News Coverage Disappoints Me

This is what cnn.com is showing right now related to the current coronavirus outbreak.

CNN Headline

And I have to tell you it frustrates the hell out of me. Because pretty much any expert or frontline individual handling this in the U.S. would tell you that the headline should be “there are now 158 CONFIRMED cases of novel coronavirus in US”.

That distinction between actual number of cases and reported number of cases is vital for getting people to understand what is actually going on in the US right now with respect to this illness.

See, the thing is, if you don’t test for something you can’t find it, right? And that’s what’s happening in the US right now.

Last week there were news reports that the care facility in Kirkland, WA that has been the source of the majority of the fatalities reported in the US so far had another 50+ individuals showing potential symptoms and another 150 people that were patients or staff of that facility in addition to those fifty. And yet, those people have not been tested. As of 20 minutes ago, CNN is just now reporting on that fact.

So right there, in one small location, you very likely have at least 50 more cases.

On top of that are all the stories coming out of people with travel history and symptoms who’ve tried to get tested and were refused. One in New York was told to go home via the subway and go back to work if he wanted. Think about that from a disease transmission perspective. How many times has that happened in the last six weeks? How many cases are there that we simply don’t know about because no one is testing aggressively?

If you only look at the fatality number of 11 and use a 2% fatality rate, at a minimum there are 550 cases. But we’ve already seen that some fatalities that occurred previously were only retroactively identified as fatalities related to this virus. So how many more were there that were chalked up as pneumonia or the seasonal flu? And that fatality number is a lagging indicator. This infection takes weeks to reach the point where someone dies from it. (Per the WHO report on China.) So that’s 550 as of a month ago.

It really frustrates me that I get more accurate information on what’s going on from Twitter than I can from my local news or from CNN who I had previously considered a trusted source. (Their coverage of the stock market the other day when it dropped a 1,000+ points in a day was also almost non-existent as it was happening. I had to go to Yahoo Finance to track that.)

I understand the desire to not be sensational and to not cause a panic. Especially with respect to stock market trading which in the short term can be very emotion-driven. And I get that we have a bunch of stupid people in this country who will react to bad news in stupid ways. And that the news very often gets accused of an “it if bleeds it leads” mentality.

But I have a 90-year-old grandma with COPD and a mother who is almost seventy and has needed emergency treatment on multiple occasions for breathing issues. Based on what I’m seeing I think they should both be limiting their public activities for the next couple of weeks.

There are no REPORTED cases in my state right now, but to think that a virus could be circulating freely in Washington state and not have made it to Colorado is wishful thinking. (My last full-time job I traveled every single week from Colorado or DC to New York or Miami or the UK or Germany. There are people whose jobs routinely have them on planes traveling all over this country–and this world–on a weekly basis. And flu transmission on planes is incredibly high.)

I told both my mother and my grandmother this over the weekend, but they looked at the local news coverage which says, “Hey, no big deal, small numbers, small risk” and they ignored me. My mom went to a casino which is a germ breeding ground on the best of days, and my grandma went to church, the store, and the doctor this week.

Hopefully I’m being alarmist about the current situation and the people I love will be fine.

But there has to be a way to provide news in an objective fashion while still applying critical thinking. Not just, “Hey, we’re being told this” but “Hey, we’re being told this and here’s the context in which that information should be evaluated.” Because far too many people in this country just listen to the news that airs at four on the local television station or just read the headlines of their chosen news site without engaging with that content and applying outside knowledge to it.

Anyway. It’s frustrating.