This is a short post because, frankly, I don’t have time to write it (clinic all day, D&D with the kids tonight). Those of you hoping for another 7,000 word in-depth discussion (read: nobody) will have to settle for just 3,000 or so today. Nevertheless, I want to start with a digression and show you this chart I use in my clinic:
This chart is for my diabetic patients who have a very particular treatment regimen; they are taking both a long-acting basal insulin once or twice daily, and they are taking a short or rapid acting insulin before each meal. Because of this, we need some blood sugar numbers; we need to know their fasting blood sugar in the morning so we can adjust their basal insulin, and we need to know their numbers 2 hours after breakfast, lunch, and dinner so we can adjust their meal coverage with the short acting insulin. They are not taking insulin on a sliding scale; those patients will need to check before meals in order to take the appropriate dose.
Now, I work extremely hard to empower my patients to adjust their insulin on their own, and a lot of our visit time is focused on teaching them about the various insulin length of action times, the logic behind basal/bolus insulin dosing, and especially what numbers to look for that should trigger them to increase or decrease their dose. But it’s challenging, and as much as I love it when a patient is on ‘auto-pilot’ with their insulin, we still do a lot of adjusting in clinic, which is where these charts come in. Fasting blood sugar high? We’ll go up on your long-acting Lantus insulin. Taking 5 units of novolog before every meal but the after-lunch numbers are still super-high? We can go up on your pre-lunch and keep the pre-breakfast and pre-dinner numbers the same. You get the idea.
So that’s the glucose log I print for my patients. Now let me show the one I actually hand to them:
You see, like all doctors my approach to any medical problem represents a balance between what my medical training tells me is the best possible treatment plan and the actual, lived experiences of my patients. Some of my patients will check their blood sugar 4 times a day, every day (some of them even if they don’t strictly need to; they just really, really like to know). But I don’t think I could manage to do that, and so I don’t ‘demand’ it of my patients. The reality is, we could get almost all the information that the patient and I need by checking their blood sugar half that much; fasting every day, then checking after a different meal each day. And most of my patients are much, much more likely to follow through with checking twice a day than four times a day (as I certainly would be).
What does this have to do with the quarantine recommendations for COVID-19? Everything, because both the CDC’s new guidelines and my approach to blood sugar logging for my diabetic patients are based on an essential mediator of medical outcomes: Health Behavior.
Where did the original 14 day guidelines come from?
The CDC began to recommend a 14-day quarantine for international travelers coming to the US as early as February, and the same for any household and close contacts of COVID-19 positive persons shortly thereafter. This was based on the incubation period of the virus; the range of time it typically takes an exposed person who becomes infected to develop symptoms. Initially this relied on the already known incubation periods of similar novel Coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, from epidemiology studies that were done following those epidemics in 2003 and 2012. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, studies began to emerge which showed similar incubation periods for the SARS-CoV-2 virus as well. A study from The Netherlands in February found the incubation period to be between 2 to 11 days based on a small number of patients in Wuhan, China; very similar to SARS and especially MERS. This was supported by multiple other studies that all showed an apparent incubation period somewhere in the range of 2-12 days.
This begs the question, “if most studies showed the incubation period to end at 10 to 12 days, why were we all told to quarantine for 14 days?” And this is where health behavior comes in. The first (and least important) reason, I think, is because 14 days is just a lot easier to remember. “Your last exposure was last Wednesday, so you can be done with Quarantine after next Wednesday” is easier to remember than 11 days or 12 days because we naturally think in weeks anyway. But much more importantly, the novel Coronavirus was noveland recommendations needed to be made based on very limited evidence. The two studies above had sample sizes of 88 and 158 respectively; enough to be going on with, but not nearly enough to be really confident. Those studies consistently showed that though we thought the average incubation period would be 5-6 days, there was still a possibility that once we had more data it would end up being much longer; and there was a very good chance that even if the average incubation period stayed less than a week, some people would still be contagious for much longer, maybe even greater than 2 weeks. With a virus this contagious, ignoring that uncertainty could be very, very dangerous.
Hence the recommendation to be released from quarantine only once you have been asymptomatic for 14 days since your last exposure; it was easy to remember, it was very likely, based on early evidence, to cover the vast majority of cases (although it does absolutely nothing for fully asymptomatic cases, of course), and it was unlikely to be expanded based on new evidence.
That last bit is really important, because even though epidemiologists, physicians, and other scientists know that it’s exactly how science is supposed to work, we’ve all seen how suspiciously our society looks on any changes in recommendations based on new evidence. If the CDC started with 14 days of quarantine and later decreased it to 12, some people would be a bit irritated and probably lose some confidence in them (we’ve seen this time and time again; the undeserved “they keep changing the guidelines!” and “They don’t know what they’re doing!”), but overall it would be a welcomed change. But if they had started with say 9 days and then, based on new evidence, expanded it to 16 days, how would that have gone down? It would have been pandemonium.
So they picked a timeframe that was 1. Supported by the data available and 2. Unlikely to be expanded later based on new data. But there was still a problem, and it was this: Health Behavior.
14 days of quarantine is hard. It’s hard psychologically, it’s hard physically, and it’s hard economically. I see COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 exposed patients every day and I have to tell you, I feel terrible every single time I have to recommend a 14 day quarantine to someone. I see the irritation or frustration or even despair as they try to figure out what plans they have to cancel, what friends and family they will have to miss, and how they are possibly going to make ends meet if they can’t work for that long. The results of quarantine so often touted by the anti-quarantine, COVID-19 is a hoax folks, like increased depression and anxiety, are real. No one ever denied this, it’s just that the pandemic is not a hoax and has, as of today, killed 1.5 million people worldwide and 271,000 in the US.
And because it’s hard, every single one of us knows somebody whodidn’t quarantine when they were supposed to. Unsurprisingly, that’s one of the main factors I see at play in my outdoor COVID-19 clinic visits; people were exposed to friends or family who had not reached the end of their quarantine period but decided that enough time had passed that they wouldn’t be at risk of spreading the virus. Based on what? Gut feeling, mostly; and also reaching the point where their desire for experiences or people or options precluded by quarantine was simply greater than their will to continue quarantine. For most of us, that point will probably come sometime before those 14 days are up. I even know of doctors who couldn’t make it to 14 days, and drawing on exactly none of there clinical training or basic sciences knowledge decided that they must have ‘dodged a bullet’ when they remained asymptomatic less than a week from their exposure, and resumed life as normal. Who am I to judge. I’m a strong extrovert and even general social distancing has been hard enough on me; there but by the grace of God go I.
And sometimes the guidelines, while valid, seem nearly impossible to comply with. For instance, I have friends who diligently completed their ongoing householdcontact quarantine guidelines, which begin on the day the COVID-19 positive patient is diagnosed and end 14 days afterthat person’s 10-day isolation period. That’s 24 days total for their household contacts.
This is no small problem; studies from previous epidemics requiring self-quarantine measures have found incredibly variable rates of adherence, and often south of 50%. In many ways America was a set-up for poor compliance to these guidelines; highly individualistic culture, a pandemic occurring in the most contentious election year in recent memory, massive campaigns (organized and unorganized) of misinformation about the virus, and with no clear messaging or leadership on a national level. Those last two points are crucial, because the strongest predictor for adherence is not cultural or socio-economic factors, or even fear of the virus; it’s how knowledgeable people are about the virus and the way it spreads, and how well they understand the quarantine guidelines. Which is, uh, why folks like me are doing this sort of thing.
12/2/20: The CDC will update quarantine guidelines.
Which brings us to today, and the new quarantine options from the CDC, which are these:
7 days, as long as they remain asymptomatic and have a negative COVID-19 test.
Why were these changes made? Because they were wrong back in February? Because the election is over (finally)? Not at all. There are two possible reasons: either because enough new evidence has emerged to convince the epidemiologists at the CDC that these timeframes are as safe and effective as the original 14-day recommendations, or because they are convinced that enough people will actually follow through with these less extreme guidelines that there will still be a net decrease in transmission.
Let’s look at the first one. There have been nearly 14 million cases in the US since February and over 64 million world wide; even without access to complete information of each of these individuals and their exposures to COVID-19, we should be able to muster more than the 88 cases that first study was based on. Have all of the newer, more robust analyses of this data changed the picture of COVID-19 incubation so drastically that the CDC was forced to update their guidelines?
Answer: Not really. It’s important to note that when the CDC did finally release the updated guidelines late in the night, they clarified that the new guidelines were alternative options to the 14-day quarantine, which was still their strongest recommendation. I believe this is supported by the evidence.
Just like there was nothing magical about day 14 that caused the virus to go, “all righty I guess we’re done here, pack ‘er up boys!” back in March, there’s nothing magical about day 10 or day 7 now. A systematic review and meta-analysis of all the then available estimates of the COVID-19 incubation period, first published in The British Journal of Medicine in August, found an average (mean) incubation period of 5 to 7 days, and 95th percentile estimate between 10 and 14 days…. Remarkably similar to the earlier estimates. The figure below is from that paper and reflects the distribution in all of the studies they could get their hands on. Notice how there isn’t a steep drop off at day 10; in fact, the range of the possible incubation period stretches all the way out to about 3 weeks. Unlike the early observational studies, this meta-analysis involved multiple studies with hundreds of cases each, though that original data was still from early on in the pandemic.
Another meta-analysis from later in the year, first published in October in the online journal Current Therapeutic Research, included 18 studies representing 22,595 participants. That’s a lot more than 88. What did they find? The average incubation period was about 6 days. This paper was advocating for a much shorter quarantine, along with testing, similar to the new ‘7 days with a negative test’ recommendation from the CDC; tellingly, however, it only included analysis of the mean incubation period, not the range of incubation from those studies; it doesn’t address the impact of all of those cases that would cease quarantine on day 7 but become symptomatic within the next few days.
Finally, a relatively small but thoroughly analyzed study from Singapore including 164 cases from January to April and published in the journal Epidemiology and Infection in September shows some cases with an incubation period definitively longer than the 10 day mark set by the CDC, though they were relatively small in number. It also found that the incubation period does seem to be positively correlated with age, with the longest incubation periods among those in their 70’s and older.
To summarize, unless there is some big study that the CDC has access to and I can’t seem to find (and please send it to me if there is, so I can take this post down and not look like an idiot), the current evidence has not revised the known incubation period of COVID-19.
You can still develop COVID-19 symptoms more than 10 days after your exposure.
