AP State News Reports: Closeup of the meningitis outbreak

Oct. 23, 2012
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Laboratory technician Ruth Rutledge packages cerebrospinal fluid of the three confirmed meningitis cases in Minn., to send to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further testing, at the Minnesota Department of Health in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012. The states involved in the outbreak are Tennessee, Michigan, Virginia, Indiana, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey and Ohio. Officials have tied the outbreak of rare fungal meningitis to steroid shots for back pain. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)
In a memo to AP staff, Assistant Washington Bureau Chief Wendy Benjaminson describes how Florida correspondent Tamara Lush documented the fungal meningitis scare through the ordeal of one stricken patient, offering “a compelling take on a national story with high impact in her state.”

The fungal meningitis story has been an important national story, but one with particular resonance in Florida, a state with rising numbers of meningitis victims and where the advanced age of many residents makes them a particularly vulnerable group.

Tampa Correspondent Tamara Lush knew this, and had been keeping tabs on the outbreak. She knew that most cases were in Marion County, in the northern part of the state. When she was asked to cover a campaign event for vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan in that region, she saw an opportunity to try to track down a patient. Scouring local reports, she saw a few people had already filed lawsuits. So she tracked down the lawyers and made the time-honored AP pitch: She could tell the story to the world.

One lawyer agreed, turning down requests from other news organizations, and allowed Lush to interview his client in the hospital. The patient wouldn’t agree to video or photos, but Lush’s story was rich in visual images – the dry erase board that patient Vilinda York stares at every day, noting that she has no set discharge date; the headline in the local paper that was sitting on her bed, noting the third death in Marion County; the thrill the woman felt at finally being able to get up, shower and wash her short brown hair. It also evoked the woman’s life as a Florida retiree, filled with church, friends’ visits and evenings at Olive Garden and Red Lobster. And, she filled the story with the latest medical news about the outbreak that has infected nearly 300 people nationwide. It was the first detailed account of a hospitalized meningitis patient struggling to recover after receiving tainted steroid shots.

Lush talked to York before covering Ryan, then made calls to doctors and local health officials. She covered another rally by Vice President Joe Biden while finishing up the story. “This was basically smart, heads up reporting and a good use of time, a model amid short staffing,” said South multimedia editor Peter Prengaman.

The Sunday Spotlight played on the websites of The Washington Post, ABC News, NBC and the Miami Herald, among others.

Read it here: http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/meningitis-victims-face-long-uncertain-recovery-17526915

For a compelling take on a national story with high impact in her state, Tamara Lush wins this week’s $300 Best of the States prize.

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