Misadventures in health reporting: Coronavirus 2020

Since the beginning of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control Prevention (CDC) has been mounting a response to a respiratory disease, that, at present, has been declared a public health emergency in 80 countries, including the US. The SAR-CoV-2 virus, also known as the Coronavirus (COVID-19), has elicited the concern and attention of public health authorities, the healthcare community, and the public-at-large. As the Coronavirus continues to grow globally and begins to emerge through cases in parts of the US, the greatest dilemma is who and what to believe. Social media has exploded over the recent conflicts in reporting between leaders in government and public health officials.

Americans should be concerned about the credibility and timeliness of reporting as this emergency continues to trend in the news. Here are some tips for those of you want to know if Coronavirus is happening the way it’s being reported.

  • Consider the source. There are many internet and social media outlets reporting on every facet of news, so it is easy to be compelled by a flashy headline or a credible name reference. An agency like the CDC and organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) are tasked with protecting the health of the public nationally and globally, and in many ways are responsible for the preparedness of their respective officials and effectiveness of subsequent responses at every level. Specifically, the CDC, in collaboration with the WHO, confirmed COVID-19 emerged as a virus spread by person-to-person contact—and was first detected in travelers from the Wuhan Province of China.
  • Remember news changes rapidly. Try not to get hung up on the evening news or trending social media updates about the virus, because these are likely to change within hours (sometimes minutes). Since January 21, the WHO released 42 “situation reports” on the Coronavirus, providing the most up-to-date and accurate developments concerning the virus. The purpose of these reports is to monitor the number of  confirmed cases and deaths globally, and to provide the public with routine updates on the WHO’s efforts to deliver supplies to support the global response to the Coronavirus. Similarly, the CDC continues to provide health notices to debunk the fear and stigma around the origin of the virus and the severity of the risk of its spread. Ultimately, you should expect to see changes in travel patterns, stories about the increased use of protective gear, and local and state officials making regular statements to the public.
  • At a White House Press Conference last month, Vice President Mike Pence made a statement on the impact of Coronavirus in America. Pence reported the risk to Americans as “low” while the incidence of Coronavirus grows in different regions of the country. Pence also assured Americans that the administration rolled out a new Coronavirus Taskforce to streamline information to the public and coordinate efforts with partnering countries to track the progress of the global response. Nonetheless, CNN reports that the CDC urges Americans to prepare themselves for the worst. The report goes on to suggest how daily life will change in the face of a Coronavirus epidemic. CNN reports an uncertain future based on conflicting remarks during the White House Press Conference.
  • Observe standard precautions. While the risk remains low, Americans are planning for the worst. California has declared a state of emergency after a recent Coronavirus-related death. Moreover, NBC News reports that President Trump signed an $8 billion spending package for CA to use in wake of the virus outbreak. To date, states affected by the virus have begun rolling out guidelines for treatment and possible quarantine of patients as new cases emerge. For instance, local health authorities in New York have implemented screening procedures for citizens returning to the US from countries affected by Coronavirus. Other states continue to publish statements of their efforts to prevent the transmission and spread of the Coronavirus through universities and schools in various communities.

What should be taken from the CDC and other state and local health authorities is that you should observe standard precautions, which can reduce the transmission of the virus. Health.gov posted a simple statement about preventing human-to-human spread of the virus by suggesting washing hands, covering mouths, and staying home if you’re sick. In the wake of uncertainty of the trajectory of the virus, Americans can be certain that our coverage of and reporting on the Coronavirus will be driven by how the administration, health authorities, and media want to frame the national and global response.