Q: So why the change? A: Health Behavior
So if the CDC isn’t changing the quarantine guidelines because of some scientific breakthrough that has utterly overturned our understanding of the virus’s incubation period or the way it is transmitted, why make the change at all? Because the 14-day quarantine guidelines aren’t working; not because quarantine doesn’t work, but because people won’t do it. They are banking on the idea that enough people will be willing to comply with a less aggressive quarantine period that still covers the vast majority of cases (compared to a longer quarantine that very few people were willing to follow) to make up for the relatively few cases whose incubation period would have been longer.
I don’t know if they are right or not. Something’s gotta give, so I really hope they are. But overall I actually kind of like this new recommendation because it has the potential to change the behavior of one group of people that has probably been contributing to the pandemic numbers as much as anyone else; asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers who aren’t following quarantine at all. The biggest weakness with the 14-day quarantine was that there was no fail-safe built in for the people who just weren’t willing to quarantine. They might stay home from work or school for 14 days because they had to, but would use some of that time to shop, have parties, or engage in other activities that had a high likelihood of transmitting the virus. I don’t mean to imply it was all from selfish motivations; some people with much less natural laziness than myself probably just couldn’t cope with 14-days off, and have probably been using their quarantine to help others and do good deeds around the neighborhood, or volunteer more at their local church or community center. Good things in themselves, but still very, very dangerous when you have been exposed to a deadly and highly contagious virus. And like I said before, many others very understandably don’t have the margin to be out of work for that amount of time. The new guidelines are helpful because for people very motivated to stop quarantine after day 7, a test for COVID-19 now greatly increases the chances that we’ll catch their infection and modify behaviors that lead to transmission. Even if they weren’t following quarantine before that day 7 test, they might follow isolation guidelines if it’s positive.
We know that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people can still spread COVID-19, but asymptomatic testing has always been a double-edged sword. Very wide scale asymptomatic testing would be one of the best possible ways to catch and isolate cases early and really modify the course of the pandemic, and asymptomatic testing targeting people in essential services, like nursing home nurses and doctors, is the best way to prevent pre-symptomatic transmission among some of our most vulnerable populations. But in both of these situations, the test result always leads to either a neutral or a safer set of decisions; if asymptomatic people test positive, they isolate, while negative people continue their standard level of caution. If a nurse or doctor tests positive, she calls in; if negative, she continues to work.
But testing of asymptomatic people who have been exposed and are still under quarantine is completely different, because the test result now has two drastically diverging branches; not safer and neutral, but safer and less safe. If an exposed person does test positive, it is much easier for them to feel the weight of their responsibility to keep those around them safe from it; I’m sure anybody reading this who has tested positive remembers the moment they received that news, and remembers how real the need to isolate suddenly felt. But since they are already under quarantine, there is a very real chance that a negative test will give many people a false sense of security without actually guaranteeing that they won’t become contagious, and instead of continuingwith the same degree of caution they are most likely to exercise far less. There are a hundred different cartoons online right now demonstrating this concept. I like this one because it feels like the person who wrote it really has a vendetta against somebody named Casey.
This is the reason my COVID-19 clinic has shied away from broadly testing asymptomatic close contacts; the value of that test can be a big positive or a big negative, and it entirely depends on what the person plans to do with that information. If they plan to quarantine well regardless of a negative and only want to know so they can alert their close contacts, that’s terrific; but I’ve talked with lots of people, patients of mine and otherwise, and even some healthcare workers, who were under quarantine due to close contact and planned to get tested so that they could go ahead and travel, throw a party, or go back to work early. A negative test, within the incubation period, cannot definitively make these actions safe, and depending on when in the incubation period, might be no help at all. That’s why I carefully counsel every patient about what to do with their test results, symptomatic or not, based on their clinical history. I’m not opposed to asymptomatic testing for exposed individuals; it just has to be accompanied by a very careful discussion of what the test can and can’t be used for.
With all of that in mind, if you are going to do asymptomatic testing for exposed close contacts, 7 days seems like a fair point to test. Again, it’s easy to remember; ‘1 week of quarantine and then get tested’. But more importantly, it’s past the mean incubation period; a test on day 7 covers the incubation period for most people who remain asymptomatic, and has a good chance of catching any pre-symptomatic patients with an incubation period up to day 8 or 9. Between that and of course testing the folks that do have symptoms as soon as they get them, that covers most people. And if that negative test does give a little false sense of security, it’s at a point in the timeline of their exposure where lots of folks are feeling ready to throw caution to the wind anyway.
It’s not perfect, but I wouldn’t call the new quarantine guidelines ‘misinformation’ either. It’s a calculated risk based on the expected health behavior of a population who is absolutely exhausted with this pandemic. I hope it pays off.
So… What do I do then?
Adherence to quarantine is highest when people really have a firm understanding of the quarantine guidelines and the rationale behind them. The rationale behind this decision is that more people will comply with less extreme quarantine guidelines that are still, for the most part, safe. But it doesn’t mean I’ll be counseling my patients differently; I still want them to know that they could become contagious for a few days after that day 10, and that the negative test on day 7 is not a 100% guarantee. I want them to understand the incubation period of the virus and the extra caution they still need to take for those several days after their quarantine is technically over. When I’m writing school and work notes, if their quarantine period under the new guidelines has them going back on a Friday, we are going to push that back (with the patient’s permission) to Monday. When they test negative on day 7, I want them to know that they should still come back and get re-tested if they develop symptoms on day 11 or 12.
And that’s the advice I’m offering to you now. If you have a close contact and need to quarantine, try to make it to at least day 12, if not day 14, before releasing yourself if at all possible; or get tested on day 8 or 9 instead of day 7 if you can. Advocate for those around you by fighting for your right to ere on the side of caution, recognizing that the current guidelines are a compromise with the expected health behaviors of our society. A timely and hopefully effective compromise, but a compromise nonetheless. And just as you wouldn’t act like Casey and use a negative test on day 5 as an excuse to cast aside all precautions, so a negative test on day 7 should be treated as reassuring, but not foolproof.
But as for me and my house, we will quarantine for 14 days.
As the pandemic has escalated over the past several months and almost all of us who had been previously unaffected have now had friends, family members, or other people we care deeply about either pass away or at least become very, very ill from the virus, I’ve noticed a trend in the misinformation that we accept, share, and believe. The nature of a global pandemic is that it robs us of our delusions, and we are now many months out from being able to believe what was commonly said in March and April, that the pandemic is not coming, and that even if it does come it is not deadly. The landscape has shifted, and until more conspiracy theories crop up about vaccines or possible outpatient treatments in the coming weeks and months, the misinformation has settled back into the realm where it is most resilient; into the question of motives. It doesn’t matter what actually happens with medications, vaccines, case numbers, and death rates; believing that the people trying to help you are actually trying to control you is always fair game.
In about a week we are going to see the merger of COVID-19 misinformation and the ever-popular “War on Christmas” conspiracy which annually reminds us that dark forces are at work in the world to destroy my favorite holiday and everything it stands for. But until then, Thanksgiving is the target apparent of the powers that be.
Full disclosure, I’ve waged a small private war against Thanksgiving for years, and it has nothing to do with how many people are gathered. My concern is with the way we celebrate and especially teach children about the history of Thanksgiving and the way we sterilize the history of Native America-European settler relations. I also have some concerns, as the doctor to many patients with diabetes and CHF, about the lack of nuance in our culture’s understanding of feasting, and typically resolve this by telling my patients not to check their fasting blood sugar on Black Friday (unless they take correction dose sliding-scale insulin, of course). For me, it’s the most hypocritical holiday of all, because while I caution moderation to my patients I know I will probably fail to practice it myself. Because you see, despite all of my concerns about Thanksgiving as a holiday, I alsolove turkey and dressing, pumpkin pie, and most importantly (as any true Southerner will tell you) green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and brown gravy (I’ll lose readers over that), and a sweet potato and marshmallow dessert we have hilariously convinced ourselves is a side dish instead of a hedonistic excess and probable harbinger of the end times.
(I also like seeing my family and stuff.)
So the togetherness and joy of the thanksgiving holiday is something I’m loath to give up for any reason, and I would be lying if I told you that I knew all along that we would opt for a small family Thanksgiving day in our own home, or that I immediately made that decision after reviewing the trends in COVID-19 numbers or even after reading Dr. Emily Smith’s excellent, excellent review of the relevant epidemiology facts. We earnestly struggled with it. And as we weighed the medical risks of our extended family members against my daily interaction to COVID-19 positive patients and my wife’s recent exposure to the virus, I could taste the potato casserole fading from my future as we made the difficult call and informed very disappointed (but understanding and supportive) family.
And I’ve been counseling my patients to do likewise, just like many physicians, epidemiologists, and other health scientists around the country. And despite the suspicion and mistrust that a doctoral degree elicits these days, it has nothing to do with wanting to control my patients lives, training them for future subservience to the government, my crusade against the idea that our relationship with Native Americans was ever truly mutually respectful and supportive, or even the principle that misery loves company and if I don’t get to eat my grandma’s turkey dressing recipe on Thursday they shouldn’t either.
Instead, it’s because we are living today in the most dangerous window of the pandemic so far, and because there are characteristics of Holidays in general, and Thanksgiving in particular, that makes this week an incredibly dangerous one for our country.
3 Reasons that Thanksgiving is Dangerous.
1. Certain holidays are more dangerous than others. Even allowing for difference of culture and family tradition, the innate characteristics of certain holidays make them more or less dangerous in terms of transmission of a respiratory virus. January 2nd, World Introvert Day, will probably be just fine; but the indoor concert you are planning for National Kazoo Day three weeks later on January 28th should be cancelled because that is a lot of aerosolized spittle in an enclosed space (it should be cancelled anyway regardless of COVID-19, but that’s not my point).
If we are going to discuss the characteristics of Thanksgiving, it would help to compare it to another widely celebrated holiday we’ve experienced during COVID-19, the 4th of July. As a reminder, here is a look at the numbers.
The two weeks after the 4th of July saw the largest spike in cases of COVID-19 we’ve experienced during the entire pandemic (except for the one we are in now). There’s a strong enough case to be made that the trajectory of that wave was already increasing prior to the holiday; but the public gatherings, parties, and beach trips dramatically contributed to the rise in cases, heightened the severity of that late-July peak, and appreciably altered the curve for the worse in places like Florida and California. In a moment we’ll compare some of the characteristics of these holidays, but that’s really splitting hairs; the biggest reason that Thanksgiving is dangerous is because COVID-19 transmission follows the principles of exponential growth; the more cases you start with going into a time of decreased caution like a holiday, the greater the impact it will have on the curve. We are already close to or above capacity in many hospitals around the country; evenanother 4th of July, with the numbers we have right now, would absolutely drown us. And there’s plenty of reasons innate to the holiday that make Thanksgiving much, much worse.
