(Bloomberg Opinion) — One of the greatest outrages in the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the way the government has failed to offer the people useful, trustworthy information. That’s still true, even as President Donald Trump has restarted his daily Covid-19 briefings.
While some outlets have praised his more somber tone, the problem with the previous briefings was not a lack of pessimism and gloom.
The problem was that the president offered almost no usable information about the risks Americans faced, what was being done with our tax dollars to fight back, or an honest evaluation of the various efforts on the part of the pharmaceutical industry.
He has another chance now. But first, he should stop hogging the microphone. The new briefings have featured the president standing alone. What we need is not just more of Anthony Fauci, a bright spot from the earlier briefings, but a combination of other doctors and scientists selected for their work on specific topics — whether that’s vaccines, drug development, hospital capacity, epidemiology, virology or economics.
Trump should also provide data that’s meant to be useful rather than manipulative. We need a better real-time snapshot of what the virus is doing now.
At an online press conference Tuesday, epidemiologist Caitlin Rivers of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health said that no states are doing a good job of telling people anything about the new positive cases — where they live, what kinds of jobs they have, or how they were likely exposed. There’s rarely information about how long it takes to get test results back in different parts of the country, or whether there was any attempt to track down contacts of those who tested positive.
At the same event, former CDC director Tom Frieden noted that Covid-19 is not like AIDS, where people, once infected, remain infectious for life. There’s a window of time when people are most infectious — from a couple of days before they get symptoms to five or six days afterwards. If test results take too long, people have already transmitted the virus to most of the people they were ever going to transmit it to.
Too much data now focuses on cumulative cases. The Northeastern states hit hard early in the pandemic often still top the charts or appear dark red on maps even if infection rates there have now plunged.
Rates of change are also not informative on their own. If a state has two cases and one day it doubles to four, that’s a fast rate of increase; but it’s very different from a place that has 5,000 cases and doubles to 10,000 in the same period of time.
What we really need is some information on the likely number of active cases in our regions — what percent of the population of a city, or county, is likely to be infected or infectious right now? That’s the kind of information that should go into decisions such as reopening schools or restaurants, and the kind of “Covid weather report” people need to make their own wise decisions.
Of course, there’s more to national leadership than data. These new White House press briefings could bring people together by sharing specific goals — such as making sure no hospital gets overwhelmed, or setting some number of deaths we will try to stay below. The notion of getting the virus “under control” is too vague and too slippery.
Specific, science-based guidelines for good citizenship would help all of us make better choices. They may especially help motivate many younger, healthier people who face a relatively low risk of dying. Some have decided that any personal risk is outweighed by the benefit of human contact or a paycheck or both, but their behavior is helping to keep the pandemic going.
If the president wants to be uplifting and inspiring — or even just get better ratings — what better way than to showcase the country’s scientific talent, share useful information people are hungering for, and offer the kind of concrete guidance that has been so sorely lacking?
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.
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