After Your Voice Ohio conducted five online dialogues with Ohioans in which they expressed concern for unclear messaging, lack of a plan and politics taking precedence over science in the era of COVID-19, student interns in the Collaborative News Lab @ Kent State University were asked to interview several people from various parts of the state about their experiences dealing with the pandemic. Among the questions were, have you been tested, and how do you engage with others who have different perspectives? Participating in this reporting project were Gina Butkovich, Tramaine Burton, Paige Bennett, Jenna Borthwick, Kelsey Paulus and Madison MacArthur. Associate professor Susan Kirkman Zake advises the staff. The program is sponsored by the Scripps Howard Foundation.
Engaging with the public: Be empathetic and factual
Name: Kevin Jones
Occupation: College student
Kevin Jones will graduate with a political science degree from Wright State University in December. But like so many other college students, he will take his last semester of classes online due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I had to move back to Columbus,” Jones said. “It’s affected the way I’m able to learn, instantly switching over to remote learning and then finishing out my last semester of undergrad. So it’s affected me that way, and it’s affected me mentally. I’m an on-the-go type of individual, so not being able to go out as much at the beginning of quarantine and changing the way I maneuver in society — it’s affected me mentally.”
Jones was tested for COVID-19, something he said he did as both a precautionary measure and as a way to show the importance of being tested.
“It’s one thing I’ve really been pushing personally because I do have underlying health conditions and as we know, COVID, at least here in Franklin County, has affected my age group the most,” Jones said. “And it affects African-Americans in a much more disproportionate way. I’ve been pushing getting tested, social distancing, the proper health precautions to ensure that we’re staying healthy.”
In addition to attending school, Jones works as the chief communications officer for Central Ohio Young Black Democrats. In his position, Jones often will come across someone with differing views from his on COVID-19.
“A lot of times we’ll have people message or comment or respond to different posts that we make or share,” Jones said. “My response is usually very gentle and empathetic, yet factual and informative. What we know. What the facts are that we know. I understand what you’re saying, I understand what you feel, but what’s the facts?”
Jones trusts the pandemic-related information he gets from his state and local governments, and said that although he isn’t a Republican, he absolutely trusts the leadership of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine.
“I’ve been trusting them my entire life,” Jones said. “And I don’t think COVID is a situation we should handle differently. Although we have not seen anything like this in our lifetime, we know that we’ve been here before. Between the Spanish flu, between the swine flu, between the Ebola outbreak. We’ve been in many different cases where we’ve had no option but to trust government. And I believe that we have the best doctors here in Columbus. We have some of the best resources here in Ohio.”
— By Gina Butkovich
Student-teaching in a virtual classroom
Occupation: Student teacher
After three years studying to work as a teacher in a classroom, her final education will be student teaching 100 percent online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a teacher, one thing that they do tell us is that you always need to be learning,” the Columbus-area teacher said. “You can’t one day know everything. So it’s a lot of learning as you go so you’re better equipped to teach the students. So, I’m just trying to embrace this as a learning opportunity and take whatever comes.”
Because she intends to seek a full-time teaching job next year, she talked about the coronavirus, teaching and voting on condition that her identity not be disclosed.
She did work with children in person over the summer, at a summer camp. Masks were required, and the schedule was switched from an overnight camp to a day camp. Despite these precautions, some campers opted out of attending for a variety of reasons. In addition, some kids struggled with being forced to wear a mask.
“We had a few campers who were just getting very frustrated with being forced to wear a mask, which I understand,” she said. “And towards the latter-half of the summer, all of the campers 10 years and older were also required to wear a mask. And there were some people coming in who just got very frustrated and saying that their parents told them that it wasn’t real, et cetera.”
She followed the instructions of her supervisor at the camp, which were to work to align the campers with the beliefs at the camp.
“Oftentimes, if they were not willing to wear their mask, we would just say ‘I understand, that’s what you believe, however, for the greater good … Or, ‘this is just something you do at camp.’” Another tactic they used was to say, “Camp is about making everyone feel comfortable, therefore if you’re going to be in this place, you’re going to have to wear a mask.”
When it comes to deciding who to vote for during a pandemic, she wants to know not only what the candidates plan on doing but what they are currently doing.
“I think it’s not only important to know what your goals or plans are but what are you doing right now to make this happen because if you’re not putting in steps to achieve these goals, it’s not going to get done.”
