New York (CNN Business)A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
We’re coming out of one of the cruelest months in modern American history. And we don’t know what to expect in May. We all have to live with enormous amounts of uncertainty right now.
As Ed Yong — science writer for The Atlantic — wrote earlier this week, so much about the pandemic “is still maddeningly unclear. Why do some people get really sick, but others do not? Are the models too optimistic or too pessimistic? Exactly how transmissible and deadly is the virus? How many people have actually been infected? How long must social restrictions go on for? Why are so many questions still unanswered?”
We don’t know how many Americans have Covid-19 today or how many have had it and recovered. We don’t know the complete death toll, we just know the grim daily updates are incomplete. As the NYT wrote earlier this week, “there is evidence, in New York and other places, that the official coronavirus counts are probably too low.”
CNN climate change analyst and National Geographic explorer John D. Sutter is out with a new piece about “the problem with the Covid-19 death numbers.” He explains the methodology of “excess death” estimates and says early research suggests “the pandemic has been far worse than reported.”
“Really important point here,” S. Mitra Kalita said while sharing Sutter’s piece. “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Even the official toll, 62,000 deaths and rising, is nauseating. So is President Trump’s claim that “our death totals, our numbers, per million people, are really very, very strong. We’re very proud of the job we’ve done.” At this point, everyone knows what they think of the president and his handling of the crisis. But there are many more unknowns…
“Millions are uncounted”
It’s unclear if everyone who is facing unemployment has been able to file their claims. An unknown number of workers in the so-called “underground economy” aren’t even able to apply. So the true unemployment picture isn’t in focus. The NYT’s Page One headline on Friday morning says, in all-caps, “JOB LOSSES SPIKE EVEN AS MILLIONS ARE UNCOUNTED.” And, as CNN’s Anneken Tappe wrote, “it’s uncertain how many more people will lose their jobs in the weeks to come…”
Covid-19 models: A “David vs. Goliath story”
STAT News journalist Sharon Begley and multimedia producer Hyacinth Empinado offered an updated and “staggering” visualization of the death toll in the United States on Thursday, and explained the limited options as far as figures: “As some models stumble, and many no longer even try to project more than a few weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has added models to those it highlights on its website. One stands out for the fact that it is not associated with a big-name institution. Produced by independent data scientist Youyang Gu, it has been tracking actual US cases and deaths better than many.” University of Washington Professor Carl Bergstrom tweeted about the success of Gu’s models, remarking, “It’s a nice David vs. Goliath story, in a way.”
These are the #’s that are driving decisions to re-open. By CNN’s count, at least 31 states will partially reopen over the next few days. One of the biggest unknowns is: Will consumers come back?
DIY: Newsrooms are building independent databases
The NYT has its own database of coronavirus cases in the US, “collecting information from federal, state and local officials around the clock.”
The Washington Post has a more specific database of virus cases in nursing homes. The Post notes that “state reporting of impacted nursing homes varies widely.”
Every effort helps paint a fuller picture. I highly recommend reading Yong’s full piece about the profound uncertainty of this pandemic. “If measuring the present is hard,” he wrote, “predicting the future is even harder.” Coping with uncertainty and expecting the unexpected are two keys to getting through this crisis…