NEW YORK – For the past two years, the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been widely used barometers of the progress of the pandemic around the world.
But the omicron wave is upsetting the usual statistics, forcing news agencies to rethink the way they report such numbers.
“It’s just a data disaster,” said Katherine Wu, editor-in-chief covering COVID-19 for The Atlantic magazine.
The number of cases has skyrocketed during the holidays, an expected development given the emergence of a more transmissible variant than its predecessors.
However, these figures only reflect what is reported by health authorities. They do not include most people who test themselves at home or who are infected without even knowing it. Holidays and weekends also cause lags in reported cases.
If you could add all of those numbers – and you can’t – the number of cases would likely be significantly higher.
For this reason, the Associated Press recently asked its editors and reporters to avoid focusing on the number of cases in articles about the disease. This means, for example, that there are no longer stories focused solely on a particular country or state setting a one-day record for the number of cases, as that claim has become unreliable.
In all media, there has been more caution in the use of official case counts.
An NBC News article on Monday about the growing number of COVID cases relied on a one-week average number of cases. A story from Tuesday simply referred to a “tidal wave” of cases.
When covering a Senate hearing with health experts on Tuesday, the number of cases CNN showed on screen was an average of two weeks. MSNBC used a variety of metrics, including a list of the five states with the highest numbers reported in the past three days.
On its website’s “Pandemic Guide”, the Washington Post used a seven-day average of cases and compared that number to that of 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 for cases and deaths.
An AP Saturday story by Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Terry Tang headlined: “Omicron explosion causes outage of services nationwide” was replete with statistics across the United States on hospitalization rates or employees calling sick from work. The measure of the number of cases was not used.
“We really wanted people to take it a step further and be more specific in their reporting,” said Josh Hoffner, the editor who helps oversee AP’s virus coverage.
Many news outlets are debating how best to use the statistics now during the omicron wave, Wu said. But there are no easy answers.
“This is how journalism works,” Wu said. “We need the data. We need to show the receipts to the readers. But I try to do it with caution.
Hospitalization and death rates are considered by some to be a more reliable picture of the current impact of COVID-19 on society. Yet even the usefulness of these figures has been questioned in recent days. In many cases, hospitalizations are fortuitous: There are people admitted for other reasons and are surprised to find out they test positive for COVID, said Tanya Lewis, senior health and medicine editor at Scientific American.
Despite the imperfections, the number of cases should not be ignored, said Gary Schwitzer, instructor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health and editor of HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors health coverage in the media.
The numbers illustrate the trends, giving a picture of which parts of the country are particularly hard hit or where the surge may have reached its peak, he said. They can predict broader societal impacts, such as where hospitals are about to be destroyed or labor shortages.
“These are stories that may not be told adequately if one focuses only on hospitalizations and deaths,” Schwitzer said.
This is also a point underlined in the internal directives of AP.
“They have value,” Hoffner said. “We don’t want people to eliminate the reference to the number of cases. “
Some in public health and journalism believe the current wave – painful as it is – may bode well for good news. This could be a sign that COVID-19 is set to become 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 past two years have learned anything, it’s about the danger of predictions, Lewis said.
“We have been surprised time and time again,” she said. “We do not know everything about the evolution of the pandemic. We should always be humble and keep an open mind about where things are going. “
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