Canyon; the little things can help. Although that’s certainly not to detract from the experiences of those who’ve lost far more than I have. In that sense, it also reminded me how lucky I am. 

Question: You spoke with first responders, celebrities and everyday people. Did you see differences between their stories or similarities?

Ethan: Plenty of similarities and plenty of differences. The local lounge owner and the lead singer of an Irish rock band both had their careers/livelihoods paused, but one is obviously better situated to weather the storm than the other. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Knox County, Tennessee, Mayor Glenn “Kane” Jacobs both want to keep their constituents safe, but their approaches vary. The Ogwumike sisters and 4-year-old Aydan from Micanopy, Florida, both celebrated milestones, one earned and one given. Dr. Sangwe Clovis Nchinjoh in Cameroon is as prepared as he can be for coronavirus, as is Dr. Cleavon Gilman in New York. One has seen it ravage his hospital and city, while the other hasn’t seen a single case, etc. 

But certainly there’s been one big similarity between just about every story: People are struggling to figure this out.

Question: You started this project before racial unrest and police brutality became the focus of the country. Did that impact what you heard and how you approached the reporting?

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Ethan: I wanted to write about protesting during a pandemic. Early on, we knew little about the potential consequences, which made it risky and interesting. So I pursued a story about a protester in Minneapolis. That said, I didn’t want “People of the Pandemic” to become “People of the Protest,” so I didn’t focus on it much more. Which was difficult, because several times I thought to myself I’d rather be writing about the protests than about the pandemic.

Final question: Summarize for me what you learned about the human condition. Anything profound or insightful?

Ethan: In talking to people across various political, economic and geographic spectrums, most people want the same things. From Larry the Cable Guy, who said the government response to the virus has been overbearing and “insane,” to Daniel Uhlfelder, the Florida lawyer patrolling the state’s beaches dressed as the grim reaper in protest of the government’s lax handling of the situation, everyone I spoke with wants a future that looks better than our current existence. Which sounds peachy. But there was certainly no consensus on what that future looks like, much less how to get there. 

That said, the series also spoke to the resiliency of people the world over. Facing tragedy, pressure, confusion, inconvenience or some combination thereof, people everywhere have the capacity to change and, ultimately, to endure.

Deseret News Reporter Ethan Bauer and his girlfriend, Monica Martinez, pose with Nebula the cat and Bo, a puppy acquired during the pandemic. | Ethan Bauer, Deseret News
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