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Top tips from health reporters and officials on covering COVID-19

In early March, we put together a panel at the 2020 NICAR Conference on how to cover the response to COVID-19. Although much has changed in the past month, there were some key takeaways from the panel that will ring true throughout the pandemic. 

Panelists Caroline Chen from ProPublica, Anna Barry-Jester from Kaiser Health News and Sarah Babcock from the New Orleans Health Department, offered four tips for how to cover the coronavirus outbreak.

1. Look at lab capacity when reporting on testing

From the beginning of this outbreak, the United States decided against using the World Health Organization’s test guidelines. Caroline Chen noticed the slow rollout of testing, and eventually realized that American tests weren’t working properly. 

“I had noted that it was taking New York City still a couple days to get answers to their tests. At that point, they were still coming back negative,” Chen said.

The tests were later found to be faulty. 

“That [decision to go with our own protocol] lost us a bunch of time,” she said. 

The lack of testing allowed the virus to spread in the United States undetected, exposing many people to the coronavirus without the knowledge of health departments. If you want to look into testing in your own area, Chen suggested looking at capacity. If a lab only has one technician and that person can only do X number of tests a day, how many tests can they realistically run?

2. Pull inspection reports to see if hospitals were prepared for the outbreak

The United States, by many metrics, was underprepared for the coronavirus outbreak. The Trump administration closed the White House pandemic office well before the COVID-19 outbreak began, stunting the federal government’s ability to respond. But Sarah Babcock of the New Orleans Health Department said local and regional health agencies are ready for this kind of outbreak.

“We have infectious disease outbreaks every single day around the country. And so our response to COVID-19 is the same as a child with measles, just at a larger scale,” Babcock said. 

The local health department is notified if an odd number of people start showing up in the hospital system, and it knows which symptoms are cropping up often in the community, Babcock said.

“Almost every [health department] is already going to have a flu pandemic or infectious disease outbreak plan on the shelf ready to go,” she said. 

Hospitals were preparing for the crisis to hit the U.S., and Chen said you can pull past inspection reports to see whether they were adequately prepared. 

“There is a specific citation that can be given by [Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services] inspectors or federal government inspectors, that the tag is infection control specifically,” she said. 

You can ask experts to look at those tags and tell you whether the hospital is following proper protocols to protect health care workers and whether they’ve had recent training on personal protective equipment.

Reporters should keep an eye on local nursing homes for signs of the outbreak, Anna Barry-Jester said. One Washington nursing home was linked to 34 coronavirus deaths

Kaiser Health News has a tool available to look at infection records in nursing homes across the U.S. Using the tool, you can quickly find the number of times homes in your city or state have been cited for infection control violations since 2017.

3. Be careful with statistics

Because testing is so limited, it’s hard to know what the actual fatality rates are for COVID-19. 

“Not every person that has coronavirus is ever going to get tested,” Babcock said. “And there's never going to be a time where anyone who wants a coronavirus test can get a coronavirus test.” 

The expected fatality rate has fluctuated significantly across time and location. In South Korea, which has expansive testing and a relatively mild rate of infection, death rates have remained much lower: just 0.6 percent. Italy, meanwhile, has limited testing and an elderly population, so its death rate is nearly 8 percent.

Chen also cautions against predictive statistics for infections. While epidemiologists are creating great models for how many infections there might be in a given city in the next few months, writing headlines with those numbers could cause a panic. 

“People are just going to take that and run off in a panic,” Chen said. “So I just try not to do that. I think that's fear mongering.”

4. Health department officials can be the most reliable human sources

If you’re trying to find data about coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  and the World Health Organization are obvious go-tos. But Chen also recommends the Association of Public Health Laboratories. 

“They are very media friendly, and they're sort of aggregating information,” she said. 

You can also look into public health associations, both regionally and nationally, Barry-Jester said. The American Public Health Association is one option, and it has regional offices across the country. 

Johns Hopkins University has also put together a Coronavirus Resource Center that has updated information and stats. 

When it comes to human sources, Babcock cautioned against using your local doctor as a health expert. 

“They don't always have information that came out early that morning with the latest statistics or don't know the background that hasn't been released publicly yet,” she said. “The people who are going to know your most accurate and timely information are your health department officials.”

Babcock suggested interviewing public health officials, but said they’re often busy because of the outbreak. Instead of asking for individual interviews, she urged reporters to go to press conferences whenever they happen. 

“I would say it is 1,000 times easier to get a written statement or a phone call than it is an in-person interview,” Babcock said.

You can find the tipsheet from the NICAR20 session here

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