Person wearing face mask using laptop computer. Image credit: engin akyurt/Unsplash

I would hazard a guess that health-care news has been top of mind for many Canadians, especially since the deluge of stories about the former U.S. president has subsided. Staying informed about the latest issues concerning the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly important.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy. A search for the specific term “COVID-19 pandemic” yields some 187 million online entries. Change the search parameters to “COVID-19 vaccine Canada” and the number decreases to some 70,000. And don’t even think of removing the quotation marks; doing so increases the entries exponentially. Who could absorb all this information?

It’s a challenge to be informed without being overwhelmed. But there is a method to do so. The first step is to stop treating emails, texts and social media feeds as facts. Our feeds may tell us what our families, friends and neighbours have experienced with COVID-19 vaccine.

The stories may be compelling; they may be devastating or they may even be uplifting. But they are just that: stories. Taking them at face value is like trading personal stories at the curling rink, our kids’ schools or the proverbial office water cooler. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it is not a good source of information.

There is an expression among scientists: anecdotal evidence is not data. Data is science-driven. It is the result of carefully defined and controlled studies that can be replicated by other scientists. Prior to the pandemic time-frame, science results would likely also have been published in a peer-reviewed journal. While the pandemic has speeded up all aspects of the research and development process, it has not abandoned the basic principles of good science. It has not turned individual experiences into facts.

If you want good information, there are a few steps to remember. First, restrict your search to reputable sources. Use those recognized worldwide for their reputation and reliability. You can also look for the HONcode on websites. Health on the Net (HON)’s main mission is to promote transparent and reliable health and medical information online, for a safe use of the internet. The symbol certifies that a site complies with the HON’s code standard for trustworthy health information.

Second, narrow your search further by adding filters. Do you want worldwide data? Try the World Health Organization (WHO). Their comprehensive landing page provides context as well as live feeds on the latest news.

For Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada offers national COVID-19 statistics and updates. A more targeted review on this site covers the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI). In addition, each province and most major metropolitan areas have their own public health agencies, again narrowing the information to specific areas.

Third, it’s helpful to return to the same sites, in order to view comparisons of the same information. Different sites have different definitions for terms such as new cases, new infections, deaths and so on. The definitions should be plainly explained on each site you use. To gain perspective over time, it’s best to compare information from the same sites repeatedly, to ensure you are looking at valid comparisons.

Finally, remember that the relevance of the data is greatly affected by the date it was publicized. It might be valuable to see baseline information and data from the onset of the pandemic, but the science has changed very rapidly since then. And it continues to change daily, if not more frequently.

A year ago, we were told to expect vaccine creation to take three years or more. It took less than 12 months. When vaccines first became available, the timing of booster shots was fairly rigid. Now, the science suggests that it is better to give more people a marginally lower degree of protection than to give more people a slightly higher degree.

Early vaccines were developed and approved before the appearance of variants. Now, even approved vaccines are being retested to discover their efficacy with the new variants. These are just three examples of the rapid changes in the COVID-19 story. To rely on news from as recently as last week is to miss out on the best data available.

Accessing news about COVID-19 is similar in some ways to watching your investments. Financial advisers regularly suggest that clients do not obsess about the ups and downs of the markets. That’s the adviser’s job. If you are invested for the long term, assuming you trust your financial adviser in the first place, it is better not to look too closely at each day’s performance.

Similarly, it’s the job of scientists, medical experts and public health personnel to summarize the most important data, trends and proposals to combat the pandemic. And to educate and inform politicians and other policy-makers. It’s your job to keep yourself as safe as possible until, and even after, you can be vaccinated. This does not require spending hours each day on more COVID-19 news.

But if you are going to look for information on the pandemic, following a few precautions could save you not just time but unnecessary stress from information overload — and even disinformation overload — as well.

Evelyn H. Lazare is a retired health-care planner, strategist and executive. Currently living in Ottawa, she now devotes her writing primarily to novels.

Image credit: engin akyurt/Unsplash

EHL rabble headshot BW

Evelyn Lazare

Evelyn H. Lazare is a retired health-care planner, strategist and executive. Lazare has led nation-wide health-care organizations in Canada and has consulted to an array of health-care and related...