The course of the COVID-19 pandemic is unfamiliar territory for those trying to slow its spread and tend to its victims. There also is no recent roadmap for those involved in providing public information about the situation and those reporting on it.
But along with food, medicine and protective equipment, reliable information is an essential commodity as we try to protect ourselves and our families. In a way most of us have never fully realized, we are all in this together — and we have the right to as much as can be known about how this crisis is unfolding and what is being done to fight it.
Instant access to the latest news via the digital world only makes it more crucial that public officials and journalists do their best to disseminate information that's as timely, accurate and complete as possible.
In most ways, state and local officials have done an admirable job of providing information and working with the media to keep people up to date on the crisis. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has offered regular, wide-ranging news briefings, as have Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry and other public officials on a periodic basis. The Indiana State Department of Health has been providing daily digital information and the Allen County Health Department, to its credit, has distributed local statistics, included the media in a key briefing for local leaders and even organized a press “roundtable” last week on the urgent topic of mental health care during the pandemic.
As The Journal Gazette's Niki Kelly reported March 27, the Indiana State Department of Health was wary early on about sharing key data already available to citizens in other states: how many beds and ventilators hospitals in the state had available. Last week, after repeated requests from Kelly and other reporters, the state began to provide those numbers.
Hospitals and local health departments remain understandably cautious about violating federal privacy rules about individual patients. But we hope all such institutions can find a way to release more data about individual victims of the pandemic to help people understand how the virus is impacting their area without violating individual privacy.
“Secrecy is the best weapon of the virus,” Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, said Thursday. “If you don't know it's there or how prevalent it is or who has it — it spreads. The more people know about what's going on, the more they'll be willing to take steps to protect themselves and others.”
Failure to report health threats has carried unfortunate consequences in the past. The classic case, Key noted, is the way public officials and the press tried to minimize the danger at the beginning of the influenza pandemic of 1918. It was an effort to avoid “panic” — but it lured the public in some localities into a false sense of security.
“What officials and the press said bore no relationship to what people saw and touched and smelled and endured,” author John M. Barry wrote in “The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History.” “People could not trust what they read. Uncertainty follows distrust, fear follows uncertainty, and, under conditions such as these, terror follows fear.”
That kind of distrust isn't likely to develop this time around as long as health officials and journalists continue to work hard to provide trustworthy data. Whatever the course of events in Indiana in days to come, our tradition of open public information will help us get through it.