This story was updated Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at 8:25 p.m. with more information.
A potential pandemic in an already polarized country has the potential to drown the sane statements and compound the panic. We're not there yet, but we're getting close.
As Americans try to separate to separate the wheat from the chaff of the coronavirus, the facts from the rumors, the warnings from suggestions, the left is frantically trying to place the blame for any new cases, lack of information, economic panic or scarcity of supplies on President Donald Trump.
They figure the Russian collusion investigation didn't get him, the alleged mistress payoffs didn't get him, the refusal to produce his income taxes didn't get him, the fake recession fears didn't get him, and, most recently, his impeachment didn't take him down. But the coronavirus, they're sure, will do it if politicians and a helpful media pile on.
Of course, as is often true with Trump, he doesn't help himself. He's referred to the evolving coronavirus as a "hoax," to a "hunch" that World Health Organization (WHO) death rates are "false," to the possibility that a vaccine might be developed quicker than experts expect, and to the virus being "like the flu."
In situations with a virus where so much is uncertain — how fast it could spread, whether some might carry it but not get it, how warmer weather might affect it — it's better not to speak about hunches or guesses or uninformed comparisons.
The coronavirus outbreak may get much worse, or it may not. In the meantime, it's a good time for presidential leadership on the subject. Or, in this case, for allowing the people you have placed in positions of leadership to lead.
Vice President Mike Pence, who Trump named to be the administration' point person on the issue, is said to be getting good reviews from industry figures for his work with national experts on the virus.
The president, meanwhile, should keep his remarks to what is already known to be true, to what average Americans can do to keep themselves safe and to pledging to keep us fully informed.
Meanwhile, we believe the state of Tennessee correctly reversed course Tuesday and said it would release county-level data on coronavirus cases. On Monday, state health officials said any new cases of the virus not in a metropolitan area would be identified only by the grand division of the state in which they occur. In other words, a case in Marion or McMinn counties would be announced as occurring in East Tennessee.
The reason given by the state Department of Health's Dr. Lisa Piercy is "to protect patient privacy." But we believe that is akin to announcing a tornado warning for East Tennessee when forecasters can isolate a fairly specific area in which a tornado might touch down. Those specific warnings give residents time to get to safety.
Identifying one coronavirus case — without the individual's name — in a county of more than 28,500 people (Marion) or 53,000 (McMinn) is hardly throwing out patient privacy. Not identifying specific counties where coronavirus cases are diagnosed could prevent people in those counties from taking extra precautions. Public health officials cannot expect citizens to make sound decisions about their personal health and behavior if they don't have as much information as possible available to them. We are heartened that health officials have come down on the side of transparency.
Because we've never had anything that threatens to be a pandemic in this age of social media and 24-hour news, the potential for panic is increased: Don't go on cruises, don't fly, don't go to the mall, don't go to work, don't go to school, don't go outside, don't get out of bed.
Instead, it's more important for all of us to live our lives but live them with the precautions we should always take and with the extra precautions we should always take with the very young, the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.
In the winter, for instance, those segments of the population mentioned above already should avoid overexposure to crowds of people, and especially sick people, lest they contract severe colds, the flu or pneumonia. They simply have a harder time of fighting off such maladies; their systems are not strong enough.
The same is true with the coronavirus. Weakened people could have a harder time surviving it; healthier people may have few, if any, symptoms.
We should all admit we're in uncharted territory with the potential of COVID-19, the name given the virus by the WHO. We've seen panics over other diseases come and go without the outbreak world health experts expected, but we should remain wary. Without disrupting our lives, we should take the precautions we should have been taking all along.
If Americans do those things — wash their hands frequently with soap and water, cover their mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, don't touch eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands, stay home if they're sick and stay away from people who are sick — they not only will have outstanding odds not to get the coronavirus but not to get more run-of-the-mill airborne sicknesses as well.
And those precautions work even in a polarized country.