News: Quick Takes

Governor, health experts dealing in fear, confusing messages, researcher says

Gov. Roy Cooper looks on during an April 30, 2020 press conference with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. (Government file photo)
Gov. Roy Cooper looks on during an April 30, 2020 press conference with N.C. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen. (Government file photo)

COVID-19 is a deadly virus. That’s indisputable.

But information from state health experts and the governor are fraught with mixed messages and questions, which leaves people mostly confused and often afraid, one researcher says.

A big problem is that, speaking for North Carolina, that information comes from a two-headed source, that being Gov. Roy Cooper and Dr. Mandy Cohen, state health department secretary.

The media swallows it whole, even though it’s replete with gaps and contradictions, says Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation. Sanders has published a series of blogs focusing on what he calls “a misleading use of data.”

He writes: “[Cooper and Cohen] have especially made use of reported new cases of the virus to keep the public alarmed that the virus is getting worse and that Cooper’s increasingly stringent mitigation measures are ever needed. Politically, it’s working. That doesn’t make it right.”

The rise in hospital cases can be directly attributed to an increase in testing, Sanders says. Reporting on COVID-19 is enmeshed in fear and politics. Hospitalizations, as a percentage of active cases, Sanders writes, has flatlined. As have the proportion of positive tests.

“There’s a steady rise in hospitalizations now, and we’re supposed to think it’s a bad thing,” Sanders tells Carolina Journal. “What people aren’t told is that it’s so much related to how much testing we’re doing. It’s simply a matter that we’re testing more, and we’re finding more cases.”

The state reported more than 1,110 hospitalizations Tuesday, another “record.”

“Our record-high hospitalizations are not anywhere close to what health professionals and state policymakers feared back in March,” he writes. 

Inaction, officials said, could lead cases to spike into the hundreds of thousands.

New York, for instance, has taken credit for “flattening the curve,” which was the original goal. That curve, Sanders says, was precipitous in the first place.

North Carolina’s percentage of positive cases, with a small spike probably because of Memorial Day, is remarkably steady, he says, the seven-day average hovering around 7.5%. Early on, Sanders points out, the only people who got tests were people who were already sick. We really have no idea how many people were positive in, say, early April.

“There’s a tendency to act as if a case isn’t a case unless observed by testing,” Sanders says.

Further, deaths have steadily declined since early June, and, says health department data, 79% of people who died of COVID-19 were 65 or older.

John Barry, in an afterword from his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History — about the 1918 pandemic — writes about fear, spurred by the media and public officials.

In 1918, he writes, “the lies of officials and of the press never allowed the terror to condense into the concrete. The public could trust nothing and so they knew nothing.”

The hazy science and culture of fear permeates every level of government. Cooper and Cohen aren’t lying, necessarily, but they’re also not telling us the whole truth, Sanders says.

The final lesson of 1918, Barry writes, is simple yet one of the most difficult to execute. The lesson applies today.

Those who occupy positions of authority, Barry writes, “must lessen the panic that can alienate all within a society.”

Public trust is paramount.

“The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one. [Abraham] Lincoln said that first, and best.

“A leader,” Barry writes, “must make whatever horror exists concrete. Only then will people be able to break it apart.”