For two years, the number of coronavirus cases and the number of hospitalizations have been widely used as barometers of the spread of the pandemic around the world.
But the omicron wave is confusing conventional statistics, forcing news organizations to rethink how they report such numbers.
“This is just an information disaster,” said Catherine Wu, a staff writer who covers COVID-19 for The Atlantic.
During the holidays, the number of cases of the disease rose sharply, which is an expected development, given the emergence of a variant more infectious than its predecessors.
However, these estimates only reflect what the health authorities are reporting. This does not include most people who check themselves at home, or become infected without even knowing it. Holidays and weekends also lead to a backlog of reported cases.
If you could add all these numbers – and you can’t – the number of cases would probably be much higher.
For this reason, the Associated Press recently advised its editors and reporters not to highlight the number of cases in articles about the disease. This means, for example, that there will no longer be stories focusing solely on a particular country or state setting the one-day record for the number of cases because that claim has become unreliable.
The media have been more cautious about using official case counts.
An NBC News article on Monday about the skyrocketing COVID cases was based on an average weekly number of cases. The Tuesday article simply talked about the “tidal wave” of cases.
During Tuesday’s coverage of Senate hearings with health experts, the number of cases shown on screen by CNN was a two-week average. MSNBC used a variety of measurements, including a list of the top five states in the past three days.
On its Pandemic Travel Guide website, The Washington Post used a seven-day average of cases and compared that number to last Tuesday, showing an increase of 56%. The New York Times used a daily tally in an online chart, but also included a bi-weekly trend in both cases and deaths.
AP Jennifer Cinco Kelleher and Terry Tang’s Saturday article, entitled “Omicron Explosion Causes Nationwide Service Disruption,” was full of statistics from across the United States on hospital admission rates or employees calling patients from work. The case count metric was not used.
“We definitely wanted people to dig a little deeper and be more specific in their reporting,” said Josh Hoffner, a news editor who helps control virus coverage at AP.
Many news organizations are debating how to best use statistics now, during the omicron surge, Wu said. But there are no easy answers.
“This is how journalism works,” Wu said. “We need data. We need to show the receipts to the readers. But I try to do it carefully. “
Some believe hospitalization and mortality rates are a more reliable picture of the current impact of COVID-19 on society. However, in recent days, even the usefulness of these numbers has been questioned. In many cases, hospitalizations are accidental: there are people who are hospitalized for other reasons and are surprised to find they have tested positive for COVID, said Tanya Lewis, senior editor for health and medicine at Scientific American.
While imperfect, case counting should not be ignored, said Gary Schwitzer, an instructor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and publisher HealthNewsReview.org, which monitors health media coverage.
The numbers illustrate trends, he said, by giving an idea of which areas of the country were hit the hardest or where the surge may have peaked. They can predict broader social consequences, such as when hospitals are about to shut down or where there will be a shortage of workers.
“These are stories that cannot be adequately told if we focus only on hospitalizations and deaths,” Schwitzer said.
This point is also highlighted in the internal AP manual.
“They really have value,” Hoffner said. “We don’t want people to exclude the mention of case counting.”
Some in public health and journalism believe the current surge – painful as it may be – could bode well for good news. This could be a sign that COVID-19 is heading towards becoming an endemic disease that people are learning to live with, not a devastating pandemic, David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu wrote in The New York Times.
But if the past two years have taught anything, it’s the dangers of prediction, 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 open-minded about where things are going. “