On Monday, CD Davidson-Hiers woke up to 75 text messages on her work phone.
People wanted to know how long should it take to get a callback after filling out the form online to get the COVID-19 vaccination? Did they do it right? Could she help?
“I’m sending this on behalf of my 84-year-old mother. She said that you worked for the Democrat and people who have registered for the vaccine but have yet to get an appt should text/call you. She left you a message… Whatever assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”
Davidson-Hiers doesn’t have a background in health care. She isn’t working with the health department or area hospitals. She’s a 26-year-old education reporter at the Tallahassee (Florida) Democrat.
She’s also not an anomaly.
Like local journalists around the country working in shrinking newsrooms in places that have needed them more than ever, Davidson-Hiers has spent the last nine months covering the coronavirus for her community.
She may not have all the answers, but she understands the questions.
“I will call her when I’m off the meeting I’m sitting in,” Davidson-Hiers responded to the text message. “Thank you.”
“God bless you!” the 84-year-old’s child wrote back.
The initial vaccine rollout in Florida was like a COVID-19 Black Friday, said Democrat news director James Rosica.
“They opened the virtual doors and everyone rushed in to get their vaccines and the health department was simply overrun and overwhelmed and their systems were overwhelmed and some of them crashed and that’s how we wound up in this situation.”
While Davidson-Hiers has covered statewide COVID-19 numbers since the beginning of the pandemic, she picked up vaccine rollout coverage while working over the holiday week. Last week, that included a piece about the 57 calls she got from Leon County residents 65 and older searching for information about the COVID-19 vaccine.
There have been wild and unforgettable days since March. But Wednesday, Dec. 30, is a perfect example of what 2020 held.
I talked to 57 people and said this:
“I’m glad you called. Interrupt me at any time. I’m going to tell you what I know and what I don’t and why.”
At the end of her piece, she included a line that led to the days of calls, texts and emails since: “If you have not heard anything by next week, call or text me. I will do my very best to find answers for you. It’s why I’m here.”
Since then, Davidson-Hiers figures she’s heard from more than 150 people.
She stopped counting.
Over the phone, she has walked seniors through the application process, answered questions, followed up, reassured them that they did it right, and in two cases, filled out the online appointment form herself.
Her editor, Rosica, recently stepped in to help an 87-year-old man and his wife who didn’t have a computer.
“I’m sure that somewhere someone will say that was a bridge too far, you should not have done that,” he said. “And I say, I disagree.”
It took five minutes to help the 87-year-old and involved less information than the Democrat requires of new subscribers. It took no personal health information, no social security numbers, and no financial information.
“He just needed a little help … he needed a middleman to fill out a form and that’s what I did and that’s what she did,” Rosica said.
As long as his reporter isn’t spending the whole day taking and returning calls, he said, “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The Tallahassee Democrat does not have a dedicated health reporter. The newsroom, owned by Gannett, has an editorial staff of just 19. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Tallahassee has a population of 194,500 people. Leon County has more than 290,000.
Staff always include their phone numbers and emails at the bottom of their work, Rosica said, but no one expected they’d reach out as they have to the education reporter.
Davidson-Hiers isn’t offering guidance, she said, but support. She understands the systems people are now navigating for the first time.
“It’s been nine months of this,” Davidson-Hiers said. “I can confidently tell you when you are reporting on COVID, if you are confused, you are doing it right.”
The response from her community has also been a contrast to the coverage of the pandemic itself.
“There’s a lot of murk to wade through and a lot of hateful responses from people that you don’t know about what you’re reporting on. And so it required a very thick skin,” she said. “And to have people call me directly now with questions, real questions, this feels like why I got into this profession. It is the most rewarding that it’s felt in nine months, even though I don’t have answers all the time.”
And she was able to reach the 84-year-old whose child texted her for help.
“She is frantic to get the vaccine,” that woman’s child texted back after the call. “Regardless, thanks for being a reporter during these trying times. SALUTE.”