— By Gina Butkovich
Checking sources, avoiding conflict
Occupation: Cleveland State University student
Before the coronavirus pandemic began, the female college student studying mathematics said she used to constantly be around other people. In the last few months, though, she hasn’t seen many others in person, aside from a couple of friends.
“I don’t get to see my family as much,” she said. “So that’s been weird because I’m usually around people all the time.”
Never tested for COVID-19, she has many questions about what life will be like after the pandemic and wants to know more about a potential coronavirus vaccine. She said she primarily relies on coronavirus information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because she thinks it offers the best health-related news.
When the student reads news about the pandemic, she said she checks the source before she decides whether she believes it and filters out information that comes from what she considers to be untrustworthy places.
“I feel like I always have to look where [information] is coming from and whether it’s obviously a biased source or not and just ignore those ones,” she said.
She asked that her name not be used because she was concerned about differences of opinion. If she encounters someone who has a viewpoint on the pandemic that differs from her own, the student said she typically doesn’t pay attention to it.
“I’m going to be honest, I usually don’t respond,” she said. “I just ignore it. Ignore the ignorance behind it.”
The student said she wants those running for office to take a stance on issues related to the pandemic, such as calling for mask mandates. She also said she hopes reporters will ask for more statistics about the pandemic because she feels like more information should be provided on the number of cases that occur in specific regions.
— By Paige Bennett
Coworkers became ill, grateful to work at home
Name: Hailey Lueck
Occupation: Communications coach
When she returned home from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which took place from Jan. 7 to 11, Hailey Lueck became seriously ill along with many of her coworkers. At that time there were no COVID-19 tests available and the virus was not widely known.
“I came home from that honestly the sickest I’ve ever been. I had a lot of COVID- like symptoms,” Lueck said about her trip. “It literally annihilated our entire office — everyone in our office got sick.”
Now, as the number of cases and unemployment claims rise in the U.S., Lueck, who lives near Toledo, is grateful to be physically healthy and to be working from home. The isolation brought on by the coronavirus is the most challenging issue for her as she misses visiting her friends and family. And, the influx of information about the pandemic has definitely made her skeptical of some news sources.
“I mostly read NPR,” Lueck said. “I also appreciate that they tend to have people kind of on both political spectrums that will provide commentary and not in an aggressive manner but just like a factual manner.”
She urges people to become better at fact checking their sources, something she says not many are doing. For instance, she speaks to associates who work in health care, asks questions of them and listens to their experiences, which she said gives her a much clearer and accurate picture of what is happening. Lueck said she has various questions about the best ways to protect and keep loved ones safe because so many Americans have died of the pandemic.
“It’s a horrible virus that’s really decimated a lot of peoples’ livelihoods,” she said “You know way too many Americans who passed away due to the coronavirus.”
Lueck said it would be ideal to have more information coming from the federal government about the virus but appreciates the job Gov. Mike DeWine is doing to ensure Ohioans are informed. Witnessing both extremes — from people sanitizing all their groceries to some staying completely shut in — she said it is vital for the government to play their part in dispelling myths and baseless theories and instead recommends having a healthy discussion about the fears and anxieties people share.
“People feel like it’s a hoax,” Lueck said. “They have their minds made up, and they read a lot of interesting news articles.”
As the elections are quickly approaching, she encourages reporters to ask the state legislature and congressional candidates what their long term plans are. She wants to know what the best and worst case scenario will look like for colleges and those who are unemployed. And, she said, journalists need to be “getting information out to people in a variety of ways.”
—By Tramaine Burton
“I put a lot of faith in science”
Name: Norm Kujawa
Occupation: Shipping and receiving clerk
Before the pandemic hit, Norm Kujawa and his wife had date nights every Friday. They would go to the movies or a sporting event, but as guidelines from the governor’s office and social distancing forced movie theaters and sporting events to close, it also forced the couple to stay home.
“We would go out and relax and we don’t do that anymore,” Kujawa said. “You don’t know where other people have been or who they have been in contact with.”
Life in lockdown disconnected them from friends and family. It also reshaped the way they communicate or share their opinions with others about the virus, which leaves them feeling apprehensive at times. A difference in perspectives with their neighbor helped them to understand that not everyone gets their information about the pandemic from reputable sources.
An acquaintance is “for certain that he’s right and we’ve debated a little bit,” Kujawa said. “We want to maintain a good relationship with them, so we back off.”
Kujawa said he heard the conspiracy theories and tried to get a broad spectrum of opinions, but in the end, he trusts the national scientists and doctors. These different perspectives, he said, made it easier for some to profit from the fears of others and so it is important for people to check the facts and their source’s reliability.
