A pandemic is not a game: Facts, stats and COVID-19

A personal observation. When you’re a sportswriter and you begin writing on a news topic, such as COVID-19, you know it is a fundamentally different enterprise from writing sports. And yet, and maybe because my audience is primarily a sports audience, many readers I encounter still treat it as a sport – which is understandable — and if I’m not careful, I begin to cover it like a sport.

Statistics, especially when they’re accurate, are tools. Data can be power. It can hold the key to solve some problems or to better understand others. And data is easily presented.

It is also easy to interpret, in a variety of different ways.

When I first started to try to provide information on the coronavirus threat, I would post via social media the latest daily statistics: worldwide confirmed cases, local confirmed cases, etc. But I soon learned these statistics for some were merely a jumping-off point for argument and debate. Now, debate is a valued part of the American way of life, and this nation was born out of vigorous debate.

But on social media, people were coming at me wanting to argue about COVID-19 mortality rate as if it were field-goal percentage. The difference, of course, being that one-tenth of 1% doesn’t represent missed shots but thousands of lives. This is not a game.

The term “horse race” is often used to talk about election coverage, and it is a frequent criticism of campaign coverage. It’s a whole lot easier – and more profitable, sometimes – to cover an election in terms of who is winning and losing, gaining or falling back, instead of in terms of the issues that shape it and that face the country. And, when your data is off – as it was during the 2016 presidential election – you wind up basing most of your coverage on a statistical narrative that was, in essence, fiction.

I’ve always told young journalists: If you can cover horse racing well, you can cover just about anything. There are winners and losers, financial issues, matters of ethics and law, human interest and a lot of horse’s backsides. (I don’t say “backsides,” but you get the point.)

But a pandemic is not a horse race. And the response to this one is extremely complex and will get more complicated, not less. It is compounded by another issue that most of us are not experts on: economics. The virtual shutting down of the American economy has already created a tension between those who see this outbreak as primarily a public health problem and those who see it as primarily an economic problem.

And those tensions are starting to bubble to the surface even before the expected surge of coronavirus infections begins to play out on the evening news programs.

The reality, of course, is that it is both.

And the problem, then, is that no matter what statistics you present, people assume you’re putting them out there to bolster an agenda or to counter whatever agenda they have. And they are used, regardless of what underlying truth they represent, as political weapons.

“Facts are stubborn things,” Mark Twain famously said. “Statistics are pliable.”

All of this is to say that I’ve become more restrained in my use of statistics. I won’t stop using them, but I’m more careful about them. Facts are more useful.

Beyond that, there’s limited value in debating them – at least right now. When the house is on fire, you don’t stop to argue which hose is the most effective. You turn on the water and spray. We’ll have plenty of time, years, to argue about the response to this crisis, when we can have perspective on the loss, and consider whether the cost was worth it.

For now, the fires have to be put out. I would just urge people to remember that both fires – the health care and the provision of basic livelihood for all – are quite complex and both quite essential to this country.

I’d also caution that every statistic is a snapshot. It is a picture of what we know, at that very moment. And with enough of those, we can see what has happened and begin to make assumptions about what might happen. But those statistics are not perfect predictors of tomorrow or next week. If statistics were a perfect or even accurate predictor of what was going to happen, I could take Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings, fill out my perfect NCAA Tournament bracket and move on.

Every day, it’s important to remember what we don’t know, that the data is incomplete. It’s a guide, but not a map. Nor can every Tweet contain every qualifier on every number. You assume when you post things that everyone knows that testing in this country has been limited, etc.

A small number of deaths from COVID-19 today doesn’t mean the number will remain small, nor does exponential growth for a week mean that the virus will grow exponentially indefinitely. We know it won’t.

The challenge for me is to not be distracted by debates over a snapshot. My goal is to try to present an overview in this space. Snapshots are useful sometimes, and insightful, especially when they come from someone on the ground who is seeing what is going on.

