Wolf Crying and Water Carrying in the Local News Media

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The alert that most Rhode Islanders received on their cell phones in the middle of their work-mornings, on Monday, proclaimed that Rhode Island hospitals have reached their capacity.  An article last week by Sarah Doiron and Rob Nesbitt on WPRI prepped the field of fear for that emergency alert with the headline, “Data reveals most RI hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.”

That’s a scary headline, and the numbers provided in the article are presented to support it. RI Hospital’s intensive care unit is full! Panic!

But hold on a second. Totaling all the numbers in the table, the ICUs at the 10 listed hospitals are 75% full. Still pretty scary, right?  Now back out the COVID patients in ICU (30 of them at the time the article was published), and the ICUs would still be 64% full. COVID accounts for only an 11 percentage point increase.

Now look back in time. According to the Department of Health, back in May, there were nearly three times as many people in the ICU for COVID. But there were only 30 additional people in the hospital altogether. This tells us that fewer COVID patients are requiring intensive care. It also suggests that there are more people in intensive care now for other reasons than in spring, because otherwise the ICUs would have been more than full back then.

Why would that be? One reason is that the panic was scaring people away from the hospital in spring, which was a dangerous thing for government officials and news reporters to promote.  Another reason could be that the panic led people to hold off on medical treatments or diagnoses that they should have gotten back then, leading to more-severe illness now.

If the governor has been correct in her extreme measures for our state over the past nine months, how is it that the state didn’t adequately prepare for a late-autumn surge? If they didn’t, then that’s a big story. And if they did, what’s the panic about?  Today’s headline is that “RI field hospitals admit their first patients.”  OK.  I’m glad we have those.  Why isn’t the headline encouraging… as in “Don’t panic; we’ve got this”?

At least with total hospital beds, Rhode Island’s hospital system is far from “overwhelmed.”  Unfortunately, the governor needs to scare to get people to comply because she lacks the legitimate authority to tell people to do the things she’s telling them to do.  It’s a sad testament to the state of modern media that journalists are happy to play along.