As coronavirus cases pop up in the region, health officials are continuing to release information on the ongoing outbreak. For today’s Q&A, we spoke with Inquirer reporter Marie McCullough, who has been on top of the coronavirus coverage.

Because fact-based, useful information about the coronavirus is crucial to the safety of our community, we’re offering unlimited access to our coverage of the outbreak and its impact here. We’re also launching an email newsletter this week that will deliver daily updates straight to your inbox. You can sign up for that here.

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Behind the story with Marie McCullough

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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Marie McCullough, who’s covered everything from anthrax to zoonotic diseases.

Are there specific challenges in reporting on the coronavirus compared to other health issues? Can you lend some insight into how you and other reporters are able to identify the most important information that people need to know and block out some of the noise that comes with a story like this?

Reporting on, say, a new cancer therapy or study, is basically a matter of reading background material, talking to experts, and writing. Reporting on mysterious, scary, evolving germs like SARS, MERS, H1N1 flu — and now the new coronavirus — is way tougher. These pathogens tap into fears of cultural bugaboos such as globalization, immigration, and bioterrorism. Social media adds to the craziness. Also, public officials are afraid of saying the wrong thing or speaking out of turn, so often they won’t say anything — or they say reassuring things. I try to get around these challenges by delving ever deeper into the mountain of official and commercial information (for example, on coronavirus testing) and finding sources beyond the authorized spokespeople.

What does the term “pandemic” mean exactly?

Pandemic simply means an epidemic that goes global. The World Health Organization hasn’t yet declared a pandemic, even though the virus is on every continent except Antarctica. Why? Because the declaration would add to the economic and social disruption.

In addition to news reports, what are some publicly available resources people can use for getting information about the coronavirus?

The Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization, and state and local health departments all have background material and guidance on their websites.

What facts don’t we know about coronavirus yet? Where does the story go next?

We know the DNA sequence of the virus, thanks to China’s fast work to share it. Everything else, we don’t know. There simply isn’t enough data to do more than guesstimate how transmissible the virus is, how long it takes to produce symptoms, how long an infected person is contagious, whether some people with no symptoms are “colonized” and spreading the virus (think Typhoid Mary), why children are less vulnerable (the opposite of the flu), and how many exposed people develop immunity (antibodies) without getting sick. And that’s just the scientific unknowns. The economic and social impacts are also evolving parts of the story.

You can stay in touch with Marie by following her on Twitter at @repopter or by emailing her at

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Comment of the week

I hope people will follow the advice of Gov. Tom Wolf & not panic about the coronavirus. Yes, take universal precautions. That’s just being civic-minded & reasonable. But don’t become a germophobe. Live your life with vibrancy & enthusiasm, not with fear & gloom. — tim smith, on Coronavirus cases identified in Delaware County and South Jersey, and Gov. Wolf urges calm.

Your Daily Dose of | The UpSide

Did you know that the Philadelphia Zoo is the first zoo in the country with its own on-site vertical garden? Produce stemming from this garden is used to feed the animals. The vertical farm uses 70% to 90% less water than traditional farming, has no need for pesticides or herbicides, and cuts greenhouse gas emissions out of the equation, according to Kristen Lewis-Waldron, the director of strategic initiatives at the zoo.