Media and the COVID 19  Pandemic (Introduction to the 2019 Novel Coronavirus)

On January 17, 2020, three days before the first COVID-19 case was identified in Washington state, and the Senate was preparing for Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, the CDC conducted a wide ranging Telebriefing Briefing to alert the press of the emerging  novel (new) coronavirus and steps the agency was taking  to contain its impact in the US. reporters representing the  major news outlets participated in the virtual event and a number of reporters asked experts about the virus. The articles written in response to the briefing,  setting the stage for reporting about one of the  most consequential events of the past century, appeared in the back pages of the news outlets. As the virus led to COVID-19 and evolved into a pandemic, it met a rapidly changing media ecosystem. Reflecting the fractured  political landscape of the US body politic, driven by financial challenges and the complexity of the COVID 19 pandemic, the press appeared to split into eco chambers that failed to provide a platform for reliable information, promote  citizen public opinion and dialogue. 


A year into  the COVID-19 Pandemic, as we head into the next phase, with new challenges facing the global community, and the impact of the measures to contain it is becoming more clear,  it’s worth looking back to assess how the media performed, how it could have done better as the virus broke out of China and headed to the US, how could it have helped frame public opinion, how can it provide reliable up to date information, how to report on the political and related policy response locally, nationally and globally. By examining critically these areas with a complexity lens we develop a new framework for the media, journalism, and public opinion for the current moment, and for addressing challenging complex problems in society. The media stakeholder focus of the citizen commission will endeavor to provide a framework for more meaningful citizen engagement with societal challenges that allow for a contextualized media framework to include reliable information, investigative reporting, data journalism, accountability journalism, solution journalism, social media.


We start our exploration with revisiting the CDC’s  January 17, 2020: Transcript of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Response and following the emerging (mostly US centric)   press coverage of the COVID 19 pandemic.  




Press Briefing Transcript Highlight 

"Based on the information that CDC has today, we believe the current risk from this virus to the general public is low. For a family sitting around the dinner table tonight this is not something that they generally need to worry about."

"The virus is novel, and while we have experience with SARS and MERS, humility is important.  There is much work to be done as the outbreak investigation unfolds and is very dynamic as you heard.  As we learn more about this newly emerging virus, CDC will adjust its screening and response procedures appropriately."  

Why the concern? 

Dan Vergano: Thanks for doing this.  Why a virus that starts in animals and spreads to people, and shows signs of spreading from people to people, it might be a particular concern in an outbreak like this, you know, like why the concern?


Nancy Messonnier: I think we are concerned anytime there is a new virus or a new pathogen emerging in a population that hasn’t seen it before because what it means is that populations don’t have existing immunity, and we don’t have specific treatments or vaccines.  So we’re always concerned about that.  In this particular situation, we are especially concerned about a novel coronavirus because we have the precedent of MERS and SARS, and those were quite complicated, difficult outbreaks with many people getting ill and deaths, and so understanding that this pathogen looks, at least from a genetic perspective, like those pathogens makes us especially worried.  It doesn’t take much for a virus in general to go from being worrisome to being extremely worrisome because they tend to morph and mutate a lot, and so that’s why in this class of viruses, we are especially worried and we’re taking a very cautious proactive approach.

Active Participants 


Benjamin Haynes.  Deputy Branch Chief News Media Branch

CDC Experts 

Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases

Dr. Marty Cetron, director of CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine. 



  • Transmission:  Dr. Messonnier, do we know more about whether people are in the limited human-to-human transmission, if they can only spread when they’re symptomatic

  • Screening:

  • Diagnostic test:

  • Incubation period:

  • Reliable information: 


Events and Actions:

"CDC is actively engaged on the many fronts" 

"We are preparing across the public health and health care system to prevent, detect, and respond to this novel coronavirus."

Incident management structure to coordinate our (CDC) response

Working closely with colleagues at the World Health Organization


  • Updating the CDC web site daily

  • Issued a level one travel notice first, which reminds travelers to practice usual cautions for Wuhan City, China

  • Sent out a health advisory via the Health Alert Network updating health care workers and public health partners on this outbreak and will be sending out additional guidance

  • Our laboratory is using genetic sequences provided by the Chinese and already has the ability to identify this pathogen were it to occur in the United States

  • Working on a specific diagnostic test to detect this virus and we’ll be distributing this test to state health departments.  

  • Beginning today (January 17, 2020) CDC will be screening passengers on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan.  This will begin tonight at New York, JFK airport, the first of the three main airports and one of the two that receive direct arriving flights from Wuhan.

  • CDC will implement public health entry screening at San Francisco airport, New York JFK and LAX airport.  These airports receive the vast majority of travelers from Wuhan.  As I mentioned, JFK and also San Francisco are the only two airports in the United States with direct flights from Wuhan.  LAX was included because of the equivalent large volume of passengers coming from indirect flights.

The sick individual will be triaged to evaluation in preidentified designated facilities and we have been working with our public health partners and our clinical partners as well as the transport services and we have been through this type of protocol before in 2014 and 2016, during the Ebola entry screening which lasted many months,

We have surge CDC staff to these ports obviously, and when they answer the questionnaire, if there’s no concerns about signs or symptoms and they’re afebrile, they’re going to be given a card that they can carry with them as to what symptoms to be alert for in the ensuing 14 days, and how to safely contact and interact with the health care system for care.

General topics 

My compliments to our colleagues in China.  They identified this pathogen very quickly and quickly put that sequence up where it’s publicly available to all the scientists around the world.

Concluding remark

Nancy Messonnier: Well, thank you for joining us today.  In closing, I do want to remind you that we’re still in the early days of this investigation.  Things continue to evolve.  We’re monitoring the situation closely.  We’re working to keep you informed every step of the way.  I also want to take a moment to thank the many partners with whom we are completely dependent and collaborating on this response.  The we here is not CDC in isolation, but clearly our state, local, territorial partners, CBP, FAA, the airlines.  Our ability to stand up this kind of response and our ability to intervene this quickly is entirely dependent on those collaborations as well as the many international collaborations in countries in which we’re working.  The risk of these outbreaks depends on the characteristics of the virus, including if and how well it spreads between people, the severity of resulting illness, and the medical or other measures available to control the impact of the virus such as antiviral treatments or vaccines.  The situation could indeed change quickly.  Therefore, we are taking a cautious approach to this outbreak and we’re preparing ourselves to respond quickly to any new developments, thank you again.

CDC media office at 404-639-3286 or e-mail media

Guttenberg Press.jpg

Citizen Brief: Coronavirus 

The Case: Natural History of COVID-19 

The COVID-19 Ecosystem:

Federal Government


Health Alert Network 

health care workers 

public health partners



State health departments

The airlines

Transport services 


World Health Organization