NEW YORK ( Associated Press) – For two years, coronavirus case counts and hospitalizations have been widely used as barometers of the pandemic’s march across the world.
But the Omicron wave is messing up the general statistics, forcing news organizations to rethink the way they report such data.
“It’s just a data disaster,” said Catherine Wu, a staff writer covering COVID-19 for Atlantic magazine.
The number of cases increased during the holidays, an expected development given the emergence of a more permeable variant than its predecessors.
Yet these figures reflect only what is reported by health officials. These do not include most people who test themselves at home, or become infected without even knowing about it. Holidays and weekends also lag behind in reported cases.
If you can sum up all those numbers – and you can’t – the number of cases will be quite high.
For this reason, The Associated Press recently asked its editors and journalists to avoid emphasizing the number of cases in stories about the disease. This means, for example, that no further story focuses solely on a particular country or state, setting a one-day record for the number of cases, because that claim has become unreliable.
Across the media, there has been a greater caution in the use of official case counts.
An NBC News story on Monday about the skyrocketing number of COVID cases relied on a week’s average of cases. One Tuesday story simply referred to the “tidal wave” of cases.
During its coverage of a Senate hearing with health experts on Tuesday, CNN’s onscreen flashed case numbers averaged two weeks. MSNBC used a variety of measurements, including a list of the five states that reported the most in the past three days.
On its website’s “Guide to the Pandemic,” the Washington Post used a seven-day average of cases and compared that number to last Tuesday, which saw a 56% increase. The New York Times used the daily count in an online chart, yet also included a two-week trend in both cases and deaths.
an ap story saturday The headline “Omicron explosion fuels nationwide breakdown of services” by Jennifer Cinco Kelleher and Terry Tang was filled with data from across the United States on hospitalization rates or employees who are 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 helped oversee the Associated Press’s virus coverage.
Several news organizations are debating how best to use the data now during the Omicron boom, Wu said. But there are no easy answers.
“That’s how journalism works,” Wu said. “We need data. We have to show readers receipts. But I try to do it carefully.”
Hospitalization and mortality are considered by some to be a more reliable picture of the current impact of COVID-19 on society. Yet the usefulness of those numbers has also been questioned in recent times. In many cases, hospitalization is accidental: There are people who are being admitted for other reasons and are surprised to learn that they test positive for COVID, says Tanya Lewis, senior editor of health and medicine at Scientific American he said.
Despite the flaws, the number of cases should not be overlooked, said Gary Schweitzer, a Minnesota School of Public Health instructor and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors health coverage in the media.
The numbers show trends, giving an idea of which areas of the country are being particularly affected. or where the boom may have peaked, They said. They can predict wider social impacts, such as where hospitals are about to close or where there will be a labor shortage.
“These are stories that cannot be adequately told if the emphasis is only on hospitalizations and deaths,” Schweitzer said.
This has also been emphasized in Associated Press’s internal guidance.
“They have value,” Hofner said. “We don’t want people to end up mentioning the number of cases.”
There are some in public health and journalism who believe that the current boom – painful as it is – may signal good news. it could be a sign David Leonhart and Ashley Wu write in The New York Times that COVID-19 is poised to become an endemic disease that people learn to live with, rather than a devastating pandemic.
But if the past two years have taught anything, it’s about danger in predictions, Lewis said.
“We’ve been surprised over and over again,” she said. “We do not know everything about the course of the pandemic. We still need to be humble and keep an open mind in terms of where things are going. ,