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OUR VIEW: Limiting Macon County COVID data is illogical and wrong

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Macon County Public Health Administrator Brandi Binkley addresses members of the Decatur City Council on Monday as they considered altering rules meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

A fixture on the evening news during the Vietnam War was the number of soldiers killed and wounded. The numbers were depressing, devastating and numbing.

Should networks have stopped reporting them?

Crime in any city is a negative. Robberies, theft, shootings – all blights on their locations.

Would city officials or police try to suppress criminal reports?

That appears to be what the Macon County Health Board thinks.

A discussion during the board’s December 21 meeting led to the decision to only release weekly numbers of COVID positive cases and death.

“Less is more,” one member said, suggesting elimination of some COVID-related numbers.

When has “less is more” ever been the right answer when it comes to the public good?

The discussion continually bounced back to media coverage of the numbers and criticism of same. We cringe to hear this board – or any board -- talking about public relations and 24-hour news cycles. The health board’s concern is not the media, not about the public’s consumption of media, and not about “bad PR,” a phrase use by board member Mark Scranton.

Board members expressed concern about the public’s weariness of the reports, which sounds more like a personal issue than a public one. When the public wearies of a story, they look elsewhere. Media is also designed to serve a customer base. If the customers decide they’re sick of COVID reports, that’s up to them and they’ll find a way to let the media know.

In the meantime, those dozens of daily stories one member claimed to see are serving their purpose. People want information about COVID.

And they deserve information about an event unprecedented in our lifetimes. This is a pandemic. The reason there’s any panic is because of fear. Fear of the unknown is especially crippling.

In this case, what would be “unknown” is facts that can help us make decisions pertaining to our health.

One of the points of relief throughout the pandemic has been one factor – as little as we actually know about this virus, our medical people are learning quickly. Variants are being quieted more quickly, and as reports came in about the omicron variant, they were followed by the apparently accurate learning that this variant was remarkably contagious yet with fewer severe symptoms. More of a – dare we say it? – flu than anything else.

“Flu.” That’s another item that came up in the board’s discussion. There were complaints that “the media” isn’t reporting numbers of other diseases. The CDC's most recent stats showed Illinois' flu/pneumonia deaths hover around 2,500 per year. Since COVID arrived, it has claimed the lives of in excess of 31,000 Illinois residents, 289 from Macon County.

We hope the omicron variant is more like flu than previous versions of COVID. But the numbers remain a valid and important thing to keep from and center.

Information to be released was framed with the assumption of the board having a better sense of what the public wants than they do. Removing some information was suggested.

Just because a fact makes someone uncomfortable doesn’t make it any less news.

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This is an unprecedented time. The health department didn’t give daily updates on every flu strain. But an infectious disease is doing something that hasn’t happened in a century – it’s whipping around like a whirlwind and causing hospitalizations at alarming rate.

Decatur is not the only community with limited hospital beds at this time. If some think that’s insignificant, fine. It doesn’t remove responsibility of providing information about a public health hazard.

If you’re weary of COVID news, feel free to stop reading. There’s nothing forcing any of us to read, watch or listen to anything. But now we have is an agency under fire for not providing numbers they’ve been forbidden to provide.

The possibility of reporting vaccinated and unvaccinated numbers for those testing positive was floated. Of course that’s a wonderful idea, and one we hope the board implements. We also hope the board reconsiders its position to daily releases.

It’s not about PR, it’s about public health.


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