NEW YORK – For two years, the number of cases of coronavirus and hospitalizations have been widely used barometers for the worldwide pandemic march.
But the omicron wave is messing up the usual statistics, forcing news organizations to reconsider the way they report such numbers.
“It’s just a data disaster,” said Katherine Wu, staff writer covering COVID-19 for The Atlantic magazine.
The number of case counts rose during the holiday, an expected development given the emergence of a variant that is more transferable than its predecessors.
Yet these figures only reflect what has been reported by the health authorities. They do not include most people who test themselves at home or are infected without even knowing it. Holidays and weekends also lead to delays in reported cases.
If you could add all these numbers together – and you can not – the number of cases would probably be significantly higher.
For that reason, The Associated Press has recently told its editors and journalists that they should avoid highlighting the number of cases in stories about the disease. That means, for example, no more stories that focus solely on a particular country or state that sets a one-day record for the number of cases because that claim has become unreliable.
Throughout the media, there has been more caution in the use of official case counts.
An NBC News story on Monday about the skyrocketing number of COVID cases was dependent on a one-week average of case numbers. A Tuesday story simply referred to a “tidal wave” of cases.
During its coverage of a Senate hearing with health experts on Tuesday, the cases CNN showed on screen were a two-week average. MSNBC used a number of measurements, including a list of the five states with the highest reported numbers over the past three days.
On its website “Guide to the Pandemic”, the Washington Post spent a seven-day average of cases, comparing that figure with last Tuesday, showing a 56% increase. The New York Times used a daily count in an online chart, but also included a two-week trend in both cases and deaths.
An AP story Saturday by Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Terry Tang with the headline, “Omicron explosion spurs nationwide breakdown of services” was full of statistics from across the United States about hospitalization rates or employees calling sick from work. The case count metric was not used.
“We definitely wanted people to go a little deeper and be more specific in reporting,” said Josh Hoffner, the news editor who helps monitor the AP’s virus coverage.
Many news organizations are discussing how best to use statistics now during the omicron rise, Wu said. But there are no easy answers.
“That’s how journalism works,” Wu said. “We need data. We need to show receipts to readers. But I try to do it carefully.”
Hospital admissions and death rates are considered by some to be a more reliable picture of COVID-19’s current impact on society. Yet in recent days the usefulness of these figures has been questioned. In many cases, admissions are random: There are people who are admitted for other reasons and are surprised to find that they test positive for COVID, said Tanya Lewis, senior editor of health and medicine at Scientific American.
Despite the imperfections, the number of cases should not be ignored, said Gary Schwitzer, an instructor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors health coverage in the media.
The figures illustrate trends and provide a picture of which areas of the country are particularly hard hit or where the rise may have peaked, he said. They can predict broader societal consequences, such as where hospitals are being smashed or where there will be a shortage of labor.
“These are stories that might not be told adequately if only hospitalizations and deaths are highlighted,” Schwitzer said.
It is also a point that is emphasized in the AP’s internal guidance.
“They have value,” Hoffner said. “We do not want people to remove mention of case counts.”
There are some in the field of public health and journalism who believe that the current rise – however painful it may be – may herald good news. It may be a sign that COVID-19 is on its way to becoming an endemic disease that people are learning to live with, rather than being a disruptive pandemic, David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu wrote in The New York Times.
But if the last two years have taught anything, it’s about the danger of predictions, Lewis said.
“We have been surprised again and again,” she said. “We do not know everything about the course of the pandemic. We still have to be humble and have an open mind about where things are going. “
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