By Amy Rogers, MD, PhD
The National Education Association (NEA) is managing a new website that purports to track coronavirus cases in US public K-12 schools. This is potentially problematic because the NEA has a clear agenda on this issue. On their pandemic-devoted website for their members, they explicitly state their position: “Since last week, NEA has called for schools to be closed.” By posting every positive test they can find for a school employee or student nationwide, is the NEA performing a public service? Is it doing public health research? Or is it advancing an agenda?
You can find the tracker here. According to a story on NPR, this tally started as a volunteer effort by a teacher who searched the internet to find reports of virus-positive cases associated with K-12 schools in the US. Then people started submitting reports to her, the project grew larger, and the NEA stepped in to manage it. The “tracker” is essentially a collection of anecdotes, listing any positive tests mentioned in local news outlets, Facebook posts, school district press releases and other public sources, generally submitted by private individuals. (It’s not clear if they are posting cases that are not in the public domain, e.g., someone simply tells them that there were four cases in their school.) Cases are organized by state and school district.
As the site itself says, “this should not be taken as a comprehensive accounting of all COVID-19 cases in educational institutions.”
So is this a problem?
As a single clearinghouse for a lot of publicly available case reports, this tracker is a convenient location for interested parties to find data that is probably mostly true. It’s a tool to fight against secrecy or districts covering up cases. The problem isn’t the data on the site. The problem is the data they don’t have, and more important, how it is used or interpreted. Each case report feels shocking, and serves to reinforce the NEA’s narrative that schools are unsafe. But a quantitative context is missing. What about all the COVID-negatives? Without a denominator, we have cases, not rates. Cases reports are stories. Rates are public health data.
This is a problem with a lot of reporting on most topics, whether it’s reporting by traditional media, fringe internet media, or by your Facebook friends. There’s too much coverage of stories / case reports / anecdotes because these are interesting to us, without analysis or comparison to convey what the story means in a larger context. As consumers of information, we are presented with images and anecdotes that influence our feelings, especially our fears. For example, consider the tremendous interest that accompanied reporting about “murder hornets” a few months ago. Was the resulting fear proportional to the threat? Is this particular invasive species so much a danger to ecosystems or the economy that it deserved this amount of emotional response compared to, say, invasive nutria or the glassy-winged sharpshooter? Maybe, maybe not. But the story and images of Asian giant hornets are so compelling to us that any rational discussion of the species’ relative importance is lost.
As humans we are story-driven, not number-driven. We can’t process quantitative risk very well. We process stories. Typically news stories are sensational precisely because they are uncommon or rare events. The frequency of an event (such as an urban riot, or a crime committed by an illegal immigrant, or a tornado, or a vaccine adverse event, or whatever) has much less influence on our fears and opinions than anecdotes do. The images we see, the obituaries we read, the movies we watch, the reports we hear determine what we’re afraid of, even if what we learn to fear is exceedingly rare. Bill Gates likes to ask, “What’s the deadliest animal in the world?” People are inclined to answer “sharks” (thanks, Jaws) or “snakes” (thanks, Book of Genesis and most horror movies) or even “humans.” The correct answer? Mosquitoes. Sharks kill about ten people per year; dogs kill about 25,000 thanks to rabies; and mosquitoes kill about 725,000 per year thanks to malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Our fears are completely disproportionate to the threats.
Every time you engage with your preferred news source(s) you expose yourself to stories that will shape your fears. By definition, your fears are not wholly rational. If they were, then we would generally all agree on a rank order of the issues we should be most concerned about. If you tell me what issues frighten you the most, I can tell you which tribe you belong to. The media you choose to consume both reflects and drives your fears, and therefore your political opinions.
If you are immersed in stories about urban crime, you’ll fear going into the city even if crime rates are at an all-time low.
If you are immersed in stories about positive coronavirus tests in schools, you’ll be afraid to let your kids go back to class even if COVID rates are declining or low.
So here’s my point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what the NEA is doing with the tracker. But the tracker is a collection of anecdotes, not a contextual assessment of the rate of infection in schools vs the surrounding community, or the trends, or the likelihood of hospitalizations, or even whether the positive cases are new vs old infections. The NEA’s information can be true, and useful, and also serve an agenda that favors fear over quantitative risk assessment.
Amy Rogers, MD, PhD, is a Harvard-educated scientist, novelist, journalist, and educator.
Originally published in Dr. Rogers’ coronavirus blog at https://www.amyrogers.com on August 31, 2020.