Your daily dose of coronavirus media nonsense

From Microsoft News:

Rural towns that one month ago were unscathed are suddenly hot spots for the virus. It is rampaging through nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons, killing the medically vulnerable and the poor, and new outbreaks keep emerging in grocery stores, Walmarts or factories, an ominous harbinger of what a full reopening of the economy will bring.

Oh, brother.

It is perhaps a bit of an awkward position I find myself in, becoming so critical of the mainstream media’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in America. After all, it’s my industry, too — and journalists, like cops, are supposed to stick together, right? As well, I have been accused of fearmongering myself (though I have also been accused of not sounding the alarm bells loudly enough; I take those polar-opposite responses as confirmation that my reporting is right down the middle — which is exactly where it should be). And, certainly not least, I defended the media early on. I even sang the praises of the New York Times.

But, early on, the media — the NYT not withstanding — was doing a bang-up job. Partisanship had been set aside and journalists were simply telling the story of how the coronavirus was breaking out in the U.S., how European countries were dealing with an outbreak that was far ahead of ours, and how things were beginning to wane in Wuhan.

Somewhere along the way, as this pandemic has dragged on (are we really just in the ninth week here in small-town USA? It feels like so much longer …), the increasingly-partisan mainstream media abandoned its newfound desire to move into the realm of nonpartisan journalism and returned to the finger-pointing and the blame-laying and the politics as usual.

I wrote earlier of my absolute disgust with an Associated Press story that took aim at President Donald Trump. (Lest anyone think that all journalists truly do stick together and that I truly am out on a limb by myself here, I’ve heard from more than one of my peers in the industry since then who agrees whole-heartedly with the AP’s shameless approach.)

Now comes this story from MSN, which might seem fairly innocuous at first. But let’s stop and re-examine that statement.

“It is rampaging through nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons, killing the medically vulnerable and the poor…”

Is it? Is it really?

I feel compelled to pause to point out that, yes, Covid-19 is lethal in some people. It is deadlier than seasonal flu. I say that because some of my conservative friends are crowing that the virus was much ado about nothing — when, in reality, if someone had told them back on March 15 that the coronavirus would kill 70,000 people in America in the next 8 weeks, they would’ve been extremely alarmed. But because it hasn’t yet affected them or anyone they know, it’s easy to view it as just another minor, seasonal illness — like the flu.

No one knows how many people will ultimately die of coronavirus in the U.S., but at this point it’s quite certain that the much-ballyhooed (and much-criticized) University of Washington model that predicted as many as 100,000 dead is going to come up short — maybe way short.

But those things should be enough to stand on their own merit, without statements like the one made by MSN, which comes across as a whole lot of unnecessary hyperbole.

Yes, there have been coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons. And, yes, it has killed thousands of people in nursing homes across America; as many as 1 in 5 Covid-19 deaths in the U.S. are being linked to nursing homes, and experts say it’s probably more than that.

But is this virus really “rampaging through nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons, killing the medically vulnerable and the poor?”

First of all, where is a single shred of evidence that the coronavirus is killing the poor at disproportionate numbers? To the extent that inner-city areas of larger metropolitans have been hardest-hit thus far because they’re more densely populated than suburban communities, and to the extent that inner-city residents are typically poorer than their suburban counterparts, that might be true. And to the extent that poorer people don’t necessarily have the same opportunities to shelter-in-place because many of them work in the notoriously underpaid service industry, that might be true. But there are plenty of middle-class Americans (nurses, firefighters and police officers) who are on the front line of the fight against Covid-19, and there are even wealthy Americans (doctors) who are on the front line of the fight.

Besides, the article says that the medically vulnerable and the poor are being wiped out as the virus rampages through nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons. There are no social class structures within those confines — certainly not within nursing homes and prisons. When the virus gets into either of those places, it doesn’t particularly care what you were on the outside. You’re just as much at risk as the person who bunks closest to you — who might very well have come from a background very much opposite your own.

And despite the fact that the virus poses a particularly significant threat in nursing homes, it hasn’t done very much “rampaging” even inside those facilities where the highest-risk of the highest-risk — the elderly and the chronically ill — reside.

