How Grey's Anatomy Is Responsibly Depicting COVID-19 on Television
On March 8, 2020, Grey’s Anatomy executive producer Zoanne Clack started to clock that this COVID thing might be more than this year’s scary sickness. Her son wanted to go to Legoland for his birthday, and even in the midst of what would become a pandemic, it’s hard to tell your kid no on his birthday. I mean, it’s Legoland. But some of his friends’ parents had concerns about heading to a place with so many people and so much touching. Long story short: Legoland happened. They used hand sanitizer. Wipes were deployed everywhere. COVID-19 was making headlines, but, come on—there were lots of places with lots of people and lots of touching. Hell, the writer’s room and set of Grey’s Anatomy hinged on people in close communication, sharing surfaces and food and documents. The world was still relatively normal. Four days later, it wasn’t.
Clack, who serves as one of Grey’s Anatomy’s executive producers and medical advisors, found herself in the same headspace as most Americans. “I almost had my public health card taken from me. I wouldn't say I was a denier, [but when COVID started], I felt like people weren't giving the flu its due,” she explains on a Zoom call in October. “The difference between me and the [American] leadership is I learned more facts and evolved.” On March 12, Grey’s Anatomy stopped production, and in mid-April, four episodes shy of its 25 episode order, the series aired the sixteenth season’s unofficial finale, still unsure of when it might resume production.
Eight months later, Grey’s Anatomy is returning to ABC with its seventeenth season. While those less familiar with the series might see a COVID-19 season as low-hanging fruit, nothing in the world of Grey’s Anatomy is that simple. A successful season means accurate medicine and a compelling interpersonal story. It also means keeping your people safe—the real cast and crew who are routinely being tested and hoping to avoid the deadly virus they're depicting in real time. A successful season means that the medical advisors of Grey's Anatomy must walk a fine line between storytelling and evolving medicine, all in the name of a damn good story.
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Even though the long-running series has seen just about everything you’d hope to not see at a hospital (bombs, a mass shooting, a plague-scare, another mass shooting, a ‘ghost sex’ tumor), the Shonda Rhimes creation hasn’t tackled anything quite like COVID-19. The pandemic will play a major factor in the narrative throughout the entire season, and in its signature fashion, Grey’s is spearheading a medical and social conversation about what the illness looks like on television. But with the help of its medical advisory team, Grey’s Anatomy isn’t just taking narrative control; it’s upholding the duty of protecting its staff in the process.
Before the writing commenced for Season 17, the medical advisory staff got together with ABC to discuss whether going back to work was even plausible for Grey’s Anatomy’s cast and crew. Linda Klein, another co-executive producer and medical advisor, was on those calls. “Dr. [Michael] Metzner was a big influence, along with myself and Naser [Alazari],” Klein explains over Zoom. The trio all consult on the series’ medical procedures. This year, they tapped in as advisors on safety protocols. “The three of us would get on calls with the studio and with the companies, just to make sure that we were going to implement the correct and safest way to bring this show to fruition. We fought many a battle and it's working.” Klein’s determination to get back into the set isn’t one she took lightly though—earlier this year, Klein’s brother died from COVID-19.
“He was number 3,000 and not to be able to be by his bedside, as you can well imagine, was very heartbreaking,” she says. “To see what they're doing in the hospitals just to [let people] communicate with their loved ones at home to keep them safe… it’s pretty amazing.” Klein, like Clack, has been with Grey’s Anatomy since day one. Businesses are not family, but in Klein’s eyes, the Grey’s crew is as close to one as a workplace can offer. Protecting your family is an added pressure when it comes to helping plan a season so daunting in scope.
One of the reasons that Grey’s Anatomy has persisted for so long is because of the series’ commitment to depicting “correct medicine,” even in some of its more egregious plot lines. Take, for instance, the toxic blood episode from Season Three. It’s an episode Clack worked on, specifically, after a writer heard about the real-life story and pushed to bring it to life. “I had to go out and figure out what is the most plausible of these theories and talk to people and really try to make it based on some sort of actual factuality,” she explains, “but also be cognizant of what was reported.” That has provided a particularly difficult challenge for depicting COVID-19. So much has changed in such a short amount of time; half the battle is timing. The other half is allowing that learning process to come alive on screen.
