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Stopping a viral virus: Social media mitigation

The coronavirus isn’t anything to joke around with, yet members of the media and public officials aren’t doing their jobs correctly.

Health officials and journalists need to do their due diligence to ensure the public is properly informed of public health matters, especially ones concerning pandemics.

When news broke Friday of the first confirmed case of coronavirus in Indiana, a series of errant communications led to inaccurate information circulating across the state.

Marion County, Indiana was accidentally mistaken for Marion, Indiana, and people began to panic online. Within minutes, posts were getting hundreds of shares.

Let’s be clear: As of Monday’s deadline, there are only three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Indiana: two in Hendricks County and one in Marion County (the county where Indianapolis resides). There are no confirmed cases in Marion, Indiana or Grant County as of deadline Monday (around noon Monday).

Mid-day Friday, however, people began freaking out here locally after a mistake by Grant County Health Department Officer Dr. William D. Moore led to multiple news agencies in Indiana, as far as Fort Wayne, spreading false facts. Although Moore apologized for his mistakes, we hope news organizations in Indiana also learned their lesson.

It’s also our hope that the general public learns a lesson too, since we all have control over the dissemination of information.

Before a news organization reports something of this magnitude – confirmed cases of coronavirus – the facts must be checked with multiple sources.

Dr. Moore’s error could have been caught if he or the media organizations that reported this information would have called the necessary sources to confirm these facts. A quick call to Marion General Hospital and the Indiana State Department of Health could have easily resolved the mistake.

For those who like to hit the “share” button on Facebook, look at the sourcing of a story before you share. A true news story cites sources of information. Anonymous sources or single-sourced stories need to be watched carefully.

If you are looking for information to educate yourself on the virus, look to legitimate sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although news articles are a good starting point, CDC doctors and nurses are the experts on this stuff.

Right now, the accurate flow of information is vital to keeping this virus contained.

Without a vaccination, the stakes are high. We have to keep this virus under control while we wait for a vaccination to be developed.

The lack of a vaccine is what makes COVID-19 so serious.

The typical flu strains we battle each year have vaccines to protect the general population, and yet there are already an estimated 20,000 deaths from the flu during the fall 2019 to winter 2020 season, according to CDC reports.

If you haven’t gotten your flu shot this year, you still can and should. Getting a vaccination helps protect the elderly, young and population with compromised immune systems, so it’s very important that we all get vaccinated.

As for coronavirus, preventative measures should be practiced. According to the CDC:

Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Stay home when you are sick.

Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Follow CDC’s recommendations for using a facemask.

CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.

Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

We all need to do our part to fight the spread of coronavirus. Do your part to protect your community.

Multiple sclerosis week begins

Editor’s note: This is a reprint of a column that contained an typo from last week. This week is multiple sclerosis week. The Chronicle-Tribune regrets the error.

March 8-14 marks “MS Awareness Week,” but why should we be aware? According to the National MS Society, nearly one million people in the US live with multiple sclerosis. This illness doesn’t always look or act the same, and you likely have friends or neighbors with MS, unbeknownst to you. I speak from experience. In 1999, we were preparing to move to a different house when we had a telling conversation with our retired neighbors. We had lived next door since 1997, but we didn’t realize the gentleman had faced MS for many years.

When I received my teaching license in 1994, I did not know that a 1997 diagnosis of MS would offer a whole new curriculum to teach from, at least for one week each year. I’ll answer here some common questions I receive:

What causes Multiple Sclerosis? Many (multiple) scars (sclerosis) are left when a confused immune system attacks myelin, the white protective coating of the nerves (and the “white matter” in the brain). When the myelin is damaged, scars are created. Why the immune system misbehaves this way is another question, and the answer is unclear, likely including genetics, environment, and at least a dozen other factors. Roughly two thirds of MS patients are female the majority are Caucasian, but examples like talk show host Montel Williams show that every case is unique.

How is MS diagnosed? If a physician suspects MS, an MRI of the brain can show scars in damaged areas. Other tests involve vision, manual dexterity, coordination, and memory.

How old are patients when they are diagnosed? Though it is usually first diagnosed in a patient’s twenties or thirties, pediatric MS is less common, starting around the teenage years or earlier. If a diagnosis first comes in a patient’s forties or fifties, they sometimes realize that earlier symptoms had been ignored or misdiagnosed.