Consider this: In Tennessee, the state with the most easily-accessed data for me, there have been 666 infections confirmed in 42 different nursing homes. Of those cases, 60 have died. That’s 9%. And even if we assume some of those who have been infected are still battling the virus in a hospital setting and the death toll will go up, let’s be generous and say that it doubles (it almost certainly will not come anywhere close to doubling). Even still, that would be 18% — which would mean that better than 4 out of every 5 people infected with coronavirus in a nursing home in Tennessee will survive. As it stands, more than 9 out of every 10 people infected with coronavirus in a nursing home in Tennessee has survived.

When you consider that these people, the nursing home residents, are the most medically vulnerable among us, a 90% chance of survival makes for pretty doggone good odds.

For reasons we may never know, some geographical locations are enduring the coronavirus much better than others. Tennessee is one of those. We may never learn why the impact hasn’t been any worse than it has been in Tennessee, just as we may never learn why it was so severe in New York City. But even in Kentucky, which has been one of the relatively hard-hit states, at one time carrying the U.S.’s highest case fatality rate, there have been 1,159 cases in 78 different nursing homes, and 152 deaths. That’s 13% — meaning that more than 8 out of 10 of people who’ve been infected in nursing homes have survived.

Again, all things considered, a better than 85% chance of survival makes for pretty good odds.

Throughout the U.S., in state after state, you’ll find similar data.

As for prisons, the odds are even better — way, way better — than in nursing homes.

Again using Tennessee as an example, the state’s Dept. of Corrections — which oversees all of the state’s prisons — recently ordered every inmate tested at two facilities, one in Hartsville and one in Pikeville, both in Middle Tennessee, after outbreaks at those prisons. Between the two, they found almost 1,900 infected inmates and staff. Not only has there been only one inmate between the two who has died (that’s a death rate of 0.05%, and even though the statistics alone indicate there will be others, it’s going to be a tiny, miniscule percentage when all is said and done), but almost all of those infected are symptom-free — asymptomatic or at least presymptomatic at the time of testing. The Dept. of Corrections said on Thursday that 98% of the nearly 1,900 were asymptomatic.

So, again, how is Covid-19 “ravaging” nursing homes, meat-packing plants and prisons? It’s having an impact, to be sure. It’s hardly “ravaging” those places. And contrary to what is implied by the MSN article, there aren’t a lot of people dying, relatively, in those congregate locations.

Overall, we know that the coronavirus death rate is probably about 1%. That’s unfortunate; it’s a fatality rate that is about 10 times greater than seasonal flu. But it hardly justifies MSN’s headline: “An unrelenting crush of cases and deaths.”

An unrelenting crush of deaths. For a 1% death rate. As I said, pure hyperbole. Sure, there are a lot of states where the case fatality rate is currently quite a bit higher than 1%, but that’s only because those states aren’t conducting enough testing (no state is conducting enough testing, really). In Tennessee, which has one of the nation’s lowest case fatality rates, only 1.6% are dying … and we know that even that number is too high. Because as Tennessee tests more people, it finds that more people have the virus and don’t even know it. We know that coronavirus will cause mild symptoms in most people. But now we’re finding out, through wide-scale testing in prisons, homeless shelters, even nursing homes, that a startling number of people who have it won’t have symptoms at all.

That’s somewhat troubling, because it means that there’s a significant chance any of us could carry the virus to someone more vulnerable than ourselves without even knowing it. But it also means that the death rate is much lower than the nationwide case fatality rate of 6% — much, much lower.

There is a growing backlash to the coronavirus threat, and that’s unfortunate — because it’s still a threat, and more people are going to die. But the backlash is being fueled by mistrust in the reports that are being given, and how can you combat that mistrust when so much hyperbole is being employed by news outlets intent on making this a referendum on President Trump or Republican governors?

It’s unfortunate, because the media could’ve really used this pandemic to foster a better relationship with the people they are striving to serve. Americans are hungrier for information right now than they have been in a long time. And we, the media, are failing at what should be our focus — to provide it to them in a straight-forward and trustworthy manner.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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