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The Omicron Wave Has Caused the Media to Rethink Which Statistics to Report | Know More!


Coronavirus case numbers and hospitalizations have been extensively used barometers of the pandemic’s progress throughout the world for the past two years.

However, the omicron wave is causing havoc with traditional statistics, pushing news companies to reconsider how they convey such data.

“It’s really a data disaster,” said Katherine Wu, a staff writer for The Atlantic magazine who follows COVID-19.

The number of cases increased dramatically over the holidays, which was to be expected given the appearance of a more transmissible version than its predecessors.

However, these figures only represent what health officials have recorded. They exclude the majority of those who do self-tests at home or who are infected without realizing it. There are sometimes gaps in reported instances over holidays and weekends.

Case counts would very certainly be far higher if you could sum all those numbers up — which you can’t.

As a result, The Associated Press has advised its editors and writers to avoid stressing case figures in illness coverage. That implies there will be no more articles about a certain country or state setting a one-day record for the number of instances, for example, because the claim has become untrustworthy.

Official case counts have been used with greater care in the media.

On Monday, an NBC News piece regarding the rising number of COVID cases used a one-week average of case counts. A “tidal surge” of instances as described in a Tuesday report.

The case figures CNN displayed onscreen during its broadcast of a Senate hearing with health experts on Tuesday were two-week averages. MSNBC based its findings on a number of factors, including a list of the five states with the highest reported numbers in the previous three days.

The Washington Post’s “Guide to the Pandemic” utilized a seven-day average of cases and compared it to last Tuesday’s, revealing a 56 percent spike. In an online chat, the New York Times utilized a daily count but also showed a two-week trend in both cases and fatalities.

“Omicron surge drives countrywide breakdown of services,” wrote Jennifer Sinco Kelleher and Terry Tang for the Associated Press on Saturday, citing figures from around the country on hospitalization rates and staff calling in sick. There was no usage of the case count metric.


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“We certainly wanted folks to go a bit deeper and be a little more detailed in their reporting,” said Josh Hoffner, an AP news editor who oversees the viral coverage.

During the omicron spike, many news organizations are arguing how to effectively use statistics, according to Wu. However, there are no simple solutions.

Wu explained, “It’s how journalism works.” “We require the information. Readers will need to see receipts. But I make an effort to do it wisely.”

Some believe that hospitalization and mortality rates provide a more accurate picture of COVID-19’s present impact on society. Yet, in recent days, even the utility of those figures has been questioned. Hospitalizations are often unintended: patients are hospitalized for other reasons and are astonished to learn they have COVID, according to Tanya Lewis, Scientific American’s senior editor for health and medicine.

Despite their flaws, case counts should not be overlooked, according to Gary Schwitzer, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and owner of HealthNewsReview.org, which tracks health coverage in the media.

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The figures show patterns, indicating which parts of the country are being struck the most or where the spike may have crested, he added. They may foresee bigger social effects, such as where hospitals will be overburdened or where workforce shortages will occur.

“If just hospitalizations and fatalities are highlighted, these are tales that may not be portrayed sufficiently,” Schwitzer said.

This is also an issue underlined in the AP’s internal instructions.

“They are valuable,” Hoffner stated. “We don’t want people to stop talking about case counts.”

Some in public health and media feel that the current uptick, as terrible as it is, may herald positive news. According to David Leonhardt and Ashley Wu of The New York Times, it might be an indication that COVID-19 is on its way to becoming an endemic illness that people learn to live with rather than a disruptive pandemic.

But, if the previous two years have taught us anything, it’s that forecasts may be dangerous, according to Lewis.

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“We’ve been astonished several times,” she explained. “We don’t know all about the pandemic’s progression.” We must remain modest and have an open mind about where things are headed.”

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