Two Minute Tips

We still don’t understand the covid-19 numbers

June 4, 2020

Share this article:

Credit: Pixabay user Queven

It’s been, what, five months since the early news of Covid-19 spreading? Numbers are at the heart of explaining it all, whether enumerating people infected, deaths, or economic and social impacts.

But despite heaven knows how many thousands of stories out, so many of the numbers are tentative, if not outright rocky. Too many reporters are taking down what they hear and read and not questioning the information. Even with actual experts are the source, it’s vital to step back and add enough context so people recognize what is actually known and what isn’t. ‘

Look at the reported cases and deaths, whether coming from an agency like the World Health Organization or an official public health source within a given country. Too many things are up in the air.

For months, publications had passed along the daily WHO counts. And yet, when I emailed the organization at one point, a spokesperson said that the fatality rate was “crudely calculated” because of so much uncertainty.

That uncertainty came from multiple sources. One was the nature of WHO reporting. The organization depends on numbers it gets from individual countries. There is no independent verification. If a government decides to spin what it admits to, or if reporting methodologies in a nation are flawed, the data will be bad.

And the methodologies are bound to be flawed. For example, there had been limited testing in the U.S. That suggests two things. One, we don’t know the real extent of cases because people, even those who presented likely symptoms, often couldn’t get tested. Increase the number of overall cases, and the fatality rate, which is the number of deaths divided by the number of cases, would drop.

However, it also seems likely that there have been legions of deaths of people who had never been tested and for whom the cause of death would likely have been wrongly attributed. That would increase the number of deaths, and the fatality rate as well. ‘

Those are absolutely basic numbers that we don’t yet know and likely won’t with accuracy for some time.

Then we must recognize that overall national numbers are averages that don’t tell an accurate story. The number of cases and fatality rate in New York City will be significantly different than a smaller city that hasn’t seem to have been heavily infected yet. It’s not enough to quote the national averages, which could be understated or overstated for any more specific region.

To discuss impact on health, the health system, and the labor force, looking at deaths also isn’t enough. Longer-term health effects will have an impact and are only now being revealed. One example, an acquaintance of mine came down with a serious though not obviously critical case of Covid-19. Then the person learned afterward about a heart condition that developed and needed a pacemaker.

We don’t know how likely a new wave of the disease might break out or where and when it would appear. Dependent on where in the country it happened, different industries might be more heavily affected.

We don’t even know the real extent of the unemployment impact, as the surveys, following their usual timetables, have happened too early in months to give an accurate read, given the rapid increase in people losing their jobs.

We all want to be accurate. Unfortunately, when the information is cloudy or doesn’t exist, it’s necessary to be transparent about that fact, even if the process makes a story more complicated to explain.

More Like This...

Is telehealth here to stay?

Telehealth surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, bringing the experience of virtual doctor’s visits to scores of people who’d never had – or even wanted – to Zoom with their medical

Two Minute Tips

Sign up now.
Get one Tuesday.

Every Tuesday we send out a quick-read email with tips for business journalism.

Subscribers also get access to the Tip archive.

Get Two Minute Tips For Business Journalism Delivered To Your Email Every Tuesday

Two Minute Tips

Every Tuesday we send out a quick-read email with tips for business journalism. Sign up now and get one Tuesday.

Our New Look
The Reynolds Center for Business Journalism is starting 2023 with a new look that we hope better illustrates our core mission to provide accurate and authoritative resources about business journalism, in order to help both reporters and news consumers understand the importance of business news and to demystify the sometimes arcane topics it covers.
Businesses, markets, and economies move in cycles – ups and downs – which is why our new logo contains a “candlestick” chart representing increases as well as downturns, and serves as a reminder that volatility is an unavoidable attribute of modern life. But it’s also possible to prepare for volatility by being well informed, and informing the general public to help level the information playing field is the primary goal of business journalism. The Reynolds Center is committed to supporting that goal, which is why the candlestick pattern in our logo merges directly into the name of our founding sponsor, Donald W. Reynolds.
Our new logo comes with a shorter name. Business is borderless, and understanding the global links in supply chains, trade, and flows of funds and people is essential to make sense of our fast-paced, globalized world. So we’re dropping the word “National” from our name and will aim to provide content that is applicable to business news globally.
We hope you like the new look. Best wishes for 2023!