Chip Minemyer: Education, collaboration a life-saving formula

Mar. 10—The COVID-19 pandemic has given newsrooms a perfect opportunity to fulfill their mission of providing important information to help communities navigate a crisis of wellness and understanding.

And at The Tribune-Democrat, we were blessed to be part of a larger effort that literally saved lives.

I was reminded of that on Tuesday, when I joined a contingent from In This Together Cambria as the nonprofit organization was honored by the University of Pittsburgh at its "Progress Through Partnerships" gathering.

In This Together Cambria produced a website loaded with information about local virus testing and vaccines, fueled by the scientific expertise of UPJ biology professor and infectious diseases expert Jill Henning, and the university's Matthew Tracey, an assistant professor of chemistry.

The process also featured the talents of marketing and communications specialists Shelley Johansson and Ashlee Kiel, who wrote the press releases, operated the digital platforms and organized a series of virtual forums in conjunction with The Tribune-Democrat and UPJ.

Those forums allowed attendees to hear directly from the people who understood the pandemic best, and to ask questions of local experts in science, education, emergency services, government, business, psychology and other areas.

The partnerships extended beyond media — and still do — as In This Together Cambria works closely with emergency service leaders in Cambria and Somerset counties and the Cambria-Somerset COVID-19 Task Force. Joel Landis, Somerset County Emergency Management Agency director, joined the local contingent in Pittsburgh for the award ceremony.

UPJ's leading role also included the production of the film "We Are All In This Together" — led by history professor Paul Douglas Newman, whose students pored over "ancient" microfilm editions of The Johnstown Tribune and The Johnstown Democrat.

Their great work drew parallels between COVID-19 and the global influenza pandemic a century earlier — and bolstered Newman's sensational script, brought to life by director of photography Jason Bolinger, local actress Kate Davis and others.

Other award-winning projects Tuesday included a Pitt School of Education program that encouraged students in Pittsburgh's city schools to consider teaching as a profession, and an effort by the organization Women For Healthy Environment to identify safety issues with the Allegheny County water system.

Pitt Provost Ann E. Cudd applauded the important work — and especially the role of Pitt students in the community outreach and research involved in the various endeavors — which provided full-circle educational programs.

Keynote speaker Dr. Jay Perman, Chancellor of the University System of Maryland and a pediatrician, recounted his time at Johns Hopkins University and outreach programs developed there to assist children and families in neighboring West Baltimore.

He urged the Pitt audience to seek more opportunities to use the knowledge and expertise on college campuses to help transform surrounding communities.

And that's exactly what In This Together Cambria did.

In a narrative submitted for the Pitt conference, Henning wrote: "This project has allowed Pitt-Johnstown to reengage the public with sound, trusted information."

She added: "Our project has used many communication platforms to engage the public on the safety and efficacy of vaccinations, with a particular focus on COVID-19."

That was also a key element of The Tribune-Democrat's ongoing feature "COVID-19: Your Questions" during the height of the pandemic. Readers from all around the world sent in questions and read the advice of experts including Henning and Dr. David Csikos, chief medical officer at Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber.

With support from our region's best, we helped readers understand a serious situation and take steps to education themselves and navigate the crisis — which is exactly what community journalism should do.

COVID-19 took a deep toll on Cambria and Somerset counties, and continues to present a serious health risk.

But I often wonder how bad it might have been had In This Together Cambria not been formed — had these committed folks not decided to work together and network with others to uplift their community.

Henning noted that Cam-bria and Somerset reached vaccination rates higher than many of their neighboring counties.

And many of the group members could recount moments when individuals said they got vaccinated against the coronavirus at an In This Together Cambria-sponsored event, or because they saw something on the group's website or in this newspaper.

After the Pitt gathering, Kiel told Tribune-Democrat reporter Dave Sutor: "We were talking earlier about how if we had gotten one person to make a good decision when it came to COVID and their health or the health of their family, then we did good work."

She added: "I think we helped a lot of people."

In a candid moment in Pitt's William Pitt Union, Johansson looked at me and said:

"I know we saved lives."

Yes, I know it, too.

This project checked all of the boxes in meeting Pitt's theme of "community engaged scholarship."

And while many of us lost friends and family members to COVID, others are still here because they were touched by this amazing effort.

Chip Minemyer is the publisher of The Tribune-Democrat and The Times-News of Cumberland, Md. He can be reached at 814-532-5111. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.