It’s true that the 4th of July has some characteristics that could make it more likelyto result in spread of COVID-19 than Thanksgiving; mainly that it involved very large events that brought together people from very different spheres of contact. A few cases of COVID-19 could spread easily to multiple social circles and families from one big 4th of July party. But Thanksgiving has some characteristics that make it more dangerous too. First, unlike the 4th of July, most people celebrate Thanksgiving indoors; transmission is more likely indoors than outdoors, all things being equal. Second, contact tends to be prolonged; you aren’t just passing various people for a moment on the way to the beach or grabbing a beer, you are sitting face-to-face for hours while eating and visiting and (unless you are a good-for-nothing-in-the-kitchen family freeloader like me) cooking. If a contact at a 4th of July party has COVID-19, you may or may not have been exposed. If someone at Thanksgiving Dinner has COVID-19, everyone there is definitely an exposed close contact.
Third, that issue of bringing people together from different spheres of contact is true for Thanksgiving just as much as for the 4th of July. Traveling for the holiday is one of the major things that public health experts are warning against, and even if you aren’t flying or driving across state lines, not everyone’s social circles really overlap much with their cousins’ or grandparents’. One family member who has had an exposure or hasn’t taken precautions in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving runs the risk of infecting their entire family, and those family members bring their exposure back to the other members of their community. Finally, Thanksgiving brings people together who are not likely to socially distance from one another. It’s all well and good to say ‘we will eat outside and stay 6 feet apart’, but how many times has that actually happened when getting together with family you have been longing to see? There will be hugs, there will be boardgames, there will be long heartfelt conversations- or yelling matches about politics. Not to mention the decision of whether or not to finish off somebody else’s half eaten piece of pumpkin pie if nobody is looking, which is a difficult enough choice even under normal circumstances.
But we don’t have to just take my word for it or guess whether Thanksgiving will be as bad (or worse) as the 4th of July, because Canada has a Thanksgiving too, which they hold (ridiculously) on October 8th.
The Canadian numbers show a miniature warning of exactly what we would expect after a national holiday during a national uptick in cases; a steepening of the curve and a much larger number of new cases over the next month. The difference is that Canada has nowhere near the number of active cases or the amount of community transmission that we have; our increase is going to be much, much more dramatic.
2. Holidays bring together those who are at greatest risk with those who spread the virus best. We talked about the total lack of social distancing between relatives when they finally get together, and nobody is better at not socially distancing than children. If you think about the emotional value we all place on the holidays, probably one of the first images that comes to mind is the sight of your children running to their grandparents and covering them in hugs and kisses. It’s honestly one of my favorite moments each and every time it happens. It’s also a very, very dangerous situation if there’s any possibility those children have COVID-19. Children spread COVID-19 very easily; some studies have shown that children spread it even longer and more efficiently than even the sickest ICU patients. They spread it even when asymptomatic, and are asymptomatic at a higher rate than adults. They are also in school, and schools are full of other small gross people that spread COVID-19 efficiently, and those schools will not be closed for the holidays for any significant period of time prior to Thanksgiving.
And who are they hugging on? Almost certainly the people in your family who are at the highest risk if they do get exposed. We have been discussing the risk factors for severe COVID-19 infection, COVID-19 pneumonia and respiratory distress syndrome, and death on this blog since April and a lot of those factors haven’t changed; age, chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease, other chronic medical problems. But age is the first one, and the risk of someone dying from COVID-19 increases dramatically after age 50.
By bringing together the people in your family most likely to have been exposed to COVID-19 over the past few weeks (because of school) and most likely to spread it even when asymptomatic, and the people most likely to get seriously ill if they are indeed exposed to COVID-19, holiday gatherings with extended family really do present a dangerous situation for the most vulnerable members of our families.
I’ve had patients ask my advice on what to do about visiting grandparents and great-grandparents for Thanksgiving over the past few weeks. I hear their anguish, their indecision, their desire to celebrate with family fighting against their fear of spreading the virus to someone they love, and the deeper fear and guilt that they are making the wrong decision by choosing to miss out on those beautiful moments together. My recommendation? If you think that, barring some tragedy, the person you love has some good years of holiday celebrations left, it seems wise to sacrifice thisone in order to safeguard all of the others. This pandemic won’t last forever.
3. It isn’t just COVID. I’ve been reflecting on my very first efforts at writing about COVID-19 back in March, before I even started this blog. At that time the US had 23,604 deaths from COVID-19 and healthcare workers and public health experts were urging caution, which people were generally willing to follow… for a little while. Today it is 260,000 and instead of seeing this as validation of the concern we have had since March about how bad this virus can be, many people havelong since thrown caution to the wind for really no other reason than that we are all incredibly, unbelievably fatigued. I’ll write about that sometime soon; but what I’ve really been thinking about from those first posts is these two short paragraphs, which are just as true today as they were then.
Guess what? We are there.
As I’ve said before, most people don’t understand what an overwhelmed healthcare system looks like because we’ve never experienced it. It means not having access to doctors and nurses when you are in DKA or have a skull fracture. It means your kid can’t get treatment for his seizures or his infected spider bite. It means that every single medical condition is more dangerous (many are more dangerous during the holidays anyway) because medical professionals don’t have the time, the mental energy, the tools and equipment, or even the staffing to deal with them properly. It means not being able to get an ambulance to get you to the hospital or a bed when you get there. At a time when tent hospitals are being put up around the country, we need to decrease COVID-19 transmission right now to prevent permanent injury and death from everything from high-risk pregnancy to Congestive Heart Failure to snow-skiing accidents.
And of course, as we saw in New York, an overwhelmed healthcare system makes the virus itself incredibly more dangerous as well. “I can always go to the hospital if I have a bad case” has never been a good argument against exercising caution; but it is simply not true if you can’t go to the hospital or if they can’t take care of you well once you get there. The death rate has held more or less steady since it started to decline because of our increased understanding of how to fight the virus with targeted, COVID-19 specific ventilator techniques and successful use of medicines like dexamethasone for hospitalized patients. But the biggest factor that will cause it to go up again is doctors who are too tired to think and nurses who are too busy and fatigued to catch their mistakes.
But how can I celebrate Thanksgiving with family safely?
I never want to be accused of being an alarmist, and if we are talking about reliable epidemiology principles and the solid medical realities of how the virus is transmitted, I would say of course there are safe ways to do Thanksgiving together. In theory. We could talk about things like only meeting outside, everyone distancing from people not in their immediate family, no sick people at all being allowed, and everyone strictly quarantining for a full 14 days prior to the Holiday. The problem is, those are things that are hard for anyone to do, let-alone a large group of people, and the chances that every member of your family can or will strictly adhere to those guidelines is very low; and it gets lower with every person you add. If people are working anywhere other than home, or they are traveling at all prior to the holiday, or if you’ve got just one family member that believes the pandemic is a government sponsored hoax meant to force you to wear a mask and will therefore gleefully shirk every precaution the family has agreed upon when the time comes, your gathering has gone from perfectly safe to not perfectly safe; and not perfectly safe is, in aggregate, really really dangerous right now.
Or let me put it another way. I’ve seen more patients with COVID-19 than any doctor in my clinic system; maybe more than any doctor in town, though there are those whose exposure risk I would rate as being higher than mine (our pulmonologists and ICU docs, for example, or the young medical residents who are seeing patients with COVID-19 in both the outpatient and inpatient setting and the ICU… and of course our nurses, who typically have more time face-to-face with our patients in the hospital, and in clinic perform procedures like nasopharyngeal swabs that are higher risk for aerosolizing respiratory droplets). I’ve been tested for COVID-19 12 times; half because of symptoms and half because of our internal exposure protocols. I’ve been negative 12 times; my 13th test is tomorrow (and if it’s positive I’m coming back to delete this paragraph). I would never disparage the degree of caution that has been taken by my medical brothers and sisters who have contracted COVID-19 in the line of duty, or imply that I’ve done anything they haven’t; but I’ve been seeing COVID-19 positive patients almost daily since April and have utterly failed to contract the virus. My PPE game is strong. I’m really, really good at being cognizant of fomites and at personal transmission control. I’m confident that if I can design and implement clinic protocols that protect patients and staff 40 hours a week, I could do the same for a 3 hour meal… But I’m staying home for Thanksgiving.
Why? Because it isn’t worth the risk. Because the virus is very, very real and I really care about my relatives and neighbors. I’m not afraid of COVID-19, and I’m not letting it control my life. I’ve heard all of that hyperbolic nonsense and rejected it; prudent action on behalf of those you love is not “living in fear,” and giving up one meal with extended family for one year is not letting it “control your life.” I’ve also heard the rejoinder, “but where do we draw the line?” Somewhere else, obviously. And even though I’ll probably be back here in three weeks encouraging you to have a small family Christmas this year, if you want the best possible chance at a safe Christmas with extended family (after strictly quarantining for 2 weeks and carefully laying out ground rules for everyone attending, and not flying to get there…), the best thing we can do is take wise, collective action to stem the tide now. Turkey and dressing will taste just as good in May or June.
After weeks of COVID-19 misinformation being a secondary or minor issue- to me because we have been so busy actually diagnosing and treating the virus, and to the country in general because election misinformation was much more interesting- I suddenly find myself with more pieces of misinformation to write about than I could possibly make time for. There is this meme that probably needs some attention as people who haven’t complied with mitigation measures since March threaten non-compliance with any future mitigation measures because the mitigation measures they already didn’t comply with didn’t work(because they didn’t comply with them). If I get time I’d love to explore that a little further (and, I should hope, a bit more graciously than I did in that last snarky sentence).
This reminds me of the great Chesterton quote; “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Could we say the same thing about self-quarantine, shelter in place measures, and especially lockdown efforts? And what then shall we say about wearing masks? “It has been found slightly inconvenient and inexplicably controversial, and tried only begrudgingly and inconsistently?”
There’s also a discussion that we need to have, as a nation, about how this pandemic didn’t go away on November 4th and isn’t going to go away when we have a new president in the White House. This virus is pitilessly apolitical. It doesn’t care about Republicans and Democrats, the electoral college, lawsuits in Pennsylvania, or any of the other big problems facing our democracy (did I just include Republicans and Democrats in the list of problems facing our country? Yes, yes I did). In an election year, and particularly one this contentious, there was never any chance that information and understanding about the pandemic would fail to fall out along party lines. Now that the election is over, is it possible for us to drop our politicized misinformation and as a countrymen find some common ground on which to fight this deadly virus together? Probably not. But it doesn’t mean I can’t rant about it for five or six thousand words.
