The global COVID-19 crisis seems on track to eclipse 9/11 as the leading defining episode of the 21st century thus far. The dystopian trajectory of the pandemic calls for clear, accurate information to ensure efficient distribution and use of resources. Yet one recent example of misinformation related to the likely total number of necessary ventilators (indispensable devices in treating the most serious cases of COVID-19) not only appeared at major media outlets, but even misled the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine. The error conflates the total number of ventilators required with the number of patients who may need the use of a ventilator over the course of the pandemic. How the error spread is a cautionary if convoluted tale.
On March 25, the New York Times published an article titled “Amid Desperate Need for Ventilators, Calls Grow for Federal Intervention.” That same day, former Times reporter and author Alex Berenson pointed out a flaw in the article on Twitter. The article asserted that “[t]he United States currently has between 160,000 and 200,000 ventilators, but could need up to a million machines over the course of the outbreak, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine.” As Berenson noted, the study in question did not call for 1 million ventilators, but rather that “as many as one million people in the United States [may] need treatment with a ventilator over the course of the pandemic.” [emphasis added]
On the same day the Times posted a correction of that article, the Times published another article that made the same error about the study. The second article, titled “For Dr. Deborah Birx, Urging Calm Has Come With Heavy Criticism,” used the identical inaccurate wording that appeared in the first article: “The United States currently has between 160,000 and 200,000 ventilators but could need up to a million over the course of the outbreak, according to the Society of Critical Care Medicine.” Despite the first correction, the second correction took several days to appear and did not note the Times‘s repetition of the error.
The Times was not the only media organization to propagate the error. While she did not specifically cite the Times as her source, on March 26 CNN’s Brianna Keilar grilled White House adviser Peter Navarro about ventilators, repeatedly demanding of Navarro, “Are we able to get to a million ventilators?” and ultimately scolded him by saying “Peter, you’re wasting everyone’s time. You’re wasting everyone’s time with this. It’s 2020. The president was elected in 2016. Can you get to a million ventilators?”