For months, we’ve noted mixed messaging about coronavirus, leaving the public confused, attempting to chart a course. It's terrible for confusion to reign when life and death are involved. Yet even the statistics seem muddy.
Hospitalizations and fatalities in 18 states are increasing. And reports say a White House model predicts 200,000 dead Americans by October 1. More than 2 million of our fellow citizens have been infected, and in excess of 116,000 Americans have died.
Before the pandemic was termed a pandemic, healthcare communicators told PR pros to avoid giving customers and employees information about the virus. Instead, they urged PR pros to send them to trusted medical sources, such as the CDC and the WHO. Now those bodies seem discredited. The White House Coronavirus Task Force is MIA, as well. Dr. Anthony Fauci hasn't spoken to the president in two weeks.
Filling the gap are television doctors. One is Sanjay Gupta. Last night on CNN, the network’s chief medical correspondent said, "Sadly, I think this 200,000 number may be an under-prediction."
Gupta is distressed that the country’s reopening is uneven. Some people and businesses are social distancing and wearing masks, others are not. The White House guidelines for reopening America urge both. Yet yesterday's Rose Garden ceremony featured the president, the VP, numerous cabinet members and dignitaries. None wore masks or were socially distant. They've all been tested, right?
Glass Half Full?
We, the confused public, also hear reports that things are improving in these United States. For example, VP Mike Pence gave a positive report Friday. "We're seeing a steady decline in hospitalizations and most importantly, a steady decline in fatalities," the VP said on CNN. America is "safely reopening," he added.
Hold on. How could cases be rising in 18 states, and at the same time things are improving? The answer, we’re told by the White House, is that when you test more, which the U.S. is, you’ll find more cases.
Pence held steady on that message yesterday. On a phone call, he urged governors to tell the public more testing means more virus cases. "Make sure and continue to explain to your citizens the magnitude of increase in testing,” he said on a call, according to The New York Times, who obtained audio of the call.
Or Half Empty?
Pence, per The Times, continued, “And that in most of the cases where we are seeing some marginal rise in number, that’s more a result of the extraordinary work you’re doing…But also encourage people with the news that we are safely reopening the country...hospitalization rates may be going up. But according to our most current information, hospitalizations for coronavirus are going down across the country.”
Indeed, 22 states are seeing declines in newly reported cases from week to week. This includes former hot spots like New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Maryland. So, 18 states are up, and 22 are reporting declining rates. What about the other 10 states?
What we need, of course, is a data-savvy PR pro, or perhaps two, to run the numbers. Have one be a Democrat and the other a Republican. Have them work together (gosh, what a concept). Tell them their priority is to help a confused public. Like good PR pros, have them use jargon-less, clear language. Perhaps create an informative infographic. Their tasks would include telling us whether or not the rise in cases is commensurate with the increase in testing. And, come on, should we wear masks or not?
Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS. Follow him @skarenstein
This article is part of PRNEWS' ongoing COVID-19 coverage.