But I think the most pressing is the video I’ll share a little way below, which was sent to me by a Facebook friend. It’s a short misinformation video about the COVID-19 vaccines that are being developed and, like most misinformation, is an amalgam of half-truths, deliberate misrepresentations, and outright lies. It’s very short and I’ve posted it here in it’s entirety with the hope that you will read the accompanying discussion and not just watch the video.
Will I get the COVID-19 Vaccine?
Let me start with a statement that might be a bit controversial; while I’m obviously strongly leaning that way, and hope I have the decision put before me as soon as possible, I haven’t absolutely decided whether or not I will get the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available. That might sound like heresy coming from a doctor, particularly when we are currently in midst of the worst wave of the deadliest pandemic of our lifetimes.
But let me explain what I mean. While it’s encouraging to hear that the new vaccine from Pfizer is 95% effective against this very, very deadly virus, and while a safe and effective and widely accepted vaccine is the best and quickest route we have to beating the COVID-19 pandemic without even more massive loss of life, I remain at heart and by training a scientist, not a science fan; I default to skepticism of any new discoveries or developments until I have reviewed the evidence for myself. With regards to the COVID-19 vaccines that have been in development over the past year, I am like most physicians cautiously optimistic. Before deciding to have the vaccine administered to myself and my four children, however, I plan to review all the data that I can in order to ensure my choice is as informed and sound as possible, just like I would for any medication, surgery, or any other intervention my doctor recommends (or, for that matter, any treatment or medication that I recommend to my patients).
“But Dr. Webb, this is exactly what anti-vax parents are doing when they refuse vaccines.”
Yeah, except that it isn’t. At least, not generally. You see, when I say I plan to review the data I mean the actual data from the clinical trials and independent studies, not misinformation and propaganda. If you are like me and have the privilege of scientific training that allows you to independently parse the information contained in published clinical trials, you probably have no desire whatsoever to outsource this type of academic work to people who do not have that training and who are approaching the information with blatant and unabashed bias. But if you do not have the background to do that work yourself, you still deserve the same degree of reassurance and comfort before choosing to accept a vaccine or have it given to your children; it is just less likely that you have access to the resources you need. The anti-vaccine movement knows this and it is in this gap- the gap between the confidence you need for such an important decision and the degree of explanation, information, and reassurance that you are generally given– that they do their best (or most effective) work.
Who is to blame? Well, obviously, I am. Your local doctor, your pediatrician, your PCP; we carry the burden not of fighting propaganda, the blame for which rightly rests on those creating and spreading it, but of helping you become resilient against propaganda and misinformation through patient-centered health education.
So I am begging you, if you are at all wary of or uncertain about a COVID-19 vaccine, and if you do not have the technical background or family/community resources you need to review the source data independently, ask your primary care doctor. Maybe even give them a heads up when you schedule an appointment so they can look into it beforehand (they probably already will have). If they are active on social media, ask them if they would be willing to write about it and share it openly. Some primary care physicians, like Dr. Ben Brashear here in Texas, believe so strongly in this type of work that they have devoted a large amount of their time and energy to helping their patients and other readers navigate these issues through their clinic websites and social media pages. I think this is the single most effective way to combat Social Media Misinformation; with a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand doctors and scientists in small towns like mine or Dr. Brashear’s helping patients whom they have already built a trusting doctor-patient relationship with navigate what information is reliable and what isn’t.
And of course, on the off-chance that over the past 6 months of my writing these blog posts you have somehow decided you actually trust me, I’ll plan to write a short post about my decision on the vaccine as soon as I’ve decided, for certain, what to do for myself and my family.
I should also point out, while we are dispensing with preliminaries, that this post is not designed to be an overview of the research and development of the various COVID-19 vaccines. For that I will point you to my hero, Baylor Friendly Neighbor Epidemiologist Dr. Emily Smith.
“The ChAd Vaccine” Video Minute-By-Minute Discussion
0:12 Share this everywhere!
I’ve been doing this sort of misinformation debunking work as a hobby for about 8 months now and I’ve come to recognize some of the language or verbiage that ought to make us extremely suspicious that the information we are about to be given is not necessarily reliable. The speaker hits several right out of the gate:
“This is a fact.”
In my experience, things that are facts don’t need the disclaimer “this is a fact.” Both for people spreading misinformation and those of us fighting it, the goal has to be to lay out such a clear and compelling case for the facts that the rhetorical sledgehammer of “I’m telling you the truth, I wouldn’t lie to you” is as unnecessary as it is hollow. If someone finds this verbiage convincing, it is likely because they are anxious to be convinced; and it should put you on your guard. “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.” -Matthew 5:37
“Share this everywhere.”
Similar to the last point, I believe that most people giving reliable, expert advice or guidance will never ask you to “share” something they have written. Why? Because the burden of demonstrating that an issue is so important and pressing that it should be shared broadly lies again with the author, and lies in the substance and veracity of the arguments, not with the mere desire of seeing their assertions disseminated broadly. Nevertheless, I do recognize that “share this now” is a part of our vernacular now and used by almost everyone of a certain generation on back; but I think it is most suspicious as a herald of misinformation when it is accompanied by….
“They will take this down.”
I sure that at some point something I write, either here or just on just on social media, will be taken down or marked as inaccurate; and when that happens I will probably throw a fit like I’ve seen others do. Until then, I will hold onto the sanctimonious belief that only those intending to spread misinformation feel that it is necessary to preface each video, meme, and essay with “this will be removed” or “they don’t want you to know this.” Who, exactly? The expansiveness, complexity, absolute loyalty, and conflicting goals and values of all of these conspiracies you believe are striving to prevent you from seeing some silly video are really beyond belief. The reality is that most scientists don’t mind at all if you watch the Plandemic documentary or Dr. Stella Immanuel’s speech on capitol hill; what matters is that you know going into it that this misinformation has already been disproven, and that you are armed with the understanding and data you need to work through and decode it. This presents an easy enough decision for me; my goal of helping you sort through this misinformation is best served when it is accompanied by the source material, and posting the video alongside the discussion is a no-brainer. But I think it’s a much more difficult decision for Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter, because they have to worry about the viral nature of this misinformation and the real potential for harm, and can’t accompany every repost or upload with a detailed analysis. Allowing lies to circulate without any disclaimer or precautions to protect those that are easily deceived is irresponsible and cruel; it submits to the whims of anyone with any lie to tell or anything to sell. But the very act of censoring or cautioning about misinformation also serves to reinforce the narrative of oppression; the last redoubt for conspiracy theorists is to use the very censure called down onto themselves for the unreliability of their assertions as proof of their veracity. It is a poor sort of fortress to be sure; yet there are far, far too many who see it as the last citadel of truth.
And, saddest of all, “Share to all of your Bible groups.”
We will talk about the specifics of what misinformation or misrepresentations in this video specifically might appeal to certain streams or factions within Christianity, but for the time being all I can do is grieve, as a follower of Christ, that a video or meme about the pandemic being spread primarily or at a higher velocity within Christian circles is so often a sure sign that it contains little truth and much that is meant to deceive and disrupt efforts of self-sacrifice and self-denial on behalf of our neighbors and community. I have written about how I believe the Church ought to respond to misinformation and why, but it really does feel as though we are behind the World in this area, both in our discernment and in our charity. Lord Jesus, please teach us to be as wise as serpents so that we might be as harmless as doves!
0:26 “Share with… Anybody that doesn’t want aborted fetal tissue fragments put into them.”
This is actually a major claim of the video and the most compelling topic of discussion of the three the speaker introduces, and we will cover it more extensively in just a couple of minutes. For now, let me just say that it is a fact that the COVID-19 vaccine, or any vaccine for that matter, does not contain any aborted fetal tissue fragments! Share with your Bible group, they will take this down!
It also won’t change your DNA, but we’ll get to that too.
0:40 This is the packaging of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.
I have not seen the packaging of the AstraZeneca vaccine or any others for COVID-19 and have no reason to believe this individual photoshopped this package (and compelling reasons to believe they are not capable of doing so, as we shall see).
0:59 “It’s called Chad”
ChAdOx1 stands for Chimpanzee derived Adenovirus-vectored vaccine developed by Oxford University. The 1 means it’s the first of multiple Chimpanzee derived Adenovirus-vectored vaccines for COVID-19 that Oxford is working on.
It does not stand for “Chad- whatever that is, zero, or whatever it is- times one.”
1:19 Go to ResearchSquare.com
Research Square is a fine website, just be aware anything you read there is in pre-print; it hasn’t been finalized or peer reviewed yet. That’s the whole point of the website, for people to get feedback before they publish.
1:21 “I want you to learn to do your own research.”
The speaker claims that she wants her viewers to “do their own research” and begins well enough by directing them to Research Square, a reputable website where you can find original sources. But within about 10 seconds she has transformed “doing your own research” into something about as academic and reliable as a Wikipedia binge (or exactly as academic and reliable, since a Wikipedia binge is exactly what it is); googling random words you don’t understand and reading about them, then deciding whatyou thinkthey mean without any background or context. It’s hard to tell whether she is being intentionally deceptive here, or if she really believes that she has attained a solid grasp of these concepts through the methods she is espousing.
That’s not what research is. In the context she is using it, ‘doing your own research’ at minimum means using the amazing, abundant resources of the internet to learn more about the concepts being discussed, and then using that new knowledge to get yourself over that first hump in the Dunning-Kruger effect and figure out 1. what you need to learn next and 2. what the limits are on how much you can actually learn about this on your own. The good news is, as long as you are humble in your assessment of your own understanding, you can also use that knowledge to 3. verify the reliability of whomever you go to to learn more.
We’ve all done this before, haven’t we? When I wanted to talk to an HVAC specialist about a problem with the air supply plenum in my crawlspace, I studied the anatomy of different HVAC systems, read some discussions on HVAC forums, and watched several videos that addressed similar problems. When this didn’t fully solve my issue, I called the specialist; and I used that research, mixed with a healthy appreciation of my own general ignorance on the topic, to both improve my understanding of his recommendations and to inform my gut decision on whether to trust his expert advice or get a second opinion (for anybody who is curious, he said the squirrels shouldn’t be living in there and he’s coming out to take a look on Monday. Based on my independent research, I’ve decided I believe him… though the squirrels have been waging a fierce misinformation campaign).
