The Media Today

A turning point in coverage of COVID data

February 23, 2022
Tents used for COVID-19 testing are viewed in the parking lot of a Quest Diagnostics facility during a new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Tampa, Fla. (Phelan M. Ebenhack via AP)

There’s important information down the toilet—and no, I’m not talking about sensitive documents from the Trump White House. Early this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its online COVID data tracker to include wastewater analyses from hundreds of communities across the US, information that can serve as an early indicator of increased viral spread, or the circulation of a new variant, given that people shed the virus via their feces without having to take and report a test result. (Wastewater data is also collective, obviating privacy issues inherent to other forms of medical-data reporting.) Wastewater experts who spoke with Apoorva Mandavilli, a reporter at the New York Times, were “understanding” of the fact that it took the CDC so long to publicly share data that it was, in some cases, already collecting. Not everyone shared that assessment, though. Robinson Meyer, a journalist at The Atlantic who co-founded the COVID Tracking Project to fill the gap left by official data shortages early in the pandemic, called the delayed publication “a scandal.”

It’s not just wastewater—as Mandavilli reported over the weekend, it turns out that the CDC “has published only a tiny fraction of the data it has collected” during the pandemic. The agency has tracked data breaking down hospitalization stats by age, race, and vaccination status for more than a year now but has mostly not published it; when officials shared data on the effectiveness of vaccine boosters recently, they left out the figures for a huge tranche of younger recipients until the Times inquired. CDC representatives told Mandavilli that the agency withholds data for a variety of reasons, from the numbers being “not yet ready for prime time” to the agency’s slow and cumbersome bureaucracy as well as a fear that the public might misinterpret certain trends, particularly where the hospitalization of vaccinated people is concerned. Jessica Malaty Rivera, who has also worked with the Tracking Project, slammed the latter rationale, in particular, noting that rather than reduce the risk of misinterpretation, “data vacuums” only heighten it. So, too, did Meyer, who called such attitudes not only “counterproductive” but “profoundly undemocratic.” The “approach has now persisted in the CDC across two presidents,” he noted. “It’s an issue with that agency—and with the overweeningly scholastic culture of public health in the US.”

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The availability of good, timely data has been a persistent challenge for the press throughout the pandemic, as I’ve explored many times in this newsletter. So, too, has knowing how best to relay the data that we do have to our audiences. The recent Omicron wave sharpened the challenge again by posing a different type of threat than prior variants: low for most individuals, especially the vaccinated, but sharp for many immunocompromised and unvaccinated people as well as at the collective level of US healthcare infrastructure, given the variant’s high transmissibility. Even before Omicron, some health officials and experts had urged news outlets to emphasize hospitalization and death rates more than case counts in their coverage, as mass vaccination frayed the previously close link between those numbers; as Omicron further frayed the link, those calls intensified. If Omicron cast fresh doubt on the usefulness of case counts, it also cast fresh doubt on their accuracy, as testing—which was not adequate to make US case counts fully reliable to begin with—became harder to access and many people neglected to report at-home results. The Associated Press, among other outlets, told staffers to be more cautious around case counts, and not to hype supposed new records by writing whole stories about them.

The usefulness of hospitalization data has also been challenged since Omicron hit, since it often doesn’t distinguish between patients admitted to hospital because of COVID and those admitted for other reasons who were found to also have COVID on arrival. Right-wing pundits, in particular, used this discrepancy to play down the severity of the Omicron wave, but the reality, predictably, was much messier than their caricatures; as I noted last month, the dichotomy here is, in some respects, a false one, since it’s often impossible to say whether COVID did or didn’t tip an otherwise sick person into needing hospital care, and even truly incidental cases can put strain on hospitals by taking up extra space and resources. Despite these difficulties, the Biden administration has since tried to separate the two types of patient in its official statistics, with Politico’s Erin Banco reporting that health officials are working with hospitals nationwide to “recalculate” admission stats as they increasingly undergird policy.

With confirmed COVID case and hospitalization rates both now in decline again, some states and localities are starting to report less data than before, or to report less frequently—mirroring steps that a few other states already took last summer, even as Delta cases began to skyrocket. From this weekend, Arizona will switch from daily to weekly reporting of COVID data, citing the decline of the Omicron wave as the right time to make the change; health officials told the Arizona Republic that less frequent reporting will help to iron out the fluctuations of daily data—better showing the longer-term trends that drive health policy while bringing COVID more in line with how the state tracks other infectious diseases. Utah said that it, too, will soon transition away from daily reporting, while also shutting down many of its existing testing sites. “This is not the end of COVID,” Spencer Cox, the state’s Republican governor, said. “But it is the beginning of treating COVID as we do other seasonal respiratory viruses.”

