An entire display case in the Museum at The Times is devoted to the coronavirus pandemic. But a bright yellow protective suit also on exhibit is a reminder that public health catastrophes are familiar territory for New York Times journalists.
Dr. Sheri Fink, a physician, Times correspondent and 2010 Pulitzer winner, took these coveralls with her on two long trips to West Africa in 2014 and 2015. She was reporting on an Ebola outbreak that eventually killed 11,325 people in the region.
“Before going to Liberia,” she said in an email on Jan. 12, “I sourced some suits in the U.S. and brought them along because I had heard that there was a shortage of supplies and didn’t want to take them away from health workers.”
Dr. Fink would have worn an impermeable suit like this — along with a head covering, a mask, goggles, gloves and boots — when she visited treatment wards for people with active infections, or accompanied workers picking up patients, or attended burials. Coveralls made of Tychem fabric can protect the wearer from infected bodily fluids. They are lightweight, but sauna-like all the same.
And cumbersome outfits were not the only barrier to reporting. “Everyone was prohibited from bringing objects out of the patient area unless they could be disinfected,” Dr. Fink recalled. “Rather than a notebook, I would sometimes have to use an audio recorder sealed in a bag that was then disinfected. Once, the bag leaked and one of my recorders was destroyed by the bleach solution.”
“There were probably a few times when I mentally counted down the 21-day incubation period of Ebola and felt relieved when it had passed,” she wrote. Her work included a series called The Ebola Ward and Dr. Fink shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for reporting on the epidemic.
As it happened, she did not need this particular suit, and she took it and other extra gear home. “There was no longer a shortage and I thought it might be useful in case I needed to report on another infectious disease outbreak,” she said.
Five years later, Dr. Fink was covering the coronavirus pandemic, about which she is now writing a book. She and her Times colleagues shared in the 2021 Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service during the first year of the pandemic.
The In Times Past column explores New York Times history through artifacts.