Panelists advise journalists on how to vet specialists as COVID-19 sources

Bara Vaida

About Bara Vaida

Bara Vaida (@barav) is AHCJ's core topic leader on infectious diseases. An independent journalist, she has written extensively about health policy and infectious diseases. Her work has appeared in outlets that include the National Journal, Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg News, McClatchy News Service, MSNBC, NPR, Politico and The Washington Post.

Webcast Journalists racing to cover the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. should carefully vet sources they are quoting to minimize misinformation, two infectious disease experts a journalist told AHCJ members this week.

It’s particularly easy for broadcast and social media to inadvertently amplify the voices of people who may not be experts on COVID-19. That makes it harder for the public to decide how best to protect themselves and their families from contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-19.

“It is extremely important that we be careful with our sources,” Maryn McKenna, an independent journalist and author who has covered infectious disease outbreaks for two decades, warned during the March 10 webcast. “Unscrupulous people are jumping into this story to boost their profiles and [social media] followers, and some media outlets are giving them that platform.”

McKenna was joined on the webcast by Saskia Popescu, Ph.D., an infectious disease preventionist at HonorHealth in Phoenix and Angela Rasmussen, Ph.D., a virologist and assistant research professor at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

“Suddenly, everyone is becoming a COVID-19 expert and that can be misleading,” Popescu said. “I have seen people talking [in the media] about hospital preparedness who haven’t been in a hospital.”

To vet sources, McKenna advised journalists to first look at what research the individual has published to determine their expertise. Further, before quoting them, she also suggests examining the individual’s professional credentials to ensure their expertise is truly in infectious disease or public health emergency preparedness. In slides she provided for the webcast, she offers steps journalists can take to examine sources.

For an example of why it matters to quote someone with an infectious disease background, see this post by AHCJ’s Tara Haelle about a nutrition expert who became a widely quoted but misleading infectious disease source.

During the webcast, McKenna also provided advice on how to localize this story.

“We should assume this [outbreak] is or is about to be a local story for all of us, so we should be putting in place, whether you are a freelancer or in a newsroom, [the resources] to cover this as a local story,” she said.

McKenna also urged reporter NOT to call the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because their media reps and experts are now overwhelmed. Instead, reach out to local and state public health leaders and organizations answer questions. A list of those resources is included in her slides for the webcast and on AHCJ’s infectious disease resources page.

Angie Rasmussen, PhD, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, Associate Research Scientist

Angie Rasmussen

Saskia Popescu

Maryn McKenna

Rasmussen says she makes clear to journalists, when they reach out to her, that she is not a physician or an epidemiologist but can offer insight as a virologist.

To that point, Rasmussen said scientists’ understanding of SARS-CoV-19 is changing “literally every minute,” which is making it extremely challenging to answer journalists’ questions, particularly this one: “How bad will this COVID-19 outbreak get?”

The CDC says that it and public health labs have tested about 7,300 COVID-19 specimens, but it isn’t clear how many individuals actually have been tested in the U.S. for COVID-19. In addition, there have been numerous problems with diagnostic testing in the U.S.

“The U.S. is in last place among developed nations in terms of testing capacity,” Rasmussen said. “That makes it difficult to predict how bad this will get, because it is difficult to put in place well-informed mitigation and containment efforts.”

As of March 10, there was growing confidence among scientists that the average incubation period between infection with SARS-CoV-19 and development of COVID-19’s symptoms [they are flu-like], is about 5.1 days, down from initial estimates of 14 days, according to Science Daily.

“That is an average figure, which means that in some people, you will be infected a few days before becoming symptomatic, and for others, it is two weeks,” Rasmussen said. “There are a lot of factors that play into this, such as an individual’s host susceptibility.”

Current understanding of the virus is that it is transmitted most easily through respiratory droplets, meaning coughing or sneezing, but not through the air, says Popescu.

“This is not like the measles,” she said. Measles is very contagious because it can live in the air for several hours after a person has coughed or sneezed.

However, she said SARS-CoV-19 could spread via breath when someone is within a very close space of an infected person, such as when a health provider may be intubating a patient. Intubation is the process of placing a tube in a very sick individual’s airway to assist breathing.

This understanding of the virus’s spread, and that face masks are in short supply at hospitals, has shifted guidance to health care providers regarding the use of masks, she said. See this guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the use of face masks at hospitals.

Also important to stress: The SARS-CoV-19 virus may be transmitted by touching an item or surface near where an infected person has sneezed or coughed, but scientists aren’t yet certain. On metal, glass or plastic surfaces, coronavirus may survive from two hours to nine days, according to this study in the Journal of Hospital Infection, but note that the study is based on laboratory experiments. In the real world, scientists believe coronaviruses probably don’t survive more than 24 to 48 hours on surfaces.

“Beyond a couple of days, [the virus] probably doesn’t persist [indoors] more than a few days, but that doesn’t mean [we] shouldn’t be disinfecting surfaces, washing our hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and [using] hand sanitizer when soap isn’t available,” Rasmussen said.

Given the ongoing uncertainty of the virus, Popescu and Rasmussen recommend making decisions about travel and engaging in social activities based on individual and family situations. They also said that social-distancing measures are the best way to slow the spread of the virus.

McKenna suggested journalists check out a social distancing graph, designed by University of Washington professor Carl Bergstrom, that has become popular on Twitter. Bergstrom, who specializes in mathematical modeling, analyzed social distancing measures used during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, and showed via his graph how social distance measures reduced deaths in communities. See this March 11 story at STAT about Bergstrom’s graph. To

“The graph showed if we do something now, we will slow the course of the epidemic, .it will flatten the curve,” McKenna said. “Flatten the curve has become a hashtag on Twitter.”

To watch a recording of the AHCJ webcast, click here. This webcast will be available free to the public for the next month. Also for journalists looking for sources and up-to-date information, check out my curated Twitter list of some trusted experts. Here are some additional resources on our website:

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