In the absence of sports, I just want to try to make sure not to treat this national crisis into a substitute spectator sport.

I listened to a web seminar with a bunch of journalism leaders Monday, and one editor said she had a daily reminder for her staff that they are not doctors. That’s been a daily reminder for me, too. In fact, I wrote it out and taped it to my laptop when this started.

Just a few other thoughts:

1). NEW YORK HAS BECOME an epicenter of COVID-19, with 6% of the world’s confirmed cases, and it’s a heartbreaking thing to watch. It was probably inevitable, given the amount of international traffic is in and out of its airports, and the population density there.

Medical leaders in the city are saying that its ICU beds could be at capacity by the end of the week. By Monday or early next week, doctors could be deciding who gets treated and who does not. It’s a difficult scenario to imagine, in the United States, in 2020.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had discouraging news Tuesday morning. The rate of increase in New York has risen – which is to be expected, in one sense, because the rate of testing has increased. But it is still a concern, because projections that initially suggested New York would need 110,000 hospital beds with the virus at its peak now are saying that the state will need 140,000 beds, nearly triple its usual 53,000 capacity.

“One of the forecasters said to me, we were looking at a freight train coming across the country, we’re now looking at a bullet train, because the numbers are going up that quickly,” Cuomo told reporters Monday morning. “…The inescapable conclusion is that the rate of infection is going up, it is spiking, the apex is higher than we thought, and the apex is sooner than we thought. That is a bad combination of facts.”

I relate this to you for a couple of reasons. First, this circumstance is one that, I’m going to admit, I could not have imagined a month ago. That doesn’t make it any easier to hear about the deaths, a 36-year-old principal from Brooklyn or a former college basketball player from St. John’s.

Second, the reason I share information from New York is because it is the first to experience this, and its experience is instructive.

Near the end of his comments with the media on Monday, Cuomo issued what amounted to a statement to the rest of the nation.

“What is happening in New York is not a New York phenomenon,” he said. “People in New York don’t have a different immune system from other Americans. It’s not higher in New York because we are New Yorkers. It’s higher in New York because it started here first, because we have global travelers coming here first, because we have more density than most places. But you will see this in cities all across the country. And you will see this in suburban communities all across the country. We are just a test case. And that’s how the nation should look at it. Look at us today. Where we are today, you will be in three weeks or four or five or six. We are your future, and what we do here, will chart the course for what we do in your city and your community. I’m not asking you to help New York to help New York. I’m asking you to help yourselves. Let’s learn how to do it right. And let’s learn how to do it right here. And let’s learn how to act as one nation, and let’s learn how to do it here. If we learn the lesson here, we will save lives in your community. I promise you that.

2). HERE AT HOME, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer held a Facebook Town Hall on Tuesday morning to talk to residents about various coronavirus issues. About a week ago, Fischer put together an initiative he called One Louisville, pairing philanthropists and local businesses to raise money for community needs during the crisis. That fund has already reached nearly $5.6 million.

Now, he is opening it to the community if there are those who are able to give and want to contribute to the fund. Money is available for individuals, families and social services aimed at assisting people during this crisis.

You can read more about it and learn how to give or apply for funds by clicking here.

3). END ON A HIGH NOTE. The Declaration of Independence expressed, in as complete a way as was possible for the Second Continental Congress, through the genius of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and others, the founding principles of the nation that we would grow into today.

They saw as universal the right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. These were those rights that governments were bound to protect.

Nothing went into that document without a great deal of thought and discussion. I’d suggest that the order of those founding rights is important, in the midst of a debate between public health and economic security. Both are absolutely essential. But if you’re looking for an order to go with, an American government would do well to listen to Jefferson, Adams and Franklin and the like.

And regardless of what the government does, let all of us look out for each other, and realize that if ever there were a time to be understanding, polite and gracious, this is such a time.

We’re all going to fail at that from time to time. But let’s keep trying, and we’ll get through. Stay healthy.