Infectious disease researchers have criticized newsrooms for using phrases such as “patient zero” and “party zero” in their coronavirus coverage to describe a person or social event believed to have caused a local COVID-19 outbreak.
Why is this a bad idea? We asked Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist who’s an assistant professor of biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health, to explain. Bottom line: Using these terms is both irresponsible and inaccurate, she says.
Below are our questions and her e-mailed responses, lightly edited for clarity.
Why is it a bad idea for journalists to pursue a “patient zero” or “party zero” angle?
Jenkins: “The concept of ‘patient zero’ is highly stigmatizing and often wrong anyway. No single person should be ‘blamed’ for starting an outbreak. Outbreaks occur for a number of reasons and there is never any practical use in the media to attributing the beginning of an outbreak to one person. In addition, this is often incorrect as there can be multiple introductions to a place (as there undoubtedly have been in the U.S.) and attributing hundreds of thousands (as we now have) of cases to one initial one is just wrong.”
Are the terms “patient zero” and “party zero” themselves problematic?
Jenkins: “In the media, definitely. There might be times in scientific reports that an initial person is identified in an outbreak. The purposes of this are to understand when and how the pathogen was introduced to the human population. That is important scientifically to understand how we might prevent these occurrences in the future (for example, spillover events when a pathogen moves from an animal population into humans) but I do not see any reason to use these terms themselves, especially not by journalists.”
What should journalists be doing instead?
Jenkins: “Instead, I think the media has a huge role to play in getting the right messages out to the public regarding what they should be doing now to help prevent further transmission — stay at home, or at least reduce your contacts with other people to as few as possible, wash hands regularly, don’t touch your face, definitely stay home if you have symptoms.
And the public needs to understand that there will be time lag between transmission and hospitalizations and deaths. So, if you are in a place that is under ‘lockdown,’ the benefits will not be seen immediately.
Instead, we need to stick with what we are doing and, after four weeks or so, we will hopefully start to see an easing on the healthcare system. These measures won’t last forever, but they are the only tools we have at the moment to slow transmission and relieve the burden on our hospitals.”
If you’re interested in learning more about the term “patient zero,” check out the following:
- Academic historian Richard McKay explains the history of the phrase and its consequences over time in a piece he wrote recently for The Conversation.
- Decades after his death, disease scientists in 2016 cleared the name of the man identified as patient zero in a 1987 book about the U.S. AIDS epidemic. The scientists examined the genetic sequence of the virus that shut down his immune system and discuss their findings in the academic journal
- In a piece she wrote for CNN.com, physician and journalist Keren Landman describes how contact tracing — identifying people who have been in contact with an infectious patient — can slow an outbreak. Landman mentions that epidemiologists use the term “index patient” to refer to the first person in an area diagnosed with the infectious disease being studied.
We’ve got lots of coronavirus-related resources, including tips on covering biomedical research preprints. We’ve also gathered academic studies that offer insights into how the pandemic is affecting our lives. For example, one of our research roundups examines rural broadband in the time of the coronavirus. Another looks at how infectious disease outbreaks impact mental health.