Justin Lessler, Johns Hopkins - The Downslope

Justin Lessler, Johns Hopkins
The Downslope


As what’s called news has become more universal in its coverage, it’s become more dangerous. This is especially true as the expansions range over, not just space, but time.  You can prepare for what to expect from new places, but when time is dealing, as soon as you see them, the cards are on the table.

News, whether written, spoken or visually presented is only as good as its authority, built on access to – and understanding of – the solidest sources of what is known about its subject.

Fact-gathering and understanding take time and the most authoritative journalism is done in the past tense.  There is, of course, “breaking news,” journalism-in-action in the present tense.

Being there, live and in person, as well as watching “live” on your screen of choice, does imprint facts and suggest insights and connections that can be deep as well as just deeply felt.  But the perspective is narrow, and much vital information is unknown or unstated.

Still, the presentation of the information, new analyses of the past or live witness to the present moment, is delivered in the same authoritative tone.

And news today also encompasses future events in the same tone of “the way it is” authority.

Usually, these foolish excursions into the unknown occur during weather or other impending disaster stories.  Who can forget Dan Rather parading on Bourbon Street in New Orleans with a literal 16-foot pole illustrating how high someone feared floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina could get. Happily, the Vieux Carre’ of New Orleans was largely spared damage, although Dan and his CBS News producers would have been better advised to wave their pole in the Lower 9th Ward, where damage was widespread and devastating.

That would have lifted their report on the unknown future from the unacceptable – mere speculation – to credible prediction (guesses about the future based on the past.)

There is future news about which one can be genuinely authoritative: the inevitable, a label which probably fit the flooding of the Lower 9th, but certainly can be applied to the coming climatic changes from global warming or a worldwide pandemic of some virus previewed by SARS, MERS, H1N1, Etc.

But, once established, the inevitable can never be new, and thus despite their global implications, inevitable environmental degradation or pathogen sharing rarely make news.

And here we are, with an ever better analyzed, and, please God, more widely understood picture from the news media of the past of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic in America.  Every day journalists find new instances of how the Obama Administration commissioned preparations for the inevitable global pandemic and how the Trump Administration abandoned them, how the president ignored, then resisted warnings from all over his government that were both early and still somewhat distant.

Well that’s done, and all we can do is manage the consequences and start to do for the future what we failed to do for the past, plan for the inevitable, prioritizing through prediction and resisting all uninformed speculation.

Something both inevitable and predictable is that the coronavirus pandemic will peak, the rate of new infections will turn down, and the news will again be filled, legitimately, with graphic representations of these hopeful trends.

Hardly predictable, but almost certainly inevitable is that the pandemic will end, and something close to the lives we used to live will return.

How to get from here, with the American peak of COVID-19 still in the future, to the next steps as the outbreak subsides – is the subject of today’s program.



Justin Lessler is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg school of Public health.

He writes: The major focus of my research is the development and application of statistics, dynamic models and novel study designs to better understand and control infectious disease. In particular, I am interested in creating synergies between infection control practice, data collection and infectious disease dynamics. Exemplary of this goal, my collaborators and I have developed methods to estimate the distribution of incubation periods for an infectious disease using coarse data, applied these methods to develop the best available estimates for a number of viruses, and showed how these estimates can be used to improve infection control practice.

My current research projects include work on the transmission dynamics of influenza in southern China, and the most effective use of vaccine in the control of measles and cholera.
















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