I’ve written (though not yet published) about this before; I want my patients to use Google. Really. And then I want them to come and talk with me about what they’ve read so I can help them get further beyond the point they could by themselves. Like I said in the article I’ve written that nobody else has access to:
“Most of all we went to school to become very, very good at parsing information about the human body and its diseases, and when it comes to the research you’ve brought in that is the primary way I can help; by helping you sort out which information is actually going to affect you and which isn’t, which you should worry about and which you shouldn’t, and what the underlying motivations might be for the people that published it. I’ve spent countless hours looking at research and studies and clinical trials and have become very good at determining when a study design is too flawed or data is too skewed to be reliable, when there is a strong bias that makes the data suspect, or when a conclusion is not supported by the evidence as it claims. If you are a scientist or a researcher or have training in those areas you may be able to do the same, maybe just as well or better; but for most people that isn’t the case, and it would be a little silly to trust your doctor when they offer one of the services they are highly trained for, such as looking at your child’s ear and determining if there is a bacterial infection requiring antibiotics, and not trust them when they offer another service they have been highly trained for, such as telling whether the research you’ve brought in about the human body is reliable or not.”
1:28 “Don’t rely on us or anyone else, do it yourself!”
This is so subtle and clever that I just wanted to point it out briefly. “Don’t rely on us or anyone else” when doing your research is an attempt to level the playing field between the different sources you might listen to, and it seems so reasonable on the surface.. Don’t listen to me, or your doctor, or a scientist, or an epidemiologist or researcher, only listen to yourself. The problem is that, at least in the viral version of this video, we have no idea who this lady even is. Telling you not to take her word for itor your doctor’simplies those two sources of information are equally educated, informed, and reliable; this from a lady who just called it the “CHAD Zero Times One Vaccine.”
1:49 “Google every single word on here.”
Again, that’s not “research.” If you need to google some of these words to know what they mean then by all means do so; but that is the pre-research prep work, not the research itself. Thinking you understand a concept because you looked up the definition of a word is unmitigated folly, as she demonstrates in a few moments.
1:58 Recombinant DNA doesn’t mean they are reprogramming your DNA. At all.
The speaker and her assistant begin their “research” by looking up the term “Recombinant DNA” on Wikipedia. Wikipedia is great, and one of my favorite things about it is that most articles are written at a level that most lay people can understand (except the math ones. Yikes). So I think if you want to follow the speaker’s advice here and read that wikipedia article, you should. I’ll wait.
But the thing is, she doesn’t actually read it in this video, does she? She only reads the first sentence and then, despite her prior warnings, asks you to take her word on what that sentence means. But listen to the way she says it! The emphasis, the alarm, the righteous anger as she enunciates “molecular cloning” and “genome”! She spits the words out as though it were self-apparent how evil they are, without seeking (or asking you to seek) any additional understanding of what they actually mean. Just one googled word in, and she has entirely abandoned her ‘method’ of research; don’t google every single word in this article that you don’t understand, just take it on her authority that this is bad, bad stuff. She tells you earlier not to be intimidated by scientific terms; but here she actually wants you to be frightenedby them.
If you actually read that article, you will quickly realize that the idea she implies here (and stated explicitly earlier on), that recombinant DNA reprogramsyour genetic code, is actually complete nonsense. In fact, it’s exactly the type of nonsense you would expect if someone’s entire understanding of the science involved was gained through googling random words and reading the first sentence only of wikipedia articles.
Recombinant DNA describes how the vaccines or medications were developed, not what they do once they are inside of you. Just look at the ‘applications’ section of that same wikipedia article; rDNA technology has been used to develop insulin, accurate testing for HIV, and safe growth hormone for patients with pituitary failure, not to mention interferon therapy for cancer, treatments for cystic fibrosis, and TPA, a life saving treatment for strokes and heart attacks. None of these therapies change your DNA. Saying recombinant DNA therapies change your DNA is like saying that Mashed Potatoes mash you if you eat them. No, the potatoes were mashed during the preparation phase so that they would be delicious for you later on; you don’t get mashed, they do. DNA of fungal or bacterial or animal cells waschanged in order to develop these treatments, so that they would be safe and effective for the people who need them.
Since I’m waxing eloquent here, I’ll give one more analogy. It’s like my first and only experience in debate club back during Freshman year of college. The topic was “is preemptive war justified.” The first team to debate, the “for” team, got to define the terms of the debate and chose to argue that preemptive war was justified because nations have the right to defend themselves if they are the victims of a preemptive attack; so preemptive war, “war initiated by a preemptive attack,” was 100% justified… on the part of the nation that was attacked first.
They changed the very definition of the term to suit the argument that was easiest to defend; they were arguing for retaliatoryor defensive action instead of preemptive, because it was a much simpler position to defend. And the only problem with that is that words have meanings, Keith!
Sorry, I may still have some baggage to work through there. But that’s exactly what this speaker is doing too; changing the meaning of the term ‘recombinant DNA’ and just hoping you won’t notice or indeed read the very article she has pointed you to herself.
There is one more part of this discussion, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what she’s mentioned here, but intersects with this idea of “reprogramming DNA,” even if I don’t think she has the science background to realize it. Here she’s focused on rDNA, but you’ll also hear discussion about mRNA; messenger RNA, the genetic sequences that organisms use to instruct cellular machinery to build proteins. The two vaccines that have recently shown such promise, from Pfizer and Moderna, both use mRNA technology. Traditional vaccines provoke an immune response, teaching your body to produce it’s own antibodies to fight the infection, by presenting your immune cells with non-dangerous particles of the virus that it can recognize and then build antibodies against. Each of these viral particles has to be produced in a lab and enough of them have to be preserved and injected to ensure some are picked up by your macrophages or dendritic cells and then presented to your lymphocytes (T and B cells) to make sure that you really do develop the ability to mount a robust immune response when you exposed to the virus for real later on.
The mRNA vaccines do the exact same thing, only instead of injecting the deactivated viral proteins directly into your body, they only inject a code for them; a code that teaches the machinery in a few of your own cells to build and release the proteins needed to produce the desired immunity. This outside mRNA hijacks the cellular machinery to produce the proteins needed for immunity without any of the proteins that cause illness; and the rest functions just like a normal vaccine. This is the same naturally occurring ‘technology’ that mRNA viruses use themselves. This is great news for people who want to acquire natural immunity; by mimicking the action that the viruses themselves use, which in turn produces our immune response to them, these vaccines have become the closest you can possibly get to acquiring immunity naturally without actually running the risk of getting sick and infecting others. Instead of getting a deadly mRNA virus from a cough or sneeze, you get a safe mRNA ‘virus’ from a vaccine, and from it your body’s own immune system learns how to kill the deadly virus.
This video below explains these concepts really well, starting at the 1:53 mark.
Again, this mRNA technology doesn’t change your DNA. It just sends a message to some of your cells with a set of instructions, just like any common cold would. Your chromosomes, your genetic code, are unaffected; the vaccine doesn’t even interact with them. If an analogy would help, imagine someone ‘hacked’ your network printer at the office. Normally you are the only person who prints to this printer; you write the document on Word or Notepad (judging you) on your computer and then hit “print,” and the signal goes to the printer, which prints the document. But one day you walk in to find that someone else has been printing things to your network printer. That doesn’t mean that they’ve hacked your computer, it just means they have used your paper and ink (and toner! those monsters).
And what did they choose to print? A detailed set of instructions on how to protect your networked printer from hackers. Big Cybersecurity, at it again.
3:00 “We used direct RNA sequencing to analyse transcript expression from the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 genome in human MRC-5 and A549 cell lines.”
Here is where we enter what is, I think, the heart of what has drawn most people to this video. I think we can quickly dispense with one piece of false information before entering a more important discussion. The ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine does not use the MRC-5 cell line. This is an inherent problem with both the ignorance of the speaker (and here I do not mean to be insulting, but merely mean the lack of actual education and experience in the field in which she puts herself forward as an expert) and the deep flaw in her ‘method’ of research. This article is not from the vaccine manufacturer at all; it’s from an independent lab that used these human cell lines to study the vaccine after it was produced. You can find the full text here and read it for yourself. The manufacturers did not use those cell lines. In telling you all about the MRC-5 cell line and warning you that;
“One thing [the ChAdOx1 vaccine] definitely has is the lung tissue of a 14-week-old aborted caucasian male fetus.”
Narrator: “It doesn’t.”
the author is stating an absolute untruth based in her own haphazard and unreliable method of trying to find scientific information and uncover medical conspiracies. If her “research” methodology has left her unable to even grasp the basics of who is doing the study and why they are doing the study, or the difference between making a vaccine and studying a vaccine that has already been made, why would you possibly trust her method of research? For that matter, why trust her at all, when she has proven herself so unreliable? Even her assistant, the enigmatic Claire, tries to offer some clarification that the cell line used in the study has been replicated over and over again since the 60’s; that the researchers did not actually abort a child and then collect its cells to study the vaccine (or make the vaccine, as she mistakenly believes); but that attempt is ignored by the main speaker.
What about fetal cell lines in medical research?
Despite the speaker’s severe misunderstanding, and regardless of the tired horror tactic of trying to get you to visualize fetal parts being injected into your children in order to illicit a visceral reaction (there are no aborted fetal parts or fetal cells in vaccines, even the vaccines developed using human cell lines), this is an important question and I think we should spend some time on an actual discussion of it, instead of the sensationalized and inaccurate rage that characterizes its treatment in the video.
I am a pro-life doctor. Like most physicians my views on abortion are nuanced, deeply felt, and strongly based in the lived experiences of my patients. Since this video was designed to spark a visceral reaction among pro-life people in order to make them more susceptible to vaccine misinformation, I think the issue of abortion and fetal cell lines in research warrants discussion on this blog post. I have helped prevent countless abortions, both through providing high quality women’s health services, often to women who otherwise would not have good healthcare access, and by providing compassionate listening, patient-centered care, and judgement free counsel during the most tumultuous times of an unintended pregnancy. There are those that will argue that doctors shouldn’t be pro-life, that my moral opposition to abortion means I can never truly provide unbiased guidance and information to a woman facing this most difficult and painful decision of her life, or that I am somehow unable to respect my patients’ autonomous decision making in this area and help them leave my office more empowered than when they came in. I don’t believe that matches the experience of my patients. I might argue that informed consent, a core principle of medical ethics, is impossible without a robust patient-focused discussion of the medical realities and practical alternatives surrounding the decision to terminate a pregnancy, and that there is reason to believe that these conversations are too often sacrificed or short-circuited once the specter of abortion first arises. It is a debate for another day, to be sure, and with many of the physicians who hold the opposite view I nonetheless share a strong mutual respect, born of proven care for and dedication to our patients, that overrides even our deeply held reservations on this issue. Even on the question of abortion and consent itself, we both believe, based on all of our medical training and the high degree of altruistic concern we bring to our jobs, that we are striving to do what is best for our patients; to help them in the way that is best for them and most consistent with their own stated goals and deepest felt wishes.
