EDITOR’S NOTE: How we’re covering the COVID-19 impact on Salem

Les Zaitz, editor and CEO of Salem Reporter.

Life in Salem is profoundly changing and Salem Reporter is determined to help the community cope.

In just recent days, consider what has changed.

Every public school is closed, putting 40,000 students from kindergarten to high school at home and on hold.

Restaurants and bars are now going dark, except those that will see if they can survive on what they can make from takeout and maybe delivery service.

No one can visit relatives or friends in a nursing home or other care facility.

And the layoffs pile up day by day.

At Salem Reporter, we’re focused on keeping you updated on such developments. We don’t ever want to induce panic but we also want people to understand the gravity of these times. In my 45 years as an Oregon journalist, I have covered more than my share of major stories. This will eclipse them all in complexity, impact and duration.

Reporters Rachel Alexander, Saphara Harrell and Jake Thomas are managing a flood of information hour by hour, sorting out what needs to be shared and what can wait or be ignored. They have access to the authorities who matter – the experts at the Marion County Health Department, Salem Health, the Oregon Health Authority and the city, school and county officials making decisions that will change your lives.

Here’s what guides our work.

First, we want you to know of government decisions that affect your life. Closing the schools obviously was a big one. As soon as we have credible information about some change, you will have it.

Second, we want to help you deal with the evolving way of life in Salem. That means sharing what is happening around the community, from canceled concerts to food drives to shuttered galleries.

Third, on your behalf, we will press officials in government, institutions and organizations to tell the public as much as possible. This is no time for public relations manipulations or keeping secrets unnecessarily.

Every qualified official, ranging from those in the Trump administration to Oregon state government to our local health authorities, is virtually pleading with every American to help. They want social distancing. They want hand washing. They want you to cover your cough.

Is that because you’re likely to be hospitalized or die if you get the disease? No. Eight out of 10 who get infected can stay home, rest and recover. But it’s the other 20 percent that worries the health experts and why they beg you to help.

The disease is sneaky – symptoms don’t show up for as long as 14 days. Consider if you were infected. Think of your path through the community on just a single day. How many people do you come in contact with? How many door knobs do you turn?

Now, think of someone’s grandmother following in your wake, opening that door that might be contaminated. While you can take your cough and go home, this woman may end up in critical condition in a hospital – if there is room. Why? Because someone didn’t take the painless steps of washing hands and guarding sneezes.

When health authorities put out advice, we’re going to report that. When governments take action, we’re going to report that too. We will do so in a way that you can trust is done with care for accuracy and context.

There has been a lot of social media chatter that the press is hyping the situation, in part to make money. That’s just absurd. This is a strain on our organization and any downturn in the local economy will directly harm us.

But what’s more, Salem Reporter moved early on to make its digital reports related to this outbreak free to anyone. We want as many people as possible to have access to our news. We want people to be informed, to make smart choices. We ask that you share our reports. (And if you can, please subscribe now to afford our team the chance to continue helping you with information.)

To gather still more credible information, Salem Reporter has joined with a dozen news organizations around the state in an extraordinary collaboration – including our competitors at the Statesman Journal. We are all sharing our reporting so everyone has the broadest access to key information.

I can’t speak for any news organization but my own. Our entire team recognizes a deep responsibility to the community. We will discharge our duty by continuing to be a source of credible information, information that could perhaps save lives. We have no more important role in Salem.

Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. Email: [email protected]