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Media failed to probe record-breaking "mass recovery" numbers | CMFR

Media failed to probe record-breaking “mass recovery” numbers

Screengrab from doh.gov.ph.  

DOH DREW flak for reporting an unexpected surge of COVID-19 recoveries amid the continued increase in the number of cases. On July 30, the health department reported a record-breaking 38,075 new recoveries, surpassing the previous total number recorded at 26,996. It reported a whopping total of 65,064.

In a statement issued on the same day, DOH explained its so-called Oplan Recovery, attributing the giant leap in the number of recoveries to its “improved data reconciliation system.” Citing clinical recovery protocols also followed in the US and Europe, DOH said that under this new system thousands of patients with mild or no symptoms were tagged as recovered 14 days from the onset of symptoms or from the date of specimen collection.

The explanation needed further explanation to make sense. News accounts that merely repeated what DOH said did not help. No account examined the “data reconciliation system” to determine whether the new term was covering up for the department’s delayed adoption or failed observance of the WHO protocol. The media did not point out either that DOH should have explained the new WHO protocol before it released the new numbers based on the revised categories.

Social media roiled with complaints about DOH’s management of data, pointing to the odd policy. The agency appealed to the public to “trust the experts.” “We have enough evidence that even the WHO and other reputable agencies across the world [are saying] that as long as a person’s symptoms have been resolved” and it has been 10 days since their onset, he or she can be considered recovered, Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said.

Given the past record of DOH in data management, the assertions seemed hardly credible. The department erred in presenting its application of the protocol, and media should have called this out as news organizations cited expressed criticism of the department and the renewed calls for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Dugue. It could also have done more by going to WHO where someone might have been able to explain the situation better, its revised protocols on counting recoveries as well as DOH’s application of the same. 

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from July 30 to August 1, 2020.

While most reports merely cited what DOH said on the adoption of the data reconciliation system and the WHO’s revised criteria, CMFR notes some reports that attempted to make more sense of this supposed mass recovery.

Rappler pointed out that the reason for the mass recovery could be partly due to DOH’s data backlogs and its belated implementation of the WHO criteria already established worldwide as early as May.

Interaksyon cited a tweet from ABS-CBN data analyst Edson Guido pointing out that in the span of a single day, July 30, DOH reported the record-breaking spike of new confirmed cases, the dramatic drop in the number of active cases and the rise in the cases of recovered patients. He also noted that on the same day the number of active cases dropped by 38,075, from 56,528 to 22,327.

The carelessness with which DOH presented its data has caused public confusion. The media did not probe why it presented data from an indeterminate period, suggesting that it was happening currently.

Interaksyon also took up other problems in DOH data analysis, citing the science organization Earth Shaker Philippines that also shared another version of a chart comparing the COVID-19 situation among countries in the region. “We’re the only ASEAN country with such [a] weird trend,” the organization said.

In the same report, Dr. Tony Leachon, former adviser of the National Task Force for COVID-19, said that the DOH should’ve explained US-CDC’s advisories earlier. “Risk strategic communication is key to allay the anxiety of a stressed and confused populace,” Leachon said.

While the media did report more information about the numbers and the implementation of DOH protocols, the media did not critically question why the administration implemented the WHO criteria so much later than other countries. It should have also asked why it provided updated recoveries without some preliminary rationalization of what it was doing. In a crisis, the government should try its best not to add to the confusion and the stress. The government has been known to downplay the pandemic by making false claims and spinning its reports. Hence, media should be more critical of the data presented by the DOH, probing more into the issues of data management when it gives updates.  These numbers are key indicators about what need to be done. The media must do its part by checking the integrity of the data before reporting these as news.