NY Times “Well” column is unwell again – this time on pandemic running advice

By | April 22, 2020

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Gary Schwitzer is the founder of HealthNewsReview.org and has been its publisher for 14 years. He tweets as @garyschwitzer or as @HealthNewsRevu

I admire much of the great journalism being delivered by the New York Times on COVID-19 pandemic issues.

But I continue to be befuddled many weeks by the decision-making and editorial judgment of the Times’ Well column.  We have written several times about how unwell is the Well feature.

Today, one of our former physician-contributors, Adam Cifu, MD – a general Internist and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, tweeted:

It was published in the New York edition of the paper today, Section D, Page 6, with the headline: “Social Distancing for Runners.”

An earlier version appeared online in a Well column 6 days ago, under the headline: For Runners, Is 15 Feet the New 6 Feet for Social Distancing?

And it’s based on a pre-printsomething we wrote about to explain for readers earlier this month.

Screen shot of researchers’ animation

The online version’s two opening paragraphs actually seem to question the newsworthiness of the article. I’ve highlighted early caveats in the article:

It may be a good idea to give one another more than six feet of space while exercising outside during the current coronavirus pandemic, according to a compelling new study that looked at how air flows around bodies in motion. The study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and the results need further confirmation. But they indicate that runners and brisk walkers may create a wake of air behind them that could carry exhaled respiratory droplets for 15 feet or more, meaning that the droplets could reach people walking or jogging well behind them.

The findings, released last week as a brief white paper and accompanying series of animations, have been shared widely on social media and prompted some trepidation among people worried they demonstrate that sharing the outdoors with other exercisers, especially runners, raises infection risk. But the study, which has now been posted in full online, did not look at coronavirus particles specifically or how they are carried in respiratory droplets in real-life conditions. Nor does it prove or even suggest that infection risks rise if you do wind up temporarily strolling behind a panting runner.

But then the third paragraph delivers an editorial judgement:

Still, its calculations make sense. It finds that when we walk or run, the air moves differently around us than when we are still and the best way to maintain a proper social distance in that situation is to avoid slipstreams, the currents of air that follow a moving body.

And so it goes – back and forth – throughout the piece.

In an email, Dr. Cifu wrote to me:

What bothers me most about the article is that it seems truly irresponsible. People right now are struggling. Safe exercise is one way to attempt to save some measure of sanity. This article identifies an unpublished and unreviewed manuscript, I think, becomes it comes with a video. The point made, that running behind someone might increase your risk of infection is plausible, but there is nothing in the “research” or this article that makes it more than the plausible it was before the research. To prove that we would need a trial (one that would be unethical to do) or at least proof that viable virus exists in high enough density to cause infection in the “slipstream.”

I love reading comments left by readers in response to NYT Well pieces.  Some excerpts this time:

  • There are so many other mitigating factors that this article doesn’t consider, such as wind dispersal of droplets and the extremely short exposure time if you are running through somebody else’s slipstream.
  • Put a number on it like 15 feet based on one study with many variables that have substantial variability unaccounted for (height of the individual, humidity, wind speed, jogging speed, etc.) borders on misinformation and fuels people’s hysteria about a “politically correct” way to social distance.
  • To the left of this great piece is just as good a piece (Is the Virus on my Clothes etc.) giving us totally different advice on distancing while running or fast walking. Confusion is counterproductive in these confusing days. We look to your paper as one of the few credible, a-political, sources available, for clarity. Information overload, generally speaking does not help. Thank you.
  • It’s important to note that Dr. Blocken’s study has not been submitted to peer review, nor is it research. He’s gotten a lot of publicity and self-promotion from all this. In this era of heightened concern over viral transmission its important to be alert to the fact that bad science can spread virally, too.
  • It was irresponsible of the Times to print this article.

As I write this, there have been 544 reader comments left online in response to the NYT Well story.  Those posted only offer a glimpse of the wisdom of the crowds.

I have written before that the Well staff would do well to read the reader comments, learn from them, and make adjustments in the future accordingly.

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