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These data changes, of course, come amid a broader recalibration of COVID measures—not just in the US, where even states led by Democrats have started to roll back their mask mandates, but also internationally; as of tomorrow, British residents with COVID will no longer be required by law to self-isolate, while the government will stop sending free home tests to most people from early April. (Brits have been able to obtain seven free tests each per day from the government, a fact that casts a harsh light on the US government’s comparatively meager provision of home tests and the liberal punditry that hailed it as a great success.) Residents of many countries are now in a messy moment, accelerated by Omicron, of trying to work out what “normal” looks like, how and when to get there, and who might get left behind—debates that are playing out in the media, as well as manifesting online and in people’s everyday behavior.

As the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Kasturi Pananjady noted last week, “daily COVID-19 data don’t provide clear answers” here; indeed, these questions, at this point, are as much social as anything else. Still, data remains an important guide—and our interpretation of data is, in itself, an important part of the broader debate. As the nature and spread of the virus change, it’s reasonable to interrogate how we report on the numbers that we have. It may well be that the newly available wastewater data, while not nationally comprehensive, comes to offer a more useful window into the state of the virus than confirmed case counts in a world where fewer people are testing and/or reporting their results, even if case trends continue to offer useful insight.

It’s also reasonable to debate how officials decide to go about collecting and reporting data at this point; there are better and worse reasons for diminishing the frequency of data dumps, for instance. Still, as I’ve written throughout the pandemic, the media has a clear interest in having access to as much data as possible, even if how we cover it will change over time. The pandemic is not yet over by a long shot, and even when we do reach the point where COVID is endemic, we will still need to keep track of it. As health officials establish principles for how to do this, the media will have a voice in the debate, and we should use it to push for transparency.

We should certainly use our voice to push back on officials who withhold COVID data on the basis that other people might misinterpret it. Rivera and Meyer are right to say that this is both anti-democratic and counterproductive. For all the obvious reasons, journalists should not let officials decide what information they and their readers are smart enough to understand; if officials are worried about misinterpretation, they should offer more information and context, not less. A great many pandemic-era failures have derived from health officials second-guessing how the public will receive a given measure, and doing so in a way that seems ignorant of our broader information ecosystem. Grifters will always find a pretext to misinterpret data when it serves their interests, and as Meyer points out, the withholding of data is an even greater gift to them. When I went on Twitter earlier to search for reactions to Mandavilli’s story, many of those I saw came from right-wing media personalities claiming that the CDC is hiding something. Talk about the sewer.

Below, more on the pandemic:

  • “Commit to transparency”: Writing for Nature yesterday, Edouard Mathieu of Our World in Data, a UK-based group that has worked to collate testing data on a country-by-country basis, called on international institutions to step up their data-reporting efforts rather than winding them down. “Data publishers—whether they are national governments, international organizations or online publications—should make a frank commitment to provide the public and researchers with transparent data on the pandemic until the World Health Organization (WHO) declares that it is over,” Mathieu writes, “and the WHO should coordinate this effort.”
  • “The absence of evidence”: Scientific American’s Tanya Lewis shares how covering COVID reshaped her approach to science journalism. “I have gained a deeper appreciation for scientific knowledge as a process, not merely an end result,” Lewis writes. “I have seen that it is not enough to simply follow the science—that skepticism of authority is warranted even when that authority comes from respected public health experts. And I have learned that science is always political—despite what many scientists like to think. These lessons have been won at a terrible expense. But failing to heed them could doom us to repeat this tragedy when the next pandemic comes.”
  • Against clickbait: A new study by Jiaxin Pei and David Jurgens, researchers at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, suggests that “journalists tend to temper—not exaggerate—scientific claims,” pushing back on caricatures about the media’s tendency toward clickbait. “I feel like when we talk about the potential of journalists exaggerating claims, it’s always these extreme cases,” Jurgens said. “We wanted to see if there was a difference when we lined up what the scientist said and what the journalist said for the same paper.” U-M’s Sarah Derouin has a write-up.
  • Back to the office?: Dow Jones, the parent company of the Wall Street Journal, has told staffers that it will not mandate that they return to the office starting next month, instead opting for a “hybrid and flexible” approach whereby managers will discuss arrangements with their individual teams. “We know that different teams have different needs—that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how and where we work,” bosses wrote in an email yesterday. Katie Robertson has more details for the Times.
  • A hiatus: Emily Atkin is taking a break from writing HEATED, her popular newsletter about the climate crisis. “When I started HEATED in the summer of 2019, I was an incredibly resilient person,” Atkin writes. “I had routines, activities, and communities outside of work that kept me energetic and strong, no matter what. Two years into this pandemic, I have lost a great deal of those things, and embarrassingly have not found a way to rebuild them. As a result, my mental health has deteriorated.” Atkin “absolutely intends for HEATED to return,” she writes. “I just need a bit of time for Emily to return.”

Other notable stories:

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.