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This moving Twitter account puts faces to the coronavirus statistics

As we fixate on the incomprehensibly large numbers of the scope of the pandemic, the FacesOfCOVID project reminds us of the real people involved in the tragedy, and the lives they lost.

This moving Twitter account puts faces to the coronavirus statistics
[Screenshots: @FacesOfCOVID]

The COVID-19 pandemic has been most frequently portrayed through numbers: the number of new cases a day, the number of people hospitalized, the number of deaths. It can be difficult to force yourself to face that behind each of those numbers is a person, with their own lives, legacies, and families.

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Alex Goldstein, a strategic communications specialist, doesn’t want those people to just become data points and statistics, so he created a Twitter account called @FacesOfCOVID to share the stories of those who have died from COVID-19.

Goldstein spent about a decade working with former governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick in an array of communications roles, including as press secretary for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development during the height of the 2008 financial crisis. “My responsibility was to click ‘send’ on the press releases that showed thousands and thousands and thousand of people losing their jobs, but they were numbers, and I felt a responsibility to humanize some of the statistics we were talking about,” he says. “Fast-forward to the moment we’re in right now, I think it’s easy to become numb to the trauma of these statistics if we don’t find a way to humanize the toll that it’s taking on our neighbors and our friends and our loved ones.”

The @FacesOfCOVID account has been up since March 31, tweeting about more than 200 people, and before that it started as a thread on Goldstein’s personal account. Whenever he read about a death, he would type out something brief to add to that thread, but he realized he wasn’t doing justice to the local reporters covering these stories, and that this might be something he should let people opt in to, in case there were people following his personal account who didn’t want to see those updates.

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Goldstein is currently CEO of 90 West, a strategic communications firm he founded in 2016, and found himself devoting a lot of time to this Twitter account each day, so he asked a friend also in communications, Scott Zoback, to help him out. Early on it was easy to do a simple search of COVID-19 terms to find these obituaries and stories, but as the numbers rise, it’s become more difficult. Now, he searches those terms with each state’s name, and spends some time each day reading the websites of about 40 top regional newspapers across the country. He reads every story, too, so he can pull out details, like the fact that Otis Lee of Detroit was famous for serving “massive corned-beef sandwiches” at his former deli, Mr. Fofo’s. One commonality, he adds, is how nearly every story includes a quote from a family member lamenting that their loved one had to die alone.

It’s important that @FacesOfCOVID highlights the work of local journalism, Goldstein says. It’s also helped foster even more local reporting. Mandy McLaren, a reporter at The Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, has been friends with Goldstein for years, and when she saw the thread on his personal account, she says, “It definitely motivated me to think about how we were focusing on that aspect of our coverage in Kentucky.” Though Kentucky isn’t one of the country’s hot spots, that doesn’t mean people there haven’t been losing friends and family members to the novel coronavirus.

The Twitter account ended up inspiring some conversations across her newsroom, and her editor assigned multiple reporters to spend a week looking at who Kentucky’s COVID-19 victims are. “We believed that possibly by trying to tell about these real people that we’re losing, it could help reenergize people to stay home,” she says. One story that McLaren wrote was about ARon Jordan, who is believed to be Kentucky’s youngest coronavirus victim, a 49-year-old man with no underlying health conditions, and “a father of seven—and grandfather to seven more.” Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear, crediting McLaren’s story, took about five minutes to talk about Jordan’s life. “Every one of these losses is very, very real,” Beshear said.

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McLaren hopes that these stories can help counter the stigma a lot of Kentuckians feel about becoming infected, since it can happen to anyone, and that they motivate Kentuckians to follow social distancing guidelines. It’s also about honoring those who’ve passed. “[One] of the challenges with this pandemic is that it is going to be months and months and months of new faces unfortunately being added to the list,” she says. “In order for us to truly honor those deaths and bear witness to them, that is going to take a real commitment from our country to keep paying attention.”

Paying attention in this way may also result in better policies. Goldstein points to something he often heard his former boss Deval Patrick say: “Policy only matters at the point where it touches people.” Sharing the real people behind the numbers could prompt action, and also hold policy makers accountable. “There were steps that we could have been taking many, many weeks ago that could have saved some of these lives, and to me that makes it all that much more important to document the toll,” he says. “We failed to act, and we were underprepared. . . . We assumed we were invincible, and we paid the price. When we quantify that price, it can’t be a number. It has to be a name and a story.”

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