Many medications and vaccines use fetal cell lines. The reason is simple; human cells typically work best for studying and developing treatment for human diseases, and fetal cells have unique characteristics that allow cells to achieve, or nearly achieve, cellular immortality; allowing the same cells to be replicated over and over again without any need for additional cell lines to be collected. There is no question that this is a challenging ethical and moral area for pro-life scientists like myself, and strongly pro-life physician and multidisciplinary healthcare organizations, like the Christian Medical and Dental Alliance (CMDA), have discussed and written extensively about it. Here are a few articles CMDA has published, written by conscientious physicians of deep, theologically sound Christian conviction. I hope you will weigh their words and reflections with at least as much gravity as a random person on the internet telling you to “pray big” and share her video with as many “christian-loving” people as possible.
There are a few salient facts you should know about this area of medicine.
No children are aborted or have been aborted for the purpose of developing medicines or vaccines. The sensationalism that some forces in the anti-vaccine movement are willing to engage in knows no bounds, and it is not uncommon to hear the propaganda that these unborn babies were actually aborted for the purpose of being used in medical research. This is simply wrong. The few unborn children whose cells (or accurately, copies of copies of their cells) are regularly used in medical research and development were likely aborted for the same reasons that most abortions occur; the unbelievably difficult balance of perceived goods and anticipated challenges faced by a woman who had not intended to become pregnant. These mostly occurred in the 60’s and 70’s, and cell lines (copies of cells) derived from those same aborted fetuses have continued to be used ever since without the ‘need’ to derive new cell lines from abortions occurring today. For instance, HEK 293, the actual cell line used in the development of the ChAdOx1 vaccine, was derived from an abortion in The Netherlands in 1973; we simply do not know the story of the woman who chose to have this abortion, or the reasons behind her choice.
There are no fetal cells in vaccines; not even in vaccines developed using fetal cell lines. Vaccines are not a ‘mix’ of fetal cells and viral particles, not by any stretch of the imagination. When fetal cell lines are used to grow viruses that infect humans in the vaccine development process, it is distant to the final product of the vaccine, which has also been through multiple rounds of purification. The human cell lines are used to grow the virus and deactivate it; they are not included in the actual material injected through a syringe to produce an immune response in our bodies.
Not all vaccines use human cell lines. There are vaccines for almost every vaccine preventable illness that are designed using methods that even the most rigorous pro-life groups consider ethical. When the anti-vaccine movement tries to convince you that all vaccines are suspect from a pro-life perspective, they are rather co-opting a pro-life position for their own aims rather than being a legitimate part of the pro-life movement.
Like the CMDA doctors above and most pro-life physicians and scientists, and even the Vatican, I believe that using vaccines and medications not developed using fetal cell lines from aborted human beings is strongly preferable whenever possible, and that this is an area where continued economic and moral pressure can encourage pharmaceutical companies and research institutes to pursue alternative means of developing novel treatments to human disease. However, the principles of whole-life pro-life ethics also dictate that a treatment or preventative measure developed in part through material derived from a past harm through abortion, with no potential to cause further harm in this same way but massive potential to prevent loss of life (including unborn human life) is still, clearly, a moral good; a position even Popes have affirmed. In saving the lives of a great many people from a single death that would not have been prevented regardless, we derive the greatest possible moral good from what was an undeniably tragic situation for all involved.
For pro-life persons, accepting a vaccine that was developed from fetal cells collected 50 or 60 years ago makes them neither complicit with nor promoting of a depreciation of human life. But seeking treatments developed using alternative means may send a message to pharmaceutical companies that these issues are indeed dear to their hearts and that their collective will is that these methods in research would become a thing of the past.
4:23 “This is what they want… They KNOW this vaccine is going to hurt people or kill people so badly.”
A few things here.
If there is a way to kill people not so badly, please let me know. We could be on the brink of a medical breakthrough here.
Who is “they” anyway?
She jumps around so much in this video that the viewer is left to assume, just like with the MRC-5 discussion, that this last bit is screenshot from the original papers from the vaccine manufacturer; that the people making the vaccine have, in their published study, asked the universe at large to supply them with some sort of computer program or something to help them sort through all the people they intend to maim or kill. We’ve talked before how conspiracy theories rely on this weird paradox where shadowy conspirators are both incredibly clever, subtle, and nigh-invulnerable but alsoso clumsy as to announce their real plans in such a way that some random person on the internet can piece it all together with a 5 minute video. Pfizer or Moderna publishing “please help us, our excel spreadsheets aren’t robust enough to keep track of all the victims we are after” at the bottom of their research would certainly fall under this phenomenon.
But this isn’t from the vaccine manufacturers. It’s from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the British counterpart of the FDA. And it isn’t from a research paper, it’s from their contracts division, announcing the technology services they are hoping to contract with as they anticipate the release of these vaccines.
Why would the MHRA or FDA want to track possible adverse reactions to a new vaccine? Because it’s literally their job.
And why would they anticipate a “high volume” of reported adverse reactions? Because we are in the middle of a highly politicized, deeply contentious global pandemic; billions of people are going to get these vaccines, and some of them are going to have very mixed feelings about it. Adverse reactions to vaccines range from the common but mild to the serious and extremely rare, but reported or perceived reactions are all over the place. I saw a patient yesterday who believed that his flu shot had caused him to feel fatigued and sore the next day (it had), and also to have six days of diarrhea and loss of taste and smell two weeks later (it hadn’t). He tested positive for COVID-19, the true source of his symptoms. I’ve also had patients who believed their flu shot gave them COVID-19, which is utterly impossible.
Vaccines feel scary; they are sciency and mysterious and they are going into your body, and you are taking someone’s word for it that they are safe and a wise decision. I get that. A new vaccine is even scarier, and a new vaccine for a virus that is deadly, has changed our entire lives over the past year, and is surrounded by a thick haze of misinformation and conspiracy theories is even scarier. Some of the folks getting that vaccine are going to do so, probably to keep those around them safe, only after warring within themselves over it (even I told you I’ve still got some research to do before I’m fully satisfied with the decision). For some of those folks, anything medical that happens to them in the next few months might potentially feel like the negative fallout of that one difficult decision. The point of the MHRA using an AI tool to augment their ability to analyze that data is so that they don’t miss any real adverse reactions hidden in all of that noise; to make sure that if the vaccine is dangerous after all, despite the safety demonstrated in clinical trials, they discover it as quickly as possible. Again, because that’s their job. This is evidence that the people tasked with making sure the vaccines are safe really do take that role seriously; not evidence that someone is planning to hurt you and wasn’t sneaky enough in hiding their intentions.
5:01 “I don’t know how you do it, I’m not technical.”
After watching the same 5 minutes of these folks pointing a shaky phone camera at their computer screen and pulling up various image preview programs and web browsers over and over again while writing this blog post, I can now verify that this is the single most true and reliable statement in the entire video.
It looks like I’m just being cheeky at this point, so I guess it’s time to stop there.
As doctors, we carry our dead with us no more or less than anyone else; it is only that we generally have many more to carry.
I can still bring to mind the faces of every patient I’ve lost. Some of them I remember only as faces and stories, or mainly stories, the names long since faded. The older or very ill men and women for whom I led resuscitation attempts for no other reason than that I was the closest doctor to their hospital room when their heart stopped beating, the children and infants I continued efforts for in the emergency room, who had died in the field but compassion dictated we exhaust every possible option for, and talk with the parents carefully and in person, before discontinuing our final attempts to bring them back. These people, created in the Image of God and bearing their own unique identity and personality I never knew, stay with me as memories of the last desperate battle against death, difficult decisions made rapidly, and finally small, quiet prayers offered in the unofficial office of priest I unknowingly accepted when I enrolled in medical school all those years ago. The memory of who they were in life is left in the safe keeping of others.
Others I had a greater privilege of really knowing; I was there not merely in their last moments but for their last weeks or days, saw them battle with and often come to peace with the drawing near of their time on this planet; saw them experience and then cease experiencing pain, anxiety, worry, doubt. Like anyone who has lost somebody, I have been struck by the strangeness of spending those days with them in conversation, earnestly offering what comfort I could, only to be in the room with them bodily again sometime later, but now utterly alone. I hold these images together, the person living and the person dead; but am thankful the former is by far the stronger impression. I have been thankful, when medical circumstances have allowed, when those last days have resulted in choices that led a person to die in relative peace and comfort at home or otherwise surrounded by loved ones, and my role of final comforter in life and companion on the very brink of death has been taken by others infinitely more qualified. In those cases, I have the privilege of keeping only the living person in my memory.
Still others I remember in three dimensions; their face and voice in life, their sense of humor, their struggles and triumphs. Those whom I have been physician to over many months and years and, like the patient I called ‘mi abuela’ and who used to slap me on the arm for being such a bad grandson, only learned of their deaths after the fact. Often those relationships went far deeper than the mere clinical as over time a very human fellowship came to define our patient-doctor relationship as much as any exchange of medical information, advice, or prescriptive guidance. These patients especially kindle in me the hope of Heaven, and I find unspeakable comfort and joy in the not unreasonable hope of a continuance of the friendship and brotherhood between two souls we began on this Earth, then unalloyed by any thought of medical knowledge or clinical skill needed or offered.
We cannot recall all of these many losses with complete satisfaction. Often times we do reflect on our role in informing and preparing a patient for death with some degree of contentment, with the assurance that we had the needed foresight and skill for the moment and can take comfort, at least in our small part, in a job well done. In contrast, there are for each and every one of us mistakes we know we made, and hopefully have apologized for, that accurately place on us some small or large degree of responsibility for a person’s death. I am grateful that these experiences have been rare, and am deeply grateful to have found compassion, understanding, and forgiveness at the close of each of those stories.
But most often, neither of these is the case; neither perfect complacency nor right and accurate self denouncement, and we are left with less closure, less complete understanding than we would have wished. For every tragedy where a family and friends are left to wonder “what could anyone have done?” there is a physician who is left to question, earnestly drawing on all their clinical reasoning and accumulated knowledge, “What could I have done?”
