President Donald Trump isn’t the only one branding the press purveyors of fake news. Last week saw Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the federal Coronavirus Task Force, also chastising the media for peddling false narratives.
“Please, for the reassurance of people around the world,” Birx begged the reporters at Thursday’s press briefing, stop “talking about creating DNR situations, Do Not Resuscitate situations for patients. There is no situation in the United States right now that warrants that kind of discussion.”
There is no evidence, Birx continued, that when Americans “need a hospital bed it’s not going to be there or a ventilator, it’s not going to be there.” To the contrary, “we are reassured in meeting with our colleagues in New York that there are still I.C.U. beds remaining and still significant—over 1,000 or 2,000 ventilators that have not been utilized.”
Birx’s plea followed a Washington Post story headlined “Hospitals Consider Universal Do-Not-Resuscitate Orders for Coronavirus.” The Post’s article detailed conversations reportedly taking place at hospitals throughout the country, including at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where doctors have been discussing “a do-not-resuscitate policy for infected patients, regardless of the wishes of the patient or their family members — a wrenching decision to prioritize the lives of the many over the one.”
The article further claimed that these “new protocols are part of a larger rationing of lifesaving procedures and equipment — including ventilators — that is quickly becoming a reality here as in other parts of the world battling the virus.”
The media, however, ignored Birx’s reprimand, with CNN reporting a few hours later that “as the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep the United States, some hospitals are considering whether to make changes to policies and practices when it comes to do-not-resuscitate situations.” “Such conversations come as hospitals brace for a surge of patients,” the article continued, “despite dwindling supplies of personal protective equipment for doctors and ventilators for seriously ill patients.”
CNN’s top personality, Jake Tapper, further pushed the storyline by retweeting a Detroit article that included an internal letter from the Henry Ford Health Group discussing a protocol for handling an overwhelmed health-care system. Tapper quoted several panic-inducing passages from the letter, including one that claimed that “because of shortages, we will need to be careful with resources. Patients who have the best chance of getting better are our first priority.”
After the leaked letter went viral on Twitter, the Henry Ford Health Group issued a statement, as the Detroit News reported, assuring the public that the “letter was in preparation for a ‘worst case scenario,’ but has not been enacted as policy.” The Henry Ford Health Group stressed that its “hospital system has not reached capacity at any of its locations, nor has it reached the limit on ventilators at any of its hospitals.”
Dr. Adnan Munkarah, the chief clinical officer for the hospital system, likewise attested that they “have by no means exhausted all of our resources or all of our options to take care of patients,” and that “the hospital system has an adequate supply of ventilators.”
While Tapper later retweeted the Detroit News article, the damage had already been done. The fake news story of overrun hospitals leaving patients to die had already infected the public’s perception of the situation on the ground in Michigan. This viral story launched not even 24 hours after Birx gently reminded the press that “it’s our job collectively to assure the American people,” and following her assurances the narrative that hospitals didn’t have enough ventilators to treat their patients was false.
During Thursday’s press briefing, Birx also cautioned the press about peddling false figures on levels of coronavirus infection and death based on models. “Models are models,” she told the press corps, adding that “there is enough data of the real experience with the coronavirus on the ground to really make these predictions much, more sound.”
“So, when people start talking about 20 percent of a population getting infected, it’s very scary,” Dr. Birx noted, “but we don’t have data that matches that based on our experience.” She also stressed that the on-the-ground reality, and the institution of preventative measures, negates the Imperial College model’s worst-case-scenario prediction of 2.2 million deaths from the coronavirus in the United States.
Whether the media will continue to run with such wild extrapolations remains to be seen. But given the press’s penchant for pushing figures without support to score political points, it seems likely.
Given that the media immediately ignored Birx’s plea to report responsibly and not unnecessarily frighten the public, and instead peddled an apocryphal tale of Michigan hospitals leaving patients to die, it seems likely that something more than the good doctor’s scalpel-like dissection of the false reporting is needed. Trump learned that long ago, which is why the president instead wields a fake news hatchet.