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The Repeat Expert. The Repeated Narrative.

The AJC has relied on an expert at Emory in its coverage of COVID-19 and has, in the past week, shaped a portion of its coverage based on a conference call that the expert, Dr. del Rio, had with the Georgia Municipal Association. You can hear the audio at this link.

The AJC cited Dr. del Rio on March 10March 17March 21March 23March 25, and on March 30th cited del Rio hereherehereherehere, and here.

In that last link, the AJC disclosed del Rio “and Gov. Brian Kemp have a bit of history. After she lost the 2018 gubernatorial race, Democrat Stacey Abrams founded the group Fair Fight Action, which filed a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s voting laws. Del Rio is among those mentioned in the legal action.”

The AJC disclosed that on March 30th after noting Georgia’s mayors were upping pressure on Governor Kemp to order a statewide shelter in place after a conference call with del Rio on March 23rd. The AJC largely ran the same sort of story on March 23rd also referencing del Rio.

“We need Governor Kemp to act now, the point of ‘no return’ for Georgia is rapidly closing,” said Carlos del Rio, the chair of the Department of Global Health Studies at Emory University. “To prevent a catastrophe in the healthcare system due to Covid-19, we need for him to shut down Georgia now.”

del Rio made that statement in the March 23rd article. On the same day, he told a group of mayors that Georgia would reach the point of “no-return” the very next day, March 24th.

On March 21st, del Rio noted the same thing with 11Alive, a local television station. But just a week before in the AJC del Rio said

he has not advised Savannah. But he doesn’t fault organizers for going on with the parade. For one thing, he said, it’s an open-air event. For another, Savannah has no cases yet; the nearest diagnoses were still 200 miles away as of Tuesday. “If you want to be absolutely airtight don’t have the event,” he said. “I think while I have the best interest of public health at hand, you also have to think of economic consequences, and you have to not discard those.” [Emphasis added]

Likewise, in his March 23rd call with mayors as a part of a Georgia Municipal Association call, del Rio said he was not so much concerned about rural areas as urban areas — a position in alignment with Governor Kemp’s team. He says that at 22:19 in the call. Then, at 25:33, he says we need a two-week shelter-in-place for the whole state, referencing that Georgia crosses the point of no return on March 24th.

But there is a problem. The projections are now meeting reality. According to the modeling del Rio keeps referencing, on March 31st, Georgia should have 1,355 hospitalizations with limited action. But Georgia right now has 773 hospitalizations. Assuming a 3-month lockdown in the state, the model got closer, predicting 741 hospitalizations.

Consider though that the input variables have changed and del Rio’s own modeling now shows the “point of no return” was not March 24th as he claimed and the AJC reported but is now “between April 6th and April 11th at the latest.

At 5 minutes into that phone call with the Georgia Municipal Association, del Rio predicted 27,000 dead in Georgia and said, on the call, “if we do the right things we can bring the number of deaths down to about a thousand in the state of Georgia.”

This phone call has led to the aggressive coverage from the AJC against the Governor of Georgia. If you read any of those links above citing del Rio, they are largely devoid of statements from the Governor’s own advisors. One could read the coverage and think the situation is Dr. del Rio vs. Brian Kemp as opposed to Brian Kemp listening to the head of the Georgia Department of Public Health, various doctors, the disaster preparedness team from the University of Georgia, etc.

Now, let’s add into the mix a story posted overnight last night at the AJC. According to this story,

One of Georgia’s top public health experts has offered some encouraging news in the state’s coronavirus fight. A new statistical model suggests deaths in Georgia from the novel coronavirus should peak April 23, according to Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University. That means infections in the state will likely reach their highest point a few days before, del Rio said.… In a conference call with reporters, del Rio, executive associate dean of Emory University School of Medicine at Grady Health System, said the estimated date for a peak in Georgia is based on predictions from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. It’s “probably the best modeling group there is in the United States.”According to that model, the number of Georgians dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, will peak on April 23 with an estimated 84 people dying on that day.

102 people have died as of this writing. He said he predicts if we do the right things 1,000 people will die. He has previously said we did not do the right things and the Governor needed to shut the whole state down or there would be 27,000 deaths.

Something does not work in the math unless we’re going to start averaging thousands of deaths a day between now and April 23rd.

Believe it or not, my point here is not to belittle Dr. del Rio or cast doubts on his expertise. I know some of you assume that’s the point, but it really isn’t. Dr. del Rio is an expert and his modeling is sound and up to date. I have been one of the chief defenders on the right of epidemiological modeling forecasts.

The problem here is that as Dr. del Rio’s modeling has changed, the press coverage has not. It should have been notable that del Rio, on March 23rd, said the point of no return would be March 24th or we could have upwards of 27,000 deaths. It should have been notable when reporting just yesterday that del Rio’s modeling forecast had changed that clearly Georgia’s governmental entities were doing something right. It should have been notable as well that the gubernatorial team of experts has been modeling too all along and the Governor’s decisions have been based on that modeling.

Instead, what we got were a series of stories (hereherehere, and here among others) about mayors demanding more action based on the March 23rd call with del Rio, whose modeling has changed since then. On top of that, many of the stories are just repackaged versions of the previous stories.

Compounding the problem is, in citing del Rio demanding the Governor ignore his advisors and do what del Rio thinks is best, the AJC missed until yesterday his involvement in the Stacey Abrams backed lawsuit. In an age of “believe all women,” a newspaper that took a line in defense of Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh, like most newspapers across America, would prefer to believe Dr. del Rio than Dr. Kathleen Toomey. Dr. Toomey is the Commissioner in charge of public health, a respected epidemiologist, and previously served as the CDC’s Country Director in Botswana. But why bother with an expert adviser to the Governor when there’s a man at Emory who disagrees with her?

If the modeling is going to change, is it too much to ask that the reporting angles and narratives change with it? By the way, I don’t think del Rio is biased in his analyses. He is just following the data. But I do think anyone’s willingness to let their name be used in a Stacey Abrams backed lawsuit does suggest he may have some disdain for the Governor that shapes how forcefully he announces his opinions. That context matters.


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