People think that as a profession, as a field of study, we engage in post-mortem examinations, case reviews, and mortality and morbidity conferences either because we long for greater academic knowledge or because we wish to find someone to blame for the tragedy of death. These are both true, though decidedly not in the way that most people think. The longing for knowledge is not sterile or disconnected from the human story or from grief, and the desire to assign responsibility is not adversarial or blaming, but rather both seek to view tragedy as an opportunity to grow and provide still better care in the future. In our anatomy classes our dead were our first teachers; ever after they remain our best teachers, because the lessons they provide are the most powerful. But there is a third motivation that I think is equally as powerful as the others. As physicians we carry our dead, and when a loss is unexpected or tragic, or holds any possibility of error (as almost all do), we carry the weight of the burden of that death all our lives. In seeking to understand the role we might have played we are attempting to define the dimensions of that burden; to know exactly how much of the weight we are, personally, to carry.
The Hope of Heaven is what remains. Similar to (I am certain) lawyers and social workers, physicians long for a day when our particular skills, abilities, and expertise are utterly and permanently irrelevant. The farmer or craftsman may contemplate eternity with an expectation of some continuation of a form of his earthly work, and hope to see it brought to completion by an increase and perfection of skill or else a diminution of toil; the doctor believes his work will be perfected only in eternal uselessness, when in the presence of the Great Physician we can have nothing at all to contribute. The most skilled physician on earth longs to be only a poor apprentice pruner or assistant herdsman in eternity, when pain, illness, and all forms of human, Earthly suffering are at a final and unequivocal end. It is with this hope that we walk into every exam room, approach every hospital bed, and delve into every instance of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. It is this hope alone that makes them bearable as a physician.
And it is this hope that we, implicitly or explicitly, hope to impart to our patients who are undeniably bearing the greatest part by far of those burdens, which with all our training we can only strive to lessen but know we can never truly undo or perfectly prevent.
The following is a short repost from social media.
Well, call me triggered.
I’m a Family Medicine Physician, and every day for the past 3 months I’ve seen patients for COVID-19. Every day for 3 months, I’ve told every patient I’ve diagnosed with COVID-19, with the exception of the few I’ve sent directly to the hospital because of the severity of their symptoms, the same three things:
1. Don’t be afraid of COVID-19.
I say this to my patients for a few reasons. First, because I am mostly seeing patients in the outpatient setting, my patients and I have the privilege of emphasizing this point. Second, for many patients who have a mild to moderate severity course of COVID-19, anxiety is a very real issue, and I want to make sure that while they are recovering they are not sitting at home wondering when the virus is going to get them. Most people who get COVID-19 don’t end up in the hospital (as we have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic), even fewer end up in the ICU or die from the virus (as we have been saying since the beginning of the pandemic). The virus is very, very dangerous, but our brains are bad at statistics; just because this is the most dangerous viral pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1918 doesn’t me that your individual chances of dying are high or that getting deathly ill is a foregone conclusion. If I were mainly seeing very sick patients in the hospital or ICU I wouldn’t be saying this as much; we would be talking more about treatment and response than about the patient’s anxiety about getting sicker, though the latter certainly deserves our time and attention in any clinical setting. When a patient is struggling to breathe, “don’t be afraid” is a theological statement rather than a clinically valid reassurance, and it typically gives way to “I am with you; I am here and I am going to do my absolute best for you.” But in the outpatient setting, talking with patients who are worried about how COVID-19 will affect them and their children and their friends, “don’t be afraid” is an extremely important part of the conversation.
2. If you have the following symptoms, go to the hospital.
As important as “don’t be afraid” is, it is equally as important to talk about what we call emergency and return precautions. Yes, for most people COVID-19 is not deadly; but it is for some, for many in fact, and we do not have any perfect way of predicting who will have a more severe course. For my healthy patients in their 20’s and 30’s, the chances of ending up severely ill are extremely low; yet people who are medically just like them- same age, same paucity of risk factors- have died from the virus. The same for parents who are worried about their children; children are at extremely low risk from COVID-19, yet some children have died from the virus. I can look my young, healthy patient in the eye and honestly tell them I expect them to be fine; but I cannot promise them that they will be, and that’s a vital distinction. So with each and every patient, in addition to reassurance, we talk about what to look out for. Shortness of breath. Chest pain. Severe malaise and fatigue, even syncope; passing out or almost passing out from the toll the virus is taking on your body. We talk about oxygen levels if they happen to have a pulse oximeter at home, and signs of hypoxia if they don’t. We discuss both the reasons they would come back to see me in clinic and the reasons they would skip my clinic and go directly to the Emergency Department instead. With my older patients or patients who have known risk factors (most Americans, in fact, including myself, considering that risk factors for a more severe course of COVID-19 include hypertension, diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease and other very common ailments), this discussion is even more important, because even though the odds are still in their favor, their ending up in the hospital or dying from COVID-19 is not nearly as unlikely. I want my patients to be free from fear; but I also want them to be equipped with the knowledge they need to make sound choices if their symptoms do worsen.
3. Please keep the virus from spreading to others.
This piece of guidance is no less important than the previous two. If you are healthy and young and your chances of dying from COVID-19 are very low, that’s really wonderful; but self-isolation during your illness is still the responsible, kind, and charitable decision because not everyone is as lucky as you. The case fatality rate of COVID-19 is much higher than even very deadly illnesses like the flu, and it is very, very contagious. With each and every patient I discuss the precautions they can take to keep the virus from spreading to their own family, and of course the responsible social decisions like sheltering at home during their contagious window and alerting their close contacts so they can self quarantine. It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’ve only exposed other people at similarly low risk to yourself, but once you have spread the virus to someone else you have no control of whose grandmother, whose father in poor health, or whose immunocompromised child it spreads to from there. I said before that we are bad at intuitively comprehending statistics; the COVID-19 virus, like most illnesses, is unlikely to cause death to any given individual regardless of risk factors, but is extremely deadly in aggregate; containment is still our best strategy for keeping the 210,000 deaths in our country from doubling or tripling by the end of this pandemic. The reality is that most people get this; most people I talk to understand the need and are concerned about keeping their families and communities safe. But there is a counter-narrative being promoted by some that rejoices in defying all calls for caution, sober mindedness, or charity when it comes to COVID-19, and so the reminder from me, the doctor actually seeing the patient face to face in clinic, becomes that much more important in case my patient has been lured by these cruel and irresponsible ideas.
These are the three pieces of advice, the three categories of discussion that I have with each and every patient. It is time consuming; it appropriately turns what might be a 5-8 minute visit into a 10 or 15 minute visit. It requires careful explanation of statistical and clinical concepts that might be challenging. It is worth it, because the proper way to approach a diagnosis of COVID-19 is with caution on behalf of others and preparedness rather than fear for yourself and your family, and it’s my job as a Physician to equip my patients with the knowledge and tools they need to approach the virus this way, even in the face of anxiety and rampant misinformation.
So when I see someone with a platform like President Trump’s endorse the firstpoint of not being afraid of the virus, follow the secondpoint of going to the hospital when his symptoms escalated and he experienced hypoxia and shortness of breath, and finally utterly disregard and contradict the third point of taking precautions on behalf of others, I am, I think very understandably, upset. Because when a doctor or a nurse survives COVID-19 (and many haven’t), contracted by putting themselves in harm’s way every day and despite taking maximum precautions to keep themselves and those around them safe, they rejoice that they are now able to dive back into the fray, fighting the virus with no less caution but somewhat less stress and anxiety for their own health, knowing that reinfection is very likely a rare occurrence. But when the president contracts COVID-19 by ignoring all precautions and survives it with the help of state of the art high-level hospital care, expensive and experimental treatments, and a private team of doctors and nurses, his first statement after leaving the hospital is one that builds upon his long-standing guidance and example of not taking precautions or acting to protect those around you, despite neither you nor your family and community having anything like the medical access that helped him.
Please keep yourself and others safe. Don’t be afraid of the virus, but please act in charity to those around you by taking reasonable and proven precautions like wearing a mask, maintaining physical distancing, and engaging in sound epidemiological principles like getting tested if you are ill, self-quarantining if you are exposed, and honestly and proactively participating in contact tracing if you are diagnosed.
Edit #1: I will go ahead and anticipate a couple of objections to this post. First, some people are going to claim that the facts I’ve shared here are inaccurate; that the ‘CDC admitted’ that only 6% of the deaths were actually from COVID-19, or that the fatality rate is actually lower than the flu, or some such nonsense. For people who still believe these pieces of COVID-19 misinformation, there is no shortage of good explanations and rebuttals available on the internet and I suggest finding and reading one. For people who don’t mind a long and mediocre rebuttal over a good one, I’ve written a few myself over at tjwebbmd.com.
Second, some people are going to look at this tweet from the president and say, “but TJ, he isn’t discouraging caution or telling people to take COVID-19 less seriously! He just said don’t let it dominate your life, that could mean lots of things!” To those people I will say, along with Doctor Archibald from Veggie Tales, “Stop being so silly!”
When I tell my patient “don’t be afraid” after reviewing their vital signs, asking about their symptoms, carefully examining them and listening to their heart and lungs, and carefully talking through emergency precautions and transmission control measures, they are absolutely not confused about what I mean. And nobody in America is confused about what the president means when, after months of promoting misinformation, minimizing the pandemic, shirking transmission control guidelines even to the point of endangering his secret service and staff during his own illness, refusing to wear a mask (and then only wearing one intermittently and with a wink at mask truthers when he does), he then says to ‘not let it dominate your life’. And nobody will be surprised when the ongoing unwillingness of our national leadership to take the pandemic seriously, and encouraging others to do likewise, results in more cases, more severe illnesses (and associated suffering and medical debt), and more deaths.
Edit #2: On the same day that I posted a short essay titled “Don’t Be Afraid of COVID-19”, Dr. Emily Smith, Your Friendly Neighborhood Epidemiologist, posted a short essay saying that Yes, We Should Be Afraid of It. Now, Dr. Smith is so much smarter than me that this would normally be enough to make me immediately delete my post; but thankfully, it turns out we are saying essentially the same thing, despite the seemingly contradictory essay titles. To understand what Dr. Smith and I mean when we say you should/shouldn’t be afraid of COVID-19, go and read her essay where she discusses the difference between unhealthy fear and wisdom, the latter being something our national response to this very deadly and dangerous virus has been sorely lacking.
