Counting the dead- covid

Not for you if you dislike honest, factual reporting. mrossol

3/13/2021  WSJ  by Homan W Jenkins

New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey erred gravely by directing nursing homes to receive recovering Covid patients, but the bigger mistake was sending caregivers home rather than quarantining them between shifts. The workers—not the infected patients from hospitals—were the real (unwitting) channel for thousands of deaths thanks to Covid’s nasty capacity for asymptomatic spread.

This error was part of a larger one, trying to minimize Covid’s impact by controlling everyone’s behavior rather than pouring resources into protecting the most vulnerable.

 

Even the Albany think tank that did much to reveal New York’s nursing-home scandal, the Empire Center for Public Policy, doesn’t claim the March 25, 2020, directive contributed more than a single-digit percentage to the state’s 15,000 nursing-home deaths, never mind careless polemics in the media implying it caused all 15,000.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ignominy was earned the old-fashioned way, through the coverup. What’s more, someone insensitive to current minefields might notice that the sexual allegations started to be taken seriously only after he was blowing up. Some might even wonder if Mr. Cuomo’s heavy-handed way of letting women know of his sexual availability became ingrained because it didn’t always fail.

Judging from my emails, many readers sighed at coverage of America’s 500,000th Covid death, a tragedy unrelated to the Vietnam War, any number of jumbo jet crashes, or how many buses parked end to end would reach from Philadelphia to New York (a comparison cited by the Washington Post).

Far from the cable studios, happily, researchers are seeking a more serious understanding of the pandemic’s toll. One study finds that those who died of Covid-19 lost on average 9.3 years of life, equal to the remaining life expectancy of a 78-year-old.

The highest-cost deaths, it follows, were likely those not directly caused by the illness. In separate studies, U.S. government and Virginia Commonwealth University researchers say a third of “excess deaths” might fall into this category—delayed medical care, unemployment stress, substance abuse, suicide, depression, etc. One study looked at the effect of unemployment and predicted 30,231 additional deaths over a 12-month period.

 

What does this mean? Suppose half of these were unrecognized Covid deaths. Even so, the remaining half—accounting for 15% of excess deaths—would have to be no younger than 53 on average for fully one-third of the years lost in the pandemic to have been lost by somebody who didn’t die of Covid.

Lesson: The world is complicated. In Japan, Covid seems to have led to a decline in deaths overall, thanks to fewer respiratory infections due to social distancing (a Covid outcome foreshadowed in this column more than a year ago).

Mr. Cuomo is being undone by his own presidential ambition. He stacked his chips recklessly on his Covid response: The unscripted TV briefings. The on-air antics with his CNN brother. His quickie book proclaiming victory while his state’s ragged response was still unfolding. These all had the potential to blow up in his face and now have.

If Donald Trump hadn’t been president, Mr. Cuomo might already have been gone thanks to a 2018 bid-rigging-and-bribery scandal that engulfed two of his closest associates.

My one conversation with Mr. Cuomo took place 21 years ago when he was Bill Clinton’s housing and urban development secretary. He called to promote, in the sarcastic, overconfident, streetwise tone he affected, an initiative to pay public-housing residents to surrender their guns. I pointed out housing projects weren’t dangerous because people had guns, people had guns because housing projects were dangerous. Guess what—he dropped the tone for a moment and agreed.

Such moments are always welcome from public officials and now journalists might want to drop their own act. In a career that lasts 40 years, a reporter should expect a 158% chance of covering a pandemic as bad as 1968’s and a 39% chance of covering one as bad as 1918’s or 2020’s—i.e., he or she should be able to understand the emergence of a novel communicable disease on its own terms without resort to absurd analogies or hyperbolic death attributions as seen in some reporting on New York’s nursing-home disaster.

 

Unfortunately algorithm-based reporting is about 150 years older than Twitter or Facebook. If it bleeds, it leads. Play up the local angle. Exaggerate the importance of whatever is being reported. It feels good to feel bad—so accentuate the negative.

The bad news is that artificial intelligence can do these algorithms better than we can. To survive, we in the media might have to become what we’ve always pretended to be—factual and analytical.

Appeared in the March 13, 2021, print edition.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/cuomo-and-the-covid-death-count-11615590254?mod=hp_opin_pos_3

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