Thanks to the deluge of coronavirus news, it’s been an exhausting two months to be an infectious disease epidemiologist. Since we first heard of an outbreak of a new type of pneumonia in China last December, I’ve been trying to keep up with the constant developments, new stories, and research papers about the novel coronavirus. It all started as a trickle and is now a raging flood. This is both good and bad.
It’s good that research findings and reports of new cases are (generally) being shared rapidly around the globe. That’s essential for helping us to understand and, hopefully, tame this new illness. But it’s also bad because the legitimate news is all too often mixed in with conspiracy theories and fear-mongering analyses that can make it difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s really happening. How does one wade through the mess to find the helpful, accurate information and ignore the rest?
First, let’s back up a moment and examine why it’s important for the general public to pay attention to the coronavirus outbreak and have good information readily available. “At this point, it seems highly likely that the coronavirus will spread widely within the United States,” Carl Bergstrom, Ph.D., a professor of biology at the University of Washington and co-author of the forthcoming book Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, tells SELF. “If and when it does, we will all [need] to make choices about how to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe … To make good choices, we need good information.”
Personal decisions we make about our health, like deciding to stay home from work or school if we feel sick, will collectively shape the epidemic. “Until we develop drug treatments and a vaccine, our best way of minimizing the impact is through public health measures such as social distancing,” Bergstrom says. (Social distancing essentially means taking actions that reduce how much people interact with each other in person, thereby lowering the ease of infectious disease transmission.) “If we make poor individual choices, everyone suffers,” Bergstrom says. “Public health authorities offer guidance, but that is not effective if people do not trust them.”
So, that brings us to the all-important question: Who should we trust for coronavirus news?
In my last article about the very likely coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., I pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a key place to go for accurate, reliable coronavirus news. You may be wondering if that recommendation still stands in light of reports that government officials are now required to receive approval from Vice President Mike Pence, the lead administration official on the coronavirus response, before making public appearances related to the illness (or giving statements about it). Does this mean the CDC is no longer a trusted source? No, Marc Lipsitch, Ph.D. a professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the school’s Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, tells SELF. “I will continue to look to [the CDC] for authoritative statements” on the novel coronavirus, Lipsitch says. “I am fully confident that they will do their best under the political circumstances and will never lie or mislead.”
Tara Haelle, a freelance science and health journalist who has previously written for SELF and core topic leader for medical studies with the Association of Health Care Journalists, takes a similar position. “It’s unfortunate that messaging from the CDC is at risk of being politicized, and at the worst possible time,” she tells SELF. “I do worry that the agency will be prevented from saying things its experts feel is important to say. However, I do believe no one at the agency will say anything that is incorrect.”