CNN’s Sanjay Gupta on covering the coronavirus: ‘I think there is intrinsic value to hope’

Sanjay Gupta is chief medical correspondent at CNN and an associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University. John Nowk/CNN

Sanjay Gupta, 50, is the Emmy Award-winning chief medical correspondent at CNN. He is also an associate professor of neurosurgery at Emory University and associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta.

Q: As both a journalist and a practicing doctor, I’m sure you think a lot about how to balance the need for people to understand the gravity of the coronavirus pandemic, but not provoke hysteria.

A: That is the question. The inflection point between hope and honesty – that’s how I think of it. And my medical career has been helpful because that’s what we’re always doing with patients. I think there is intrinsic value to hope. It shouldn’t just be labeled the opposite of honesty. But as doctors and as reporters, it can never come at the expense of honesty.

For example, there was a discussion about potentially new therapeutics, one of them being chloroquine, this malaria drug. There’s a 20-patient study out of France that was promising. It’s very early, so I’m hopeful. But there’s no way that I could say that this is going to be it if the evidence isn’t there. You know? There was another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine about these two antiretroviral drugs, HIV drugs, that had a lot of promise. Everyone was really excited. They started the trial one week after the first patient was diagnosed in China. And they were, like, this is going to be it; this is going to get us out of this mess. And (then) it showed no benefit over existing supportive care. That’s why you do studies. And it’s not a zero-sum game. I mean, someone suggested: Well, just give them the chloroquine. It’s a pretty safe drug. And maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t. That’s not how you approach science – and if for no other reason than that you might then divert time and resources and energy away from something that could work and really make a monumental difference.

So, yeah, I am hopeful. Who isn’t? Everybody on the planet right now is hopeful. It’s a pandemic. But not just among doctors, but good reporters. You got to be fully transparent about what you know and what you don’t know.

Q: As somebody interested in health policy, what do you think we could have or should have done differently from a policy point of view?

A: That’s the critical thing here. Because some of the early decisions made in China, and also here in the United States, I think, were significant in slowing down the spread of this virus. The 195 passengers who were flown out of Wuhan and then put into quarantine at that Air Force base in Southern California – that was important. I mean, we had not had a mandatory quarantine like that in this country since smallpox, 60 years ago. The reason that those were important decisions was because they slowed the spread of the virus and bought time. So the big question is, what do you do with the time that was bought? We had modeling numbers based on the federal government’s own data that, if this turned into a moderate sort of pandemic, which it looked like it was, here’s what you were going to need: this many hospital beds, this many ICU beds, this many ventilators, this many masks for personal protective equipment. Their own data. And yet, what surprised me, and I think a lot of people in the public health community, was that that wasn’t acted upon. You bought the time, you know what you need to do, and then, for some reason, those things didn’t connect. It’s reasonable to expect that the federal government will act on that data.

Q: You’ve been on CNN, but also on late-night TV, podcasts, all sorts of interviews recently, clearly pushing yourself to get the message out there. What kind of responsibility do you feel?

A: I do feel an obligation – with this story in particular. It’s going to be one of the most important things that happens, from a medical and health standpoint, to most of us in our lifetimes. Nobody who has chosen this as a profession should, in any way, be sitting this out or not giving it 100 percent. It’s that important. I spent a long time hopefully gaining people’s trust through other reporting and other stories that I’ve done so that, when I now tell them something about this, which is honest – hopeful, but honest – that they listen.

I’m still thinking about this as I go to bed and as I wake up. Thinking about new ways to present something. Like, I don’t know that I explained that well enough. I’m not sure if it hit the mark that I wanted it to make. Like this morning, trying to explain inertia versus linear growth. I had an image of a large ship going through the ocean. And I said, “OK, the ship’s going 60 miles an hour, and a regular speedboat is going 60 miles an hour next to it. Which of those is harder to stop? Both going the same speed.” And all the sudden people are, like, “Oh, I get it.” And by the way, when you turn the wheel on that cruise ship, how long before you’re actually going to be able to have the ship actually turn? People say, So how long is it going to take to know if we’re making a difference? It can take a long time. I feel like I know what I’m trying to convey. But a lot of the job is figuring out the best way to convey it.

Q: Is there anything that you want people to understand about the pandemic situation that you feel like you haven’t been able to effectively convey so far?

A: The biggest thing is, everyone thinks that this is sort of a linear phenomenon. Let’s see what the number is tomorrow. Let’s see what the number is the day after that. The numbers really don’t matter as much as the pace at which they’re increasing. People will say, We’re doing all this stuff, and the numbers are still going up; it’s not working! But that’s not how you look at it. My own patients – and it’s human nature – don’t like to do things that they don’t see the immediate benefit in. I tell them to eat right and exercise and all that – and then nothing will happen to you as a result. And they say, well, that’s not very inspiring. My whole life as a doctor I’ve been sort of asked to prove a negative for my patients. It’s the same sort of thing here.

The other thing is that people tend to look at this as a very binary thing. Either you live or you die. Right? The general narrative interpreted by people was that 80 percent of people will live, and 20 percent of people are vulnerable – elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. What we’re learning along the way – we don’t have the robust data because this is just three months into this – is that even younger people, if they do get sick, it can have a much longer-lasting impact on them than a lot of people think. Younger people who have recovered will be listed in that binary formula as the recovered population. But you’re finding out that they still have 20 to 30 percent reduced lung function.

Then the final thing is that everyone needs to behave as if they have the virus. I’ve talked about these things, but you’re not always sure that people are quite getting it. One difference between television and one-on-one medicine is that I don’t get the feedback. Sometimes through social media you get some sense of it, but it’s still hard to know.

Q: Like you, I also recently had to cancel my 11-year-old’s birthday party because of the virus.

A: I was telling a friend of mine the other day: We had a really good childhood, if you think about it. We were post-Korea, post-Vietnam. The Gulf War wouldn’t happen until 1991. We were in college at that point and didn’t worry about things. And here my kids – our country has been at war since they were born. There have been two significant recessions. Climate change is a real topic of discussion.

You know, my middle child used to be the kid who’d say: All right, so here’s how my life is going to unfold. I’m going to be an architect. I want to have two kids. Here are their names. This is the kind of guy I’m going to marry. I mean, the whole thing. It was a funny dinnertime conversation. A few months ago, I said, “So how’s your plan going?” “It’s not happening,” she said, “because I hear that by the year 2030, the world is likely to end.” I never felt like that when I was a kid.

I don’t know what you told your 11-year-old. But I said, “Tell me about your 8th birthday. What was that like?” She’s, like, “I don’t remember my 8th birthday.” Exactly. You’ll never forget this. You’ll tell your grandkids one day that your 11th birthday was in the middle of the 2019-2020 pandemic. And we made it through that. That’ll be something that we talk about for the rest of our lives.

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