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COVID-19 facts obscured by the politics of fear

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Fear messaging is at the heart of over-simplifying pandemic realities and, unfortunately, too many politicians and too much of the news media have latched onto this distorting, manipulative method to manage public expectations. New case numbers in hotspots are used to alarm us, despite an overall decline in the percentage of specimens testing positive for SARS-COV-2 since mid-July and a decrease in the number of visits to emergency departments for coronavirus-like Illness for the ninth consecutive week.

Instead of reporting any positive national trends, the media has continued to focus on bars, restaurants and schools, all whipping posts for the public face of fear. At the same time, the news has generally obscured the real heart of the COVID-19 destruction — specifically, poor neighborhoods, those without the resources or the opportunities to work from home or to escape to country houses, as well as the elderly population and those living in nursing homes.

Of the 200,000 deaths in the U.S. from COVID-19, more than 90 percent involve people over the age of 55, and yet, the media persists in its laser focus on the young, who have mostly mild or asymptomatic cases. In fact, more than 70,000 of the reported COVID-19 deaths nationwide to date have occurred among nursing homes or assisted living residents and staff. 

And these numbers are likely significant underestimates. New York, whose death toll in nursing homes is among the highest in the country, with close to 7,000 reported deaths, only counts residents who died on nursing home property and not those where were transported to hospitals and died there. 

There is no lack of coverage of the virus in bars, restaurants and schools, yet the collateral damage of the pandemic remains vastly underreported. Nineteen million Americans are out of work as a result, and food and housing insecurity has grown dramatically. 

Completely overlooked is the struggle for survival within the construction industry, for example. In early September, according to a report from the Associated General Contractors of America, 60 percent of firms report projects being cancelled or delayed. Workers fear COVID-19 and 52 percent of firms, according to the report, have had difficulty finding craft workers in part because of COVID-19 fears. 

Information might be used to calm fears but, instead, obfuscation fuels them. In California, for example, essential workplace outbreaks are not being consistently reported, leading to workplace closures. Napa County doesn’t collect data about coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces; Sonoma County won’t report these outbreaks, for fear of interfering with the county’s relationship with employers; Alameda County suppresses information about outbreaks to supposedly protect privacy and avoid undue stigma. 

Further warping the real numbers about who exactly is getting sick and dying of COVID-19, and why, is the inaccurate reporting and inflating of COVID-19 deaths. In fact, a new study from Oxford University found that as much as a third of all COVID-19 deaths in July and August (relying on data in the United Kingdom from the Office for National Statistics) were from other primary causes such as heart attacks or motor vehicle accidents, yet COVID-19 was listed on the death certificate. It is unclear whether such a distortion of the facts could be occurring in some instances in the U.S. as well.

Inconsistent messaging, skewed reporting and agenda-driven politics have stoked COVID-19 fears which have compounded and inflated the psychological and physical impact of the pandemic itself.

Marc Siegel, M.D., clinical professor of medicine and medical director of “Doctor Radio” at NYU Langone Health, is a Fox News medical correspondent and author of the new book “COVID: The Politics of Fear and the Power of Science.”

Tags Coronavirus

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