Staff Columnist

Who do you believe when 'the experts' disagree?

Neighboring public health departments in Iowa responded differently to the same COVID-19 case.

Spikes glow in a batch of real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at the UW Medicine Virology laboratory in Seat
Spikes glow in a batch of real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at the UW Medicine Virology laboratory in Seattle on March 11, 2020. The spikes indicate patient samples that are positive for the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. (Dan DeLong/Kaiser Health News/TNS)

When we learned this week that a local karaoke host tested positive for COVID-19, bordering Iowa counties had starkly different responses.

An Iowa City-based entertainment company published an announcement to say they contacted businesses where the infected disc jockey recently visited. The company hosts karaoke and name-that-tune events at bars and restaurants throughout the area.

Linn County Public Health released a notice urging people who had visited one Cedar Rapids hotel restaurant to self-isolate for 14 days to prevent the potential spread of coronavirus.

Patrons of Cedar Rapids restaurant asked to self isolate after DJ diagnosed with COVID-19

In Johnson County, where the disc jockey held several events in the same time frame, officials gave no public notice. It fell on local journalists and social media users to notify the community.

“The risk to those individuals in the establishments is no higher than the risk to the general public right now due to the widespread community spread we have in the county,” Johnson County Public Health Director Dave Koch said when journalists asked him about it at a news conference.

It’s not as if one county is an advanced metropolis and the other is a deprived backwater. Johnson and Linn both are more educated, progressive and economically prosperous than most Iowa counties. We are all in the same media market, and our public health departments are getting the same guidance from the same state and federal officials.

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I don’t know which county handled it correctly. It was a confusing contrast at a moment when people are desperate to hear clear advice from someone they can trust. Who should Iowans believe when neighboring jurisdictions have such different responses to the same incident?

Similar questions have struck us countless times during the coronavirus outbreak. Many experts, all seemingly credible, offer conflicting recommendations about what we should do, both at an individual and a collective level.

Up until this week — when Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended a four-week school closure, ordered many businesses to close and prohibited public gatherings of 10 or more people — many Iowans were criticizing the state government’s response as grossly inadequate. As other states were shutting down, critics lamented, Iowa was still recommending hand-washing and elbow bumps.

Iowa’s governor declared a statewide emergency. An expert explains what that means.

What if there were libertarians in an epidemic?

To my knowledge, however, no state or county public health officials publicly broke with the state’s early recommendations or called for additional restrictions.

The politicians and their hired experts seemed to be sending one message. Self-quarantined commentators and social media users, armed with persuasive charts and articles, were sending quite another.

What if the alarmists are right, and the government is a few steps behind?

Then again, what if the slow and measured approach is correct, and the alarmists are overreacting?

The refrain going around the internet this week is this unattributed quote: “In the end, it will be impossible to know if we overreacted or did too much, but it will be quite apparent if we underreacted, or did too little.”

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There is no comfort in that. Even if the most drastic steps are the right ones, the trade-offs are extremely real.

In a public health emergency, it is not obtuse or trivial to consider the tangential consequences of mass shutdowns. The economic downturn could have severe long-term consequences for the same people we are trying to protect; social and emotional effects of such widespread isolation are largely unknown; the blow that mandatory lockdowns would deliver to our civil liberties is significant.

These are complicated, macro considerations and no one person has all the right answers. But here in Eastern Iowa, our experts can’t even agree on the relatively small stuff, like whether to notify citizens who may have been in contact with a COVID-19 patient. It’s no wonder we laypeople disagree about the proper course of action.

The coronavirus crisis is real and it’s serious. So is the crisis of information, trust and expertise.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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