“I put a lot of faith in science and in the process,” Kujawa said. “It gives me a little bit of comfort when a vaccine or some kind of treatment does come about that it’s going to be pretty secure and safe.”
Although a vaccine is still under development in the United States, Kujawa said the pandemic would be better controlled now if the government had taken immediate action when they first were warned about the virus.
“If we had a national reaction and a plan we could have been through this by mid to late April and back to normal,” he said. “We have reacted very poorly.”
Kujawa said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is doing a great job leading Ohio through the pandemic, but he would love to hear more from legislators and congressional delegates. He said if the government responded quickly, it could plan for things like unemployment to better provide citizens with loans and grants.
“I think it’s been disappointing that it’s been a lot of political lines,” he said. “There’s really not that strong of a response from the party in power in the country.”
With the upcoming elections, Kujawa said it is important to ask state leaders what their plans are going forward and what will be done to get cases under control.
“We are kind of in a wait and see mode,” Kujawa said. “We are trying to get back to a normal lifestyle, but we still have these issues hanging out there that nobody seems to be asking about anymore.”
—By Tramaine Burton
A skeptic asks if COVID-19 is an effort to control people
Name: David Brothers
David Brothers, of Albany, a small town near Athens, is among those skeptical of COVID-19. The minister at Blackburn Hill Church of Christ in Athens wonders why college students are permitted back on campus but restrictions remain tough in public places such as restaurants.
“Is it truly a medical condition where we should all be panicked and holding up in our houses?” Brothers asked. “Or is it more political, where maybe there might be an attempt to control people?”
He would like to see more honesty and consistency from political figures who are guiding the country through the pandemic. Specifically, he wants an explanation about why Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine received different results from two COVID-19 tests earlier this month.
“According to his regulations, if you test positive, you should quarantine yourself for two weeks,” Brothers said. “Did the governor quarantine himself for two weeks? No, because he took a second test and the first test came out positive, the second one came up negative. Now, should he be quarantined for two weeks? According to his rules, he should be, but no, he took another test. And he’s going by the information from the second test, which he says, evidently, is more accurate than the first test he took. Why is that?”
Brothers said there is not enough consistency or solid information about the coronavirus for the amount of money and politics involved.
—- Kelsey Paulus
No library, no graduation, education gets complicated
Name: Amy Achenbach
Hometown: Originally from Butler, Pennsylvania, now Athens
Occupation: Graduate student
Home from the University of Akron due to the pandemic, Amy Achenbach needed the Ohio University library to be open so she could complete her master’s thesis and work on her comprehensive exams. But when the OU campus closed, she had to postpone her graduation.
“Most of the books and things that I read aren’t classic literature that you might be able to find digitized online,” she said. “Either I didn’t have access to those books and I had to do without, or I had to buy them myself through a service like Amazon.”
Achenbach is moving to Texas to pursue a doctorate in history at Baylor University. The university sent at-home test kits to its students through Everlywell, and Achenbach said she took a nasal swab COVID-19 test and mailed it so she could arrive on campus.
“It is sort of nice to know that at least everyone coming to campus has been tested. It makes me feel a little bit better, I suppose,” she said. She received her results via email and tested negative for coronavirus.
While Achenbach admits certain differences between her peers and family about what they think related to COVID-19 cause her frustration, her relationships with others have not changed. But Achenbach said she senses more tension in certain social settings.
“The church that I attend has sort of let people either wear masks or don’t, and I think there’s a definite tension between those that are staunchly ‘I’m going to wear a mask’ and those that are ‘You can’t make me wear a mask,’” she said.
Looking into the future, Achenbach said she would prefer to have multiple officials disseminating information about COVID-19. She tends to browse online news sources, such as CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
“I also think it should come from our government and in other ways, so not just the independent press, but also from politicians because I think that is part of their job to report on what’s going on,” she said. “We should be on the same page as a nation, as a state and as a community.”
— By Jenna Borthwick
COVID-era broken hip creates logistical challenges
Name: Michael Conner
Occupation: Retired from human resources at Frisch’s Restaurant Inc.; part-time at Lowes
Michael Conner’s life is “absolutely affected” by COVID-19. The retired 68-year-old said he and his wife are mostly homebound since the lockdown initiated. Conner said he was lucky enough to work at a part-time job deemed essential so that he can leave his house a bit.
Conner’s immediate family has avoided COVID-19, but he has friends with family members who became ill, including one whose grandparents passed away.
