Coronavirus Communication and Sanjay Gupta’s Sobering Labor Day

First, it was Easter. And, then the communication was that Memorial Day was the target date for the pandemic's finale.  Remember all those White House briefings when the president said, "We're doing a fantastic job"? Surely the pandemic's end was near. In late April, a White House official confirmed that view. The administration's battle against the virus, he said, was “a great success story." Moreover, the official said, “by June a lot of the country should be back to normal and the hope is that by July the country's really rocking again."

Well, it’s Labor Day weekend and we’re still battling coronavirus. 187,000 Americans are dead from it, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Instead of lauding Memorial Day weekend 2020 as the end of the pandemic, historians one day will see it differently. Social activities that weekend led to a spike in the South and West. July 4 parties poured gasoline on the flame. Now, with many states and localities easing restrictions and schools reopening, some public health experts are experiencing sleepless nights pondering Labor Day weekend 2020's legacy.

Viral Load and Overload

There's pandemic news in the media, but it's no longer all-coronavirus-all-the-time. Remember the pandemic data on the right side of the TV screen when you switched on several of the cable news networks? It told you how many cases and deaths there were worldwide and in the US. Those data make periodic appearances now, but they're no longer ubiquitous.

It's not a political statement to say pandemic messaging is a mess. Mask-wearing is a political football. Public trust, the holy grail of communication, is seriously eroded as vital organizations feud. The president has stopped talking about the virus.

In February and March, FINN Partners' health chief Gil Bashe and PR pitching guru Michael Smart warned presciently of COVID-19 overload. The public, they said, would grow tired of non-stop coronavirus news.

Jan 1: 410,000+ Dead

This morning, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, talked about a different sort of COVID-19 saturation. He said he’d just finished speaking with Dr. Anthony Fauci about the country’s tired response to the virus. Appearing on CNN’s New Day program, Gupta described the call as “a convergence of frustration.”

Fauci, Gupta said, believes the US is suffering from "coronavirus fatigue."

Gupta said, "[The US]...did some [mitigation]…and now we’re fatigued.” We're tired of being careful, distancing, staying home, washing our hands repeatedly and wearing masks.

The fatigue costs lives, and the future looks awful. A new model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says if things don't change, 410,451 Americans will die by Jan 1. There will be 3,000 deaths/day in December. How's that for news on Labor Day weekend?

For months, Gupta has covered the pandemic story with the stoicism of Mr. Spock. He broke character this morning. The 410,451 figure hurt. "These numbers," he said, "should be an obvious clarion call to wear masks.” Yet, even if all Americans wore masks now, it's “shocking” that 100,000 more people will die. The U of Washington model predicts 288,000 will die should Americans mask up now, instead of 410,451.

“But," Gupta says, "there’s no way this country is going to [wear masks]…I don’t know what it takes to say, ‘Hey, look, you can be part of a movement that can save hundreds of thousands of lives if you simply put two ear loops over your ears,” but...people are saying, ‘Screw it. I’d rather not.’"

A Lack of Humanity

He continued, "I’m discouraged…People are saying, ‘I’m going to wait for the…vaccine.’ But guess what? It might not be here for a while…Other countries are essentially vaccinated right now, not because they have a vaccine, but because they [wore masks and distanced]…I think we're having a reckoning with basic human decency in this country at this point.”

Gupta concluded, "Wear a mask, distance, stay outside as much as you can, wash your hands…it’s really not that hard. We take brain tumors out of people, we cure incurable cancers…this is not that hard.”

In an interview today with NBC, Fauci, a wonderfully plain-spoken communicator, said pretty much the same thing. Stay away from crowds, he added. Will anyone listen?

Seth Arenstein is editor of PRNEWS and Crisis Insider