COVID-19 ravaged Texas nursing homes. Here are the stories behind the numbers.

Country/area: United States

Organisation: The Texas Tribune

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 15/4/2021

Credit: Carla Astudillo, Karen Brooks Harper and Miguel Gutierrez Jr.

Biography: Carla Astudillo is a news app and data visuals developer with a focus on elections and political data. Karen Brooks Harper reports on health and human services. Miguel Gutierrez Jr. was The Texas Tribune’s photographer and photo editor.

Project description:

Nearly 9,000 Texas nursing home residents have died of COVID-19. This is what the last year of chaos and isolation was like for nursing homes residents and the employees who care for them.

Impact reached:

For the first weeks of the pandemic, Texas did not release data on cases in nursing homes — even when it became clear that the virus was especially deadly for residents. With this accountability story, we sought to revisit the lack of transparency, uncertainty and complexity of that period. We used data and people’s stories to show what happened inside nursing homes during the pandemic’s first year.
Finding nursing home residents willing (and able) to be interviewed was the biggest reporting challenge. Reporter Karen Brooks Harper spent weeks culling respondents from our COVID-19 callout, reaching out to families and nursing home administrators until she found Lynda Langford, a nursing home resident who became one of the project’s central characters.
This story, which gave readers a layer of insight they hadn’t seen before, received positive reception from readers and other news outlets across the state, with data reporter Carla Astudillo appearing on Texas Standard, a statewide public radio program, to tell the story of what we found in the data.

Techniques/technologies used:

This story is based on public data. Carla works on the Tribune’s data visuals team, which publishes a daily case tracker measuring coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccine doses in Texas. We also scraped data on daily cases and deaths in nursing homes provided by two different state agencies. Carla became an expert on nursing home data early in the pandemic, reporting on infection disease inspections and sharing numbers before the state began publishing them. For this story, she fact-checked months worth of the state’s data with federal reports and designed the charts that introduce the narrative.
This story relies on complex data analysis and engaging visualizations to walk readers through a year from the perspectives of people who live and work in nursing homes. Carla designed a scrollytelling introduction to show how deadly the virus was in nursing homes and put the situation into perspective. Throughout the story, charts give the readers a sense of how cases changed over time and photographs from inside nursing homes help illustrate the people affected by these outbreaks.

What was the hardest part of this project?

No one else told the story of how coronavirus impacted Texas nursing homes in as much detail as The Texas Tribune. Our story is a collaboration between the journalists who cover the story differently but work seamlessly together. This means it connects the data to the narrative and photos in a deeply integrated way.

What can others learn from this project?

Early and close coordination between journalists with different skill-sets is key for anniversary data projects like this.

Project links: