A lot of people have a lot of questions related to COVID-19. I shared a version of this note with friends and family, and some of them asked me to put it somewhere that would make it easier to share. I don’t have all the answers. But I can provide some basic background, and offer suggestions for places you can turn for additional information as we move forward. I’ll also provide what resources I can find that are relevant for both reporters and anyone interested in being a savvy consumer of news.
If anyone is wondering why the U.S. does not have more tests available for COVID-19, the answer has two parts.
First, the CDC decided to make its own test. And it screwed up. Badly. That postponed access to the tests by weeks. And there are still questions about its veracity.
Second, there is now a supply chain problem for test manufacturing — meaning that there appears to be insufficient supply of the reagents necessary for testing. No reagents, no tests.
That does not mean tests are not available – more are becoming available now (which means the number of cases will likely jump soon). But it does mean that we don’t have as many tests available as we’d like at this point.
Why Has the Response Been So Disjointed in the U.S.?
Everything mentioned above comes in addition to the fact that the head of the CDC has a checkered history in public health (to put it mildly). That the people charged with pandemic response were fired by the Trump administration in 2018 – and not replaced. And that the administration has consistently downplayed the threat of COVID-19.
What Can I Do?
So, what to do? There is a lot of ground in between “Panic!” and “This is no big deal.” With that in mind:
- Stay calm – or at least as calm as you can. It is completely normal to be worried or scared. But making thoughtful decisions is the best way to protect yourself and others.
- Be informed. Look to reliable sources of information. The World Health Organization is doing a good job of providing accurate updates and answering people’s questions. Many news organizations are also providing good, scientifically accurate information. The New York Times, Washington Post, Nature, and National Geographic are all doing good work here, as is Factcheck.org. You may also want to check out the work from the health team at Lifehacker. They have strong editing and often tackle questions that other outlets either do not address or that other outlets roll into larger stories. The National Association of Science Writers and The Open Notebook have also published a great overview of things that reporters should think about when covering COVID-19. This is also a valuable read for anyone who wants to be a critical news consumer.
- Take precautions to protect yourself – and to protect people around you who may be more vulnerable than you are. Yes, that includes washing your hands with soapy water for AT LEAST 20 seconds (this is important). Yes, that includes trying to keep 6 feet of distance between yourself and others, particularly if they are coughing or sneezing. Yes, that includes trying not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth, so that you don’t inadvertently introduce virus into your bloodstream if you touched something that was contaminated. Lastly, hand sanitizer is not as effective against COVID-19 as washing your hands, but it is better than nothing. If you are using hand sanitizer, make sure that it contains at least 60% alcohol. COVID-19 is not the flu. Comparisons are tough to make, yet I have heard many people argue that COVID-19 is no big deal by comparing occurrence and morbidity numbers to the flu. There is a lot we do not know about COVID-19, and downplaying the risks it poses would be a huge gamble.
- Don’t be a jerk. If you’re sick, stay home. Don’t blow this off if you are young and healthy and present a low risk of serious illness. Other people don’t have that choice. That includes older adults, people with immune deficiencies, people on chemotherapy, and infants. Not everyone has the wherewithal to stay home when sick – some people can’t afford to take sick leave and don’t have the resources to access medical services. If you *are* in a position to do those things, please make good choices.
Note: Thanks to Stephani Page for pointing me toward many of these resources.