EDITORIAL: On alert

Agencies offer information to help in making decisions

Some loyal readers have called our offices asking about alerts they have received on their smartphones regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Different people have received different alerts.

We applaud officials at all levels and at different agencies who endeavor to keep the public informed about the spread of the disease and the risks it poses for public health. It appears, however, that several agencies are preparing their own information, and different reports don’t always match up.

It might be best, therefore, to defer to a few major clearinghouses of information, and relay patrons to those sites.

Some people receive alerts, others don’t, and that fact appears to be related to different features on phones, or subscribed services that some users might not even remember signing up for.

For example, the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. State Department all provide coronavirus updates, primarily to help people know both conditions in their own cities and those in any areas to which some people might plan to travel. The State Department, for example, uses a color-coded alert system much like the global threat system the Department of Homeland Security used in its first few years. State issued a red, notravel alert at the end of March, warning that the risk of viral infection was nationwide. More recently it sent out a yellow alert posting information on how the pandemic was affecting the processing of passport applications.

Similar alert systems are in place at the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as local jurisdictions. Both Cameron and Hidalgo counties, for example, issue daily updates on the number of COVID-19 cases; they include the number of people tested, the number of positive results, hospitalizations, deaths and the number of people who have recovered.

Few agencies send out startling alarms such as those used in Amber alerts; most issue emails and posts on Facebook and other social media platforms that interested residents can access as they wish. This option appears to be the most widely utilized and the least intrusive.

Frequent, even daily updates are valuable to help residents stay informed about the viral cases in their area. They help people decide the relative safety of leaving the home, letting them decide if their planned outing it worth the risk. It can help people decide if they really need to make that trip to the store, or if it’s safer to go alone and leave the rest of the family at home.

As in most cases of data dissemination, variances from one source to another likely is the result of the timing of the reports or the sources of their information. Outlets outside of those that officially generate the primary information, such as media services, would do well to link offer links on their reports to the actual sources of information, such as county, DSHS, State and CDC websites.

Ultimately, the obvious goal is to inform the public. It’s good to see that so many information providers seek to provide residents with valuable information that helps them assess the progress of the pandemic, both globally and locally, and help them make better decisions that could help them remain safe until the danger of infection has completely passed. People should remember that such information is available, and refer to it frequently.