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"Prairie Doc" carries on during COVID-19 pandemic

On Call with the Prairie Doc airs
SDSU student Renae Vinzant monitors the audio levels during the live broadcast of On Call with the Prairie Doc® April 23. In the background is program host Dr. Kelly Evans-Hullinger ’06.

Producers of “On Call with Prairie Doc®” borrowed a line from Broadway this spring: “The show must go on.”

As the popular health education show worked to complete its 18th season on South Dakota Public Television, it continued to produce its episodes in the Yeager Media Center studio on the South Dakota State University campus.
While campus was closed to all but essential employees after March 13 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the team of Prairie Doc® physicians and the production team retooled the episode schedule to continue the Healing Words Foundation mission to “enhancing health and diminishing suffering by communicating useful information, based on honest science, provided in a respectful and compassionate manner.”

Each week SDSU administrators granted an exemption to the essential-only policy so the one-hour show could be produced.

"We could not ignore the COVID-19 pandemic," said Dr. Andrew Ellsworth, who practices in Brookings and is on the team of Prairie Doc® physicians. "We had a great opportunity to keep our viewers informed from the genuine physician/patient perspective that news outlets only give a few minutes to at a time. We dove deep into this from so many perspectives, and each week was a new important message.”

The March 19, March 26 and April 2 broadcasts explained what COVID-19 is, how to cope with the pandemic, and what lessons can be learned from past pandemics. Each episode allowed the viewers to submit questions for the experts to answer.

Lowell Haag, who directs the production of Prairie Doc, wasn’t sure from one week to the next if there would be a fresh episode to offer viewers.

“Long-term planning was replaced with spontaneous response planning. Work that normally was done in the weeks prior to broadcast was done days before or on the day of broadcast. Also, new methods of conducting and recording interviews were experimented with and then implemented,” Haag said.

Substitute director Brian Stemwedel reviews the control room monitors while Renae Vinzant adjusts the audio levels during the April 23 live broadcast of "On Call with the Prairie Doc®" from the SDSU campus.
Substitute director Brian Stemwedel reviews the control room monitors while Renae Vinzant adjusts the audio levels during the April 23 live broadcast of "On Call with the Prairie Doc®" from the SDSU campus.

Same show, different procedures
Prepping content for the show also changed.

Haag said, “The two weekly in-person interviews that had been conducted by a student reporter and myself were replaced with Zoom interviews. On the rare occasion that I and the student reporter conducted an interview, it was done outside the interviewee’s location while practicing social distancing.

“That means we no longer place a lapel microphone on the interviewee. The microphone is a shotgun mounted on a mic stand just outside the view of the camera. Also, the distances between the interviewee and interviewer and camera are increased.”

Keeping germs out
The show also decreased the size of its production crew and those tabbed for the crew had to pass a health screening.

Haag said, “A questionnaire was developed to screen potential crew members about their health and recent travel, similar to the questions asked of guests wanting to visit loved ones in a nursing home. (Any signs or symptoms of respiratory illness? Close contact with someone with or under investigation for COVID-19 in the last 14 days? Air travel within last 14 days?)

“Answering yes to any of the questions disqualified that person from working that week. Following SDSU's COVID-19 recommendations, if a potential crew member has health concerns about working, he or she can self-disqualify without repercussions.

“The same screening form was used at the Yeager Hall door at the time of the production, including documenting each person’s temperature to ensure that it is below 100 degrees. Again, yes to any question or a temperature above 100 disqualifies the scheduled worker.”

Fortunately, no one has been disqualified at the door.

“There is too short of a turnaround to bring someone in. That’s why we do the prescreening,” said Haag, who took himself out of the production April 23 after battling fever and a cough for two weeks. He was never tested for COVID-19 and returned once the symptoms were gone.

Of course, the crew took precautions to sanitize themselves and the equipment. Beginning April 23, face masks became required gear.

Fewer students utilized
The COVID-19 episodes are being produced with only seven people at the studio, one of them being a physician screener. Previously, there were 15 people including host, guests and crew.

Traditionally, there are a group of SDSU students in the pre-health professions programs who answer viewer calls and pass them to the show host to ask questions during the live broadcast. In exchange for volunteering, the students have a half-hour to ask the episode guests about their passions, training, opportunities and decisions, Haag said.

“In the COVID-19 world, the interaction time with the guests was gone as neither guests nor students came to the studio,” he said.

Brianna Schreurs was one of two students who continued to work regularly on the show. The senior advertising major noted, “We have a lot of people calling in from Skype and Zoom. It’s been a challenge on the production side to ensure they can be seen and heard clearly. It adds this extra pressure to get it fixed before we go live. I know we’ll always fix it, but sometimes we race against the clock.”
The other student, Renae Vinzant, also an advertising major, added, “It's a challenge working with so many technology pieces.”
‘Proud of adaptability and resilience’

Schreurs said, “As a team, I’m really proud of our adaptability and resilience. We can stick together and deliver a good show though we can’t see each other. Having a can-do attitude has been something everyone has exhibited well. I know this flexibility and desire to solve a problem will serve everyone on our production crew well in the future.
“Lowell is so hardworking to make sure we can meet any possible problems before going live. Also, he gets us motivated before each show.”

Vinzant added, “I've learned that even through a pandemic we need to still be there for others during this time and give people information that they want to hear. It's been a challenge and I hope I never have to go through something like this again, but there are definitely things that are going to be applied and changed to things in my future.”

That sentiment is one we can all agree to.