What are common symptoms of MS? Symptoms vary from person to person, but they often include fatigue, lack of coordination, visual problems, and weakness. Some patients only ever have one or two relapses, and it doesn’t come back. The most common disease course is “relapsing-remitting,” where symptoms flare up then improve, though not completely returning to the original level. “Progressive” MS does not vary in this way.

Does temperature affect a person with MS? Yes! Before MRI machines could assist with diagnosis, a patient believed to have MS would enter a hot tub. If he or she became numb and couldn’t move arms or legs, the diagnosis was certain, and cooling down again restored the ability to move. Hot weather is generally not desirable for those with MS, and air conditioning may not be a luxury, but a necessity.

Is there a cure for MS? No, but there are currently seventeen different medications that help slow or decrease its effects. (When I was diagnosed in 1997, there were three.) Until quite recently, only relapsing-remitting MS could be treated with medication, now “progressive MS” patients (which previously had no treatments) have at least two options. I know more about this than I may wish, as I have taken seven of those medications over the past twenty-one years.

Today, new discoveries are being made, and a cure for MS grows closer each day. Until then, the second week in March will remain a time for me to become a teacher again, helping others become aware of MS. If you wish to learn more, visit the National MS Society (www.nmss.org) or MS Association of America (www.msaa.org).

A decelerating economy on the brink of recession

The world economy has been decelerating since 2018, and without stimulus we would probably be in a modest global downturn. That is changing for the worse. The arrival of Covid-19 is already exacting a toll on the weakened manufacturing sector. Even if the disease were to vanish tomorrow, the first of half of 2020 will see global manufacturing slipping well into recession territory. Monetary and fiscal policy cannot now prevent what has already happened.

It is increasingly unlikely the United States will dodge a recession in 2020. The challenge to policymakers is that there are two distinct types of business cycle pressures currently affecting the global economy. Both are largely immune to policy intervention, so we can do little to rescue the short-run economy.

Global responses to Covid-19 are mixed. Large-scale quarantines failed to stop the spread of the virus that causes the disease. So, in the coming weeks, those extreme quarantine efforts will be dropped. Instead of trying to halt the spread of the disease, governments will try to slow the speed of transmission. The policy goals will be to prevent a rush on local medical services and to buy time for the creation of a vaccine.

These different responses illustrate the dueling types of downturns we face. The strict quarantines interrupt supply chains, drive down the production of manufactured goods and reduce commodity prices. This type of downturn is more like the oil shock of the 1970s or the Persian Gulf War. Academic researchers refer to these as ‘real business cycles’ because they involve the actual production of goods and services, not consumer sentiments. These types of recessions are highly resistant to public policy, and must simply run their course.

The efforts to slow the disease will include local closings and cancellations, along with lots of smaller preventive measures. These will be less disruptive to the national or global economy, but they come at a cost. These costs can be very high, particularly in industries that depend on travel, tourism and the gathering of crowds. This will look like a demand shock or loss of consumer confidence, in which a sudden decline in spending pushes us into recession.

In this type of downturn, traditional policies to boost the economy should work more effectively. But, in the case of a global disease, the tools to restore confidence are unlikely to rescue the economy. With interest rate cuts, the Fed might convince us that the stock market declines are transient, but they aren’t going to convince folks to visit an amusement park or take a cruise.

We might as well face the fact that governments don’t possess the tools to prevent downturns of these types. We should not realistically expect much support for the economy in the coming months. Instead, we should use this episode as an instructive moment on the limits of government.

The long term holds far more uncertainty. Right now, data about mortality, morbidity and infection rates of Covid-19 are ambiguous. Some serious analysis reports that Covid-19 is similar to the 1918 Flu in mortality, but is more likely to affect those already at risk. This means it will kill fewer healthy young people, and more of those with existing conditions. However, if the death rate from Covid-19 is like the 1918 Flu, it could kill more than 2.1 million Americans over two years, which is five times our casualties in World War II. Of course, we have much better medical care than in 1918-1919, so we should be hopeful it is less deadly. Still, with a death rate of 2.0 percent and 50 percent infection rate, a large nation such as India could anticipate an astonishing 13 million deaths.

It is far too early to do serious economic analysis of long-run effects of this disease. However, it is not too early to conclude that this virus has the potential to have a large and enduring impact on the world’s economy. Perhaps the disease will fade away with summer, and be controlled long enough to develop a vaccine. In that optimistic scenario, we still face a modest downturn in the middle of 2020. We may not slide into a technical recession, but this slowing will have all the hallmarks of a recession and be with us until at least the end of summer.