This season picks up a couple months ahead of where last season ended, meaning that in this new timeline, COVID-19 is still a relatively big mystery to the doctors of Grey-Sloan Memorial. In the pursuit of letting the doctors have a similar experience to those serving on the front lines, Clack, Klein, and the rest of the medical team got to work. “Like there's surprising new symptoms that'll come up that we're dealing with,” Clack says. “We're talking about reading the research and has this been studied and there are no studies and are we doing studies? And there's experimental drugs and should we use those?” Some of the teased plot lines come from personal experience. A Grey's writer’s relative is an E.R. doctor who contracted COVID-19, but only exhibited symptoms in the form of pink eye. That leaves a lot of room for writing, and even more for fact checking.
When posed with the potential of having Ellen Pompeo’s Dr. Meredith Grey discover a cure-all, the Grey’s team remains focused on their personal medical maxim. “I feel like we have a mission to show them exactly what medicine is all about,” Klein adds. “I think we work really hard at it and I think we do a really good job. Sometimes… drama has to take precedence, but we strive.”
For production, Grey’s Anatomy has implemented “zones.” Actors stay in designated pods; production teams work in shifts. Zones are tested differently based on their amount of exposure: red zone, three times a week. Yellow and green zones, once a week. It’s a precaution that allows for constant transparency on set, but also, you know, the minimal amount of times a swab has to be stuck up your nose.
“Just to see each other and not to be able to hug each other was just… it was so hard,” Klein says. “It's a whole new way of filming because it takes a lot longer. Even our writers had to figure out how to write it in a different way to support the hours and the time.” Before COVID-19 entire casts and crew could be on set, but the rhythm is different now. The number of people on set is always limited. It’s a symphony, not totally unlike surgery itself. Associate directors place stand-ins, then the lighting crew comes in to make sure everything is properly lit. The grips take their place. Then everyone leaves, the set is sanitized again, and the stand-ins are replaced by actors. It’s medical choreography, somehow as intricate as the realistically complex surgeries they’d be performing on a “regular” season.
But on top of the mechanics of being able to film, the writers and producers on set are being challenged with how to balance the medical authenticity of COVID-19 with the emotional tone that Grey’s Anatomy has become so well-known for. All the options led the team to embrace the unknown. Similar to the medical professionals battling COVID-19 late last spring (and even today), the staff at this fictional hospital are left with the frustration of constantly losing patients, all tangled in the helplessness of simply not knowing how to stop this mystery disease. Yes, you can draw inspiration from the implementations that have already been put in place in America, but to what end? With an administration that brushed off much of what could have been studied at the time, the medical staff at Grey’s Anatomy is limited a bit. They have medical journals and papers at their disposal, but nothing any more concrete than what’s available to us in our current world. Anything more fictionalized goes against the standards of the show, both factually and emotionally.
As for what’s to come, Grey’s Anatomy will tap into that emotional core that has come to define the series. With some actors in “family pods,” there’s not a lot of opportunity for true “human” interaction in a season fueled by COVID-19. Unfortunately, this COVID-culture that has evolved from people having to quarantine and self-isolate provides incredible narrative inspiration. “You can't come into the hospitals,” Clack notes. “These people are dying alone and that's been a big thing that we've been focusing on. Dramatically, there's a lot of story to tell just because this virus is so, well... scary.”
As unfortunate as the circumstances may be, the COVID-19 storyline feels like a hellish Grey’s brainchild come to life, naturally in line with what Grey’s Anatomy has been doing in recent years. Under the guidance of showrunner Krista Vernoff, the series has taken a more direct turn toward social issues, highlighting topics from domestic violence and rape to immigration laws and insurance fraud. Coming back to work amid the most severe pandemic in a century and depicting it on screen—well, it feels like a job uniquely designed for Grey’s Anatomy. Long time crowd-favorite scrub nurse and medical advisor, Bokhee An, told me in an email that, “It is a scary time with the pandemic, but I think our storylines regarding COVID are a great PSA. I personally think it is so important that everyone wear a mask, wash their hands, and socially distance when possible.” She’s been using her social media presence to spread the word, as well. But when asked, Clack asserts that this season is first and foremost about getting the medicine correct and telling a good story. Social justice and advocacy are great, but it’s not inventing a cause—just highlighting what’s too often ignored.
“We're not about changing minds. We are about telling it as it is. And if that changes some minds, then great,” Clack says, assuredly. “There's this social learning theory by Albert Bandura, blah, blah, blah. But it's all about having people that you respect and love doing things that are healthy for them and modeling that so that you will do those behaviors. And for me, as a big proponent of entertainment, education, or ‘edutainment,’ as they like to call it, it kind of validates my whole existence to be able to tell these stories.”
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.