I’m always amused when I hear headlines like, “A tragic new record in the war against COVID19…”
I wonder if whoever wrote it understands the nature of a novel virus.
By definition, a novel virus is one that has not been previously identified. It’s new. Novel. Therefore, everything is technically a record. Yes, there may be milestones within the new data, but we get it. It’s big and scary. To breathlessly report the crossing of each new threshold of this novel virus feels superfluous and sensational at this point.
But, after 15 years writing titillating headlines and a dozen more writing press releases, I understand the power of superlatives. Biggest. Best. Worst. Deadliest. Totally destroyed (when “destroyed” is not enough). Most destructive. Any time you can use a superlative, you’re winning.
Besides, if the wire says it, you read it.
But the biggest problem I have with journalists reading the terrifying records COVID19 shatters every day, without scrutiny or verification, is the data used to calculate each alarming new figure.
Back in the day…
I’m sure I used to smirk when “old people” recounted “back in the day” stories of journalistic virtue; but now that I’m a used up old windbag with awards accumulating dust on my wall, I feel entitled.
Back in the day, when I saw on the wire or in press releases some terrifying record or justification of some questionable practice, a little voice triggered in my head: “Hmmm… I wonder how that compares to past years/epidemics,” or, “Is that any worse/better than other states/cities/diseases?” And I would commence to researching. Sometimes I would report that the figure truly was significant; but very often, I found it was intentionally misleading, so I broke from the pack and reported it in context.
I feel like viewers took notice. I once had a reporter from a competing station tell me he loved “going up against” me because, he said, it challenged him to be his best. He said I always had some tidbit no one else had, which made him dig deeper and search harder to try to beat me. I still believe there is more to every story, and I feel like it’s my duty to find it.
“COVID-19 shatters another record”
So, when I see another COVID record biting the dust, I break out the salt shaker. Some of the data requires more than just a grain for me to bite.
Recently, a friend who treats patients at a regional hospital somewhere in America said [I’m keeping it obscure for privacy purposes], “We’ve lost one patient who had COVID… 80-something with multiple underlying issues… injured by intubation… died from over oxygenation. We get $30,000 per COVID19 death, so guess how it got listed.”
The friend and everyone on staff knew COVID didn’t directly kill the patient, but for $30,000, she said the patient became part of the new and terrifying record of the day. It’s not like the hospital did anything wrong in its reporting. The CDC’s own guidance allows COVID linkage, “with or without laboratory confirmation.” But a positive test result certainly helps.
No wonder both my dad and my stepdad were tested for COVID in different emergency rooms in the same week, even though one suffered from the effects of advanced dementia and the other from Stage 4 cancer. Both have valiantly fought their respective terminal illness for well over a decade, but if they tested positive and succumbed in the hospital, COVID gets the credit, and the hospital makes bank. It almost feels like an affront to their battle.
Dead is not necessarily dead
In another example of questionable data, I wanted to know the real death rate from COVID19. Not the death rate being pushed by one side or the other, but a real, true, accurate death rate. You can tell me all day long about the number of cases skyrocketing, but when you increase testing, you’re obviously going to instead cases. Otherwise, what’s the point of testing? What really matters is whether people are dying.
As I’ve discussed in other blogs, online search engine results are biased, so I conduct my searches using certain terms that, hopefully, provide multiple perspectives. My goal was to find the overall death rate to determine if more Americans are dying period – of any cause, then use my Jethro Bodene cyphers to extrapolate what I could comfortably and reasonably attribute to COVID19. I figured, you can’t really fudge a total death rate. Either people are dead or they’re not. Right?
Apparently, I was not the first to use this approach, because I found multiple articles in about April, stating that the overall death rate in America was actually lower – not higher – than the average, even after weeks of COVID19 mania. A viral post from conservative personality Candace Owens cited CDC figures through April 20 which indicated a slight uptick in total deaths, but said the U.S. was not losing “tons more lives,” as she said media reports would indicate.
Almost immediately after those articles caught wind, the CDC sent out bulletins adding 60,000 deaths to its records, citing delayed reporting from states or some other yadayada.
I’m sure it was all totally legitimate, but in this day and age, when it benefits one side to underreport deaths and (bizarrely) benefits the other side if the angel of death is standing at all of our doors, it gives a budding conspiracy theorist pause…
I have fought the whole COVID conspiracy theory thing tooth and nail, believe me. But I recognize that when you incentivize a struggling industry to use a particular label, they’re going to slap that label on as many as things as they can. I would not be surprised to learn other industries are also incentivized to find COVID wherever they look.
Can you blame them for taking advantage? They’ve figured out a way to survive. What’s the down side?
The sunny optimist in me wants to believe it began as altruism – federal assistance to deal with a novel scourge. Because the sad reality is, most Americans can’t afford medical care; so, many of the people who show up in emergency rooms never pay their bills. And ERs were about to be flooded with patients who either feared they were infected, or who actually were infected. The medical industry would never have survived the onslaught without federal aid.
But altruism all too often turns dirty when people figure out how to exploit it.
It’s not like it’s a new phenomenon. Look at public schools scrambling for federal funds for illegal immigrants and kids who qualify for free meals. Look at the federal government’s 80 welfare programs that penalize marriage. Look at all the charitable organizations and foundations that have been busted for diverting or misusing funds. Look at all the America-backed programs in foreign nations that have enriched politicos and their masters but either devastated or failed to serve their intended recipients.
As I’ve said from the very beginning of the COVID saga, I have a hard time trusting the numbers we’re being fed. I’m not saying there’s some grand plan to control us. (I’m also not saying there’s not.) What I’m saying is that, when you incentivize anything, you risk skewing all data associated with that thing.
We may never know the true impact of COVID19, but here’s what we do know: Shock sells. So be sure to break out the salt the next time you learn of some stunning new COVID19 record.