“As it happens, my wife broke her hip back in May and it’s really been challenging to get treatment for her, getting a specialist to see her, availability of doctors and the restrictions of the doctors’ offices have been challenging for (her) and I,” Conner said.
Conner was not tested for COVID-19 because he is not symptomatic of the virus.
“I just chose not to seek out a testing facility,” he said. “My primary physician would require that I had to be somewhat symptomatic before she’d script a test for me.”
Conner’s most pressing question about COVID-19 is how soon a vaccine will become available and how soon people will see it administered.
He said he gets his information from multiple news outlets, including news feeds from his computer. Conner subscribes to his local newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and is an avid follower, with his wife, of television news.
“I don’t rely on any one of the major broadcast affiliates for my information, but (we) try to take in as much as we can,” Conner said. “I’ve got pretty good intuition and if I read something that doesn’t fit quite right I’ll find other news outlets to affirm or refute it.”
Conner said they rely on Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine for information and used to rely on Amy Acton, the former director of Ohio’s Department of Health, when she was at the forefront.
“I think we get good, reliable information from our .gov sites and through DeWine’s briefings,” Conner said.
When he encounters people with differing viewpoints on the pandemic, Conner said he responds “with a grain of salt.”
“People have their opinions and both my wife and I are centrists when it comes to political affiliation. We’re Republican, but I’m a fairly moderate Republican,” Conner said. “I tend to stay away from left-winged, far-left and far right-winged information and frankly, propaganda.”
Conner said he does his best to avoid the politics and political noise around COVID-19.
“I think that, unfortunately, I’m not a big government guy, but because of the pandemic and the level of risk associated with it, (the government’s) got to play a role and it’s a leadership role,” Conner said. “My personal opinion is it’s not something we’re probably gonna see coming out of Washington.”
Conner said he does not see a way for reporters’ questions to affect or influence his votes in the upcoming election.
“We absolutely will vote, both ourselves, my wife and I, our children and their spouses,” Conner said. “Even with my immediate family I don’t engage in political discussions with them to a very large degree.”
—By Madison MacArthur
COVID conversations can be tense on the construction site
Occupation: Construction project manager in training
In the Dayton area construction business at age 29, the pandemic has impacted her life more socially than it has in her training in construction management.
“It’s pretty much affected pretty much every aspect of life,” she said. “Obviously with social distancing it’s affected my social life — can’t see friends as often, can’t really go out.”
She lives away from family and did not see them from January until May.
Because construction was less restricted than other industries, her work is not as affected as her personal life, but there are precautions, such as social distancing, wearing masks, cleanliness and no traveling.
But there’s also tension, which is the reason she asked that her name not be used. “I don’t think anything would happen, but people are very angry right now. And it’s very polarizing to share your opinions right now. You never know. Also, most of my coworkers do not share my viewpoints.”
While in good health and a low risk, she has not been tested, but said this is a scary time because research is showing that there may be long-term effects.
“If I was going to put myself in a position where there was something to be tested for, I would not object to it, but my work hasn’t required us to get tested for it, so I haven’t taken the time to do it.” She described a friend who gave birth and requested that anyone coming to see the baby take a test, as an example of when getting a test makes sense.
When there are pressing questions about the disease, she goes to her friends and family who work in the medical field for information. “Anything that I really trust would come from them and what they’ve learned and what they’ve actually experienced.”
At first she went to the media but now tries to avoid it due to the constant changes in the information presented each week.
Most differences of opinion occur at work.
“If someone at work has a different opinion, I just keep my mouth shut,” she said. “I try to educate them as much as I can, but it’s not worth having a debate in the middle of work.”
She said these are scary times, so it’s important to keep an open mind about how others are handling their own fear and anxiety. The difference in opinions isn’t affecting her relationships.
And, she said, elected officials need to understand how they influence people.
“I think that when it comes to elected officials, it’s a tough thing because they typically are not scientists, which is who I try to get my information on something scientific (from), but I would like them to realize that they do have influence on people and their thoughts and their beliefs. Realizing that the things that they say, the things that they promote, whether they are on one side or the other, they have people following them, citing them and looking to them for guidance.”
Reporters, she said, need to press elected officials to talk about what they’re doing in their personal lives. “You see things about how some are still traveling, it would be nice to know that they are also making sacrifices to make this better.”
—By Madison MacArthur
Kent State University associate professor Susan Kirkman Zake can be emailed at email@example.com.