As ABC News Nightline went to a single-issue format this week, focused on the unfolding coronavirus crisis, one of its contributors is the network’s chief medical correspondent, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, answering questions and sifting through myth and fact.
It’s not necessarily an easy task, as the message to the public has been muddled in parts of the media and at the highest levels of government. It’s also a rapidly moving, complicated story, one that demands context and perspective.
“This is a story where it’s really important to explain to people that this can be a low risk to you as an individual, but as a higher risk to a population,” Ashton said. “And those things are not contradictory to each other, but they can be hard to communicate and explain, and I think we have seen that happen a lot.”
Deadline spoke to Ashton, who appears throughout ABC News programming, about the challenges of covering the coronavirus and trying to keep a balance between complacency and concern.
DEADLINE: One of the bigger recent developments is the what happened in New Rochelle, New York, where the state is establishing a containment area. Did that surprise you?
JENNIFER ASHTON: I am not totally surprised that it happened, but I would say I am surprised when it happens, because with this kind of virus, the clock is ticking, and there have been some epidemiologists who have assessed various kind of models [and found] that one undiagnosed person can expect [to expose] up to 3,000 people in a six-week period of time. … So when you hear something like that, and you understand that every day matters, we knew about the Westchester [NY] case a while ago, so to do something that aggressive now, after all this time, I’m not sure of the benefit. I think there definitely could be some benefit of slowing the spread, which can help to reduce the impact of something like this. But how much it will help is to be determined. I think that we’re going to start to see a shift from efforts to contain or stop the spread to mitigation, which is just trying to reduce its impact.
DEADLINE: Do you think that if there was wider availability of testing weeks ago, that could have prevented the spread?
ASHTON: I don’t think testing would have prevented the situation we’re seeing now in the United States. We’re about 50 to 60 days into this. There are a lot of people who are looking back and either finding or heaping praise, but we don’t really have the time to look back. We have enough going on right now that we need to just focus on the present and the future. To me the time, the running clock, is a major factor in this story. And I think that in general in medicine and especially my specialty, which is a surgical one, seconds and minutes literally matter.
DEADLINE: I still see in some aspects of the media the idea that the coronavirus is being overhyped. What about the claim that the swine flu outbreak, back in 2009-10, was also a very serious outbreak yet it didn’t get the same type of urgent coverage.
ASHTON: That was 10 years ago. So there are a lot of things that are different today. I just came from my office after seeing patients for three hours. And I had a couple of patients say the exact same thing [about media coverage]. And I said, ‘Well, when we report that a country like Italy shut down, we’re not making this up.” My daughter goes to Harvard. Harvard just canceled the rest of the academic year. We’re not making that up, arguably the biggest university in the world that has really smart people and a lot of money on the line to make a decision like that.
We have been quite committed from the beginning to not being extreme, to avoid the use of words like ‘panic.’ In our opinion, when you say ‘Don’t panic,’ it actually makes people panic. And we have been very committed to saying what we know as well as what we don’t know. … The fact of the matter is that journalism and in medicine, we like to have answers. But this is such as new virus that no one has a crystal ball, no one can predict what’s going to happen. So we try really hard to just explain what’s known and what’s not known.
DEADLINE: How do you think top government officials have done in communicating about the coronavirus?
ASHTON: I think it has been sub-optimal across both political parties, to be honest with you. Now with this being said, I really try to stay in my lane, which is a medical lane. So just as I wouldn’t comment really on politics, I don’t think that politicians should comment on medicine. I think they should let doctors comment on medical crises. And I think that sometimes that hasn’t happened, whether it’s on a very local level or whether it’s on a bigger level.
The other thing is that communicating uncertainty and risk is something that even many doctors don’t do well. So when you have politicians or public officials doing it, I think the risks are pretty high that it can be mishandled even with the best of intentions. This is a story where it’s really important to explain to people that this can be a low risk to you as an individual, but as a higher risk to a population. And those things are not contradictory to each other, but they can be hard to communicate and explain, and I think we have seen that happen a lot.
DEADLINE: What is the question that you are asked most frequently, and has that changed throughout this crisis?
ASHTON: The number one question is, ‘Should I travel to X location?’ And I almost laugh because I always say, ‘I’m a doctor, not a travel agent.’ My answer to that has not changed. Pretty much it is and has been the following: ‘It depends on when, where, why, how, and who you are.’ So if it is a hot spot, if you are talking about going to Italy, I would say no. If you are talking about going to Arizona or Colorado, where there’s relatively few cases that people tend to be outdoors and wide open spaces and you’re young and healthy and don’t have a medical problem, and you have to go for work or a vacation that’s really important to you, it depends on each person’s level of risk tolerance. Then the follow-up question is usually people asking, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m getting on a plane tomorrow to Florida to give a speech. And my kids who are in college are getting on a plane in a week to go to Colorado. I am not changing work or elective travel right now. But everyone has to make their own individual decisions based on their own risk tolerance.