Reporting and Covid-19: Tips for Journalists

Reporting on Aging and Covid-19

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Guest: Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, Dean and DeLamar Professor of Public Health Practice, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health; Senior Vice President, Columbia University Medical Center

“We are reaping what we have not sown,” writes public health expert Linda Friend in a recent article for The Hill. Since the 1960’s, Fried says, the United States has disinvested in its public health system, resulting in a set of problems that stifled the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Public health challenges in the U.S. and around the world 

Weaknesses in the health care system have been compounded by weaknesses in leadership, Fried explains. And those have contributed to downward trends in the state of public health in this country. Public Health was a relatively new field, emerging alongside medical science, in the early 1900s, and was based on the understanding that diseases could be preventable. Along with this came the need to organize the public to combat the spread of diseases effectively, ideally through campaigns and strategies developed and implemented by public health departments.

But Fried says that for decades only a small percentage of U.S. health care dollars has gone into public health care systems, with the rest going into medical care. The numbers, therefore, are basically upside down; the system is about $4.5 billion short of the amount needed to deal effectively with the pandemic.

How can a local reporter in the U.S. or elsewhere evaluate the performance of the municipal health department's care of older adults and other demographics during the pandemic?  What should journalists be documenting?

For starters, Fried says, some countries have outperformed the U.S. in handling and stemming the Covid-19 outbreak. And as a general rule, the measurement can be as simple as asking officials the question, "Has the virus stopped spreading?" Fried says that on this count the U.S. has performed miserably. 

For specific answers, ask local health commissioners specific questions, Fried says.

But first, get a handle on the general health status in the state, city, or town. Overall health in a community is an essential indicator of how a region will fare when a new infectious disease emerges.

Which districts and neighborhoods have diminished access to resources and therefore a higher incidence of overall disease?

An excellent place to start: Assess data capabilities from past disease outbreaks

Public health systems that have data collection abilities can keep track of diseases and determine the health status of local communities. 

Find out how well your city, town, or region uses data. Do municipalities have scientists who are using data to model and understand flare-ups? 

Does the public health department have data tracking capabilities able to measure a particular disease's spread from moment to moment? 

Reporters who focus on data would be wise to turn their attention to public health departments. Find metrics of success and document why they work.

How can older adults obtain better care? What did we miss? What are the core public health issues that will continue to affect older adults?

Fried says people living in close quarters — nursing homes, prisons, and dormitories, for example — are particularly at risk.

 Covid-19 manifests differently in older adults, Fried also explains, because they have an increased risk of chronic diseases. Aging causes an underlying change in physiology and more frailty, making it more difficult for older adults to bounce back from an illness.

Loneliness is becoming more common around the world and across generations. Being in lockdown makes this much worse. Unfortunately, conditions are ripe for loneliness to increase, Fried says.

Fried says reporters should search for innovative care programs and methods for older adults.

As an example, Fried says her undergraduate students took an intergenerational approach this past spring by setting up twice weekly check-ins with older adults in the community. These Columbia undergraduates who spent time with older adults found their work lifted their moods and gave them a feeling of hope. This sort program was beneficial for older people too. 

Technology is proving useful in providing innovative care for older adults. 

Fried says useful data exists showing that technology effectively helps isolated older adults in existing nursing homes or assisted living facilities.

Fried says reporters should also be on the lookout for papers about the older adults and Covid-19. Many are still in the works.