In late 2019 I began to write about my experiences as a Family Medicine Physician, and particularly my motivations, reasoning, and practice style. Over the last decade of medical school, residency, and practice, I had come to believe that the steadily eroding trust in doctors was a true public health emergency. My theory was that, while some of this was due to profit or power-driven elements like the anti-vaccine movement and alternative health industry, and some was due to legitimately unconscionable treatment at the hands of a relative few unethical and immoral doctors, the vast majority was due to the complex and often confusing nature of medicine itself. I believed, or at least hoped, that if people understood their doctors better and knew how deeply they cared about their patients and how hard they worked for them behind the scenes, they would come to see doctors- and other healthcare professionals- as I do; as their allies and advocates in our deeply broken healthcare system.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began I have found my attention called more and more to medical misinformation about the virus, which is what ultimately led to my starting this blog. Yet at the heart of so much of this misinformation is that same mistrust and suspicion. So partly to find a home for these few stray essays, and partly to continue pursuing my original goal of pulling back the curtain and helping others better understand the convictions and reasoning their doctors bring to their care, I am sharing these posts here.
I recently encountered a situation where a patient was very upset with her doctor for switching one of her medications. This medicine had been affordable, easy to use, and had seemed to be working well for her, and you can imagined her frustration when her doctor suddenly stopped prescribing it and prescribed an alternative medicine instead. I explained that this didn’t sound like something the doctor would do maliciously, and offered to restart the old medicine if the patient thought it would work better. The patient exclaimed angrily, “Well now my insurance won’t pay for it ever since Doctor —- took it off of my formulary!”
Of course I wanted to help her make sense of this, so we sat together and reviewed the medical records; phone calls with the patient, office visit notes, even the internal messages between our staff and this doctor- everything pertaining to this medication. Here’s what had happened: when refilling the medication, the clinic had received a prior authorization from her insurance company, as the medication was no longer covered as a first line option. When the PA was completed and sent back, it was rejected. The medication is about $550 per month; $470 with the best coupon available. The doctor was stuck; the patient could keep taking the medicine and pay cash, of course; but this patient didn’t happen to own a chain of hotels or a major golf course, so she didn’t have that kind of money. The only other option was to prescribe an alternative that was still covered (for now) and hope it worked as well. I can’t tell from the chart if this was explained in detail to the patient originally or not, but it was obvious she hadn’t walked away understanding the situation in the slightest. Even after this visit and my detailed explanation that her doctor has zero input on what her insurance company will and won’t pay for, she has repeatedly expressed frustration that her doctor ‘took [this medicine] off of my formulary’.
There’s a lot to unpack here. In an ideal world, the most important factor in what an insurance company would pay for would be the doctor’s determination, after carefully evaluating the patient and engaging in shared decision making about a treatment plan. Cost should be a consideration, but if a patient needs a certain medication or is stable on a certain medication, that should be the medication they end up with. In reality, the biggest factor is cost; cost to the system, to the insurance company. I don’t know the ins and outs (I spend all day trying to treat people and don’t have the time or leftover emotional resilience to dig into the underworld of insurance and pharmaceutical company business practices), but I understand that contracts between drug manufacturers and insurance companies seems to be a major factor. In my more cynical moments, I also suspect that there’s an element of strategy involved on the part of the insurance companies; for instance when they get a windfall of savings every few years by suddenly changing which type of basal insulin they will pay for and pocketing the cash while patients do without insulin for a month or two as they and their doctors scramble to catch up.
A lot has been written about prior authorizations, and I’ll just add a little bit here. One of the strongest arguments against a single payer system seems to be that if you put the government bureaucracy in charge of healthcare, healthcare will become muddled and inefficient. What most people don’t realize is that there is already a bureaucratic army making healthcare inefficient. Those rejections for medications, MRI’s, specialist referrals, support services, physical therapy and medical devices I deal with every day are not being done by Physicians and Nurses reviewing my patient’s chart and disagreeing with me about what’s best for them based on a lifetime of providing clinical care; they are being rejected by someone with little to no medical knowledge or training, checking to see if there is any undotted i or uncrossed t in the patient’s chart that would allow them to reject it based on criteria that is, essentially, arbitrary. Because rejecting things is their entire job; because that’s how the insurance company makes profits, by getting insurance premiums from members and then finding ways to not pay for medical expenses for those members. I’m not sure what to call this system, but evil seems pretty close to accurate. I’ve had paralyzed patients wait for months and months, with countless phone calls and office visits, in order to be approved for an electric wheelchair; even though anybody regardless of medical training could look and see they needed one. But the person reviewing the claim isn’t paid to get the person a wheelchair, or even to figure out if the patient needs a wheelchair; they are paid to find a way not to not have to pay for a wheelchair.
Everyone worries about doctors abusing the system, handing out medical devices and expensive treatments willy-nilly because they want patients to be happy or because they somehow get a cut. This probably does happen (see this video from ZDoggMD for a great example), though I think it’s fairly rare, and oversight and accountability are very important. But the current system isn’t built on oversight, it’s built on profits, and the overwhelming majority of honest patients and ethical doctors are the ones who end up paying the price for those profits. When your insurance company won’t pay for a covered service or medication you and your doctor have determined you actually need for your health… they are literally robbing you.
Insurance companies love that stereotype of the unethical doctor abusing the system, by the way. They want to be seen as the good guy, to tell society that if it weren’t for them healthcare would be way worse off because nobody would be keeping those terrible doctors and those patients exploiting the system (everybody but you and your doctor, don’t you know) in check. They send you a notice in the mail that explains the charges and what they paid for, and right at the top it says “this is not a bill.” If it’s not a bill, why did you mail it to me? Because they want the opportunity to tell you, “this is what your doctor wanted you to pay, but we paid this much and now you only have to pay this much.” Often times this is the very same doctor who has spent extra time (and brought work home with them for the evening or weekend) trying to help you figure out the Rubik’s Cube of getting the care you need without going into medical debt, and who would actively be working to find a way to provide the care you need with fewer visits and lab tests and referrals, even if that wasn’t exactly ideal for your medical issue, if you were paying out of pocket and had to face the cost of those visits on your own (we literally do this all the time; I even ask insured patients what their copay to see me is in order to help them figure out a follow-up schedule that balances their medical needs and their out-of-pocket expenses).
Now, surely, some people who work for those companies do care, at least in a general sense; they want healthcare to be better, they want things to be ethical and smooth, they value customer service. There are probably entire departments that are like that; patient liaisons and advocates working within the insurance company, maybe even some executives. Probably there are some people in these claims rejection roles who, like Mr. Incredible, are intentionally worse at their job of rejecting claims than they could be because they are driven by compassion (I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken with some of them during the Prior Authorization process). But at the end of the day, for profit insurance companies are for profit, and because they are dealing with systems and not individuals, the blame for practices that hurt people feels very diffuse, anonymous, and impersonal. No, they won’t twirl their mustaches and look your kid in the eye and tell them they won’t help mom get her medicine; but they will create company policies and appeal systems that are obstructionist and slow down the delivery of care and ultimately hurt people, and then refuse to be overridden by your doctor who actually knows you and understands what you need from talking with you and examining you. They will let you die if they have to in order to make their money; they’ve been doing it to people for years.
Wow. That got a lot darker than I had intended. I’ll try to post something lighter over the weekend.
This is a story about Prior Authorizations. The American Medical Association defines Prior Authorizations as “A health plan cost-control process by which physicians and other health care providers must obtain advance approval from a health plan before a specific service is delivered to the patient to qualify for payment coverage,” and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy describes the insurance company executives who invented this process as “A bunch of mindless jerks who’ll be the first against the wall when the revolution comes.” Doctors just define Prior Authorizations as “Oh no, not again.” One would imagine that after the involved process of history taking, physical exam, strategic work-up and diagnosis, and careful shared decision making between a patient and a doctor, the two of them could be trusted to come up with a treatment plan together. Insurance companies don’t believe this; or at least, pretend not to. Sometimes these processes are routine and streamlined enough that they represent only a minor hiccup in the patient’s care. I’ll even admit that sometimes the processes probably do catch cases of insurance fraud. But what they actually do much of the time is block the patient from receiving the care that both they and their doctors believe is necessary, at least until seemingly arbitrary and intentionally onerous hoops are jumped through first.
This story is a real life example (of course names have been omitted and a few details have been changed), and I know this because I was involved in this case, though I don’t enter in within this part of the narrative. But as illustrative of the problem as this case is, any doctor you know could provide a dozen or a hundred other examples at the drop of a hat. If you live in the American medical system, if you have a medical emergency or a catastrophic diagnosis, of course you are going to be thankful that you have insurance, and the better your insurance the more grateful you will be (though even this might not protect you from incurring astronomic medical debts). But ultimately, unlike your doctor or nurse or physical therapist who chose their profession because they wanted a vocation that allowed them to make a living while helping others, these companies exist to make a profit, to take in more money from insured people’s premiums than they pay out in claims or expenses; and we forget that, and think of them as real allies in healthcare, only at our peril.
A 2 year old little girl fell and broke her arm. It happened while playing outside in the evening, and when she wasn’t able to move it without excruciating pain, her family went to the Emergency Room at their local hospital. They chose that hospital, out of all the hospitals in town, because it was owned and operated by the same company through which they have their medical insurance (this is important). The child was found to have a fairly rare and complex fracture, and it was intra-articular; it was affecting the bone at the elbow joint. This always makes for a more complex and unstable fracture, with greater risk for poor or dysfunctional healing and long term sequelae. Fortunately, the hand and arm beyond the fracture had good blood flow and sensation, and the fracture didn’t appear to be displaced. The Emergency Room doctor and nurses splinted the arm to keep the joint stable, but didn’t have a pediatric Orthopedic surgeon on call; since it was a weekday, however, they made a referral to a surgeon within their system for the child to be seen the following day. The appointment was scheduled and the child went home with her family.
So far, except for the actual breaking the arm part, everything had gone smoothly. And it just happened to be in a neat little package; the Emergency Room, the x-ray machine and radiology tech, the ER doc, the nurses, and the Pediatric Orthopedic surgeon, his clinic, the nurses he works with, and the OR he operates in were all under the umbrella of the very same company that provides the patient’s insurance. This, surely, is how these systems are supposed to work, right? Scenarios like this are exactly why this family, or your family, would prefer to have private insurance instead of, say, Medicaid. All that needed to happen now was for the patient to be seen the next day (Friday) by the Orthopedic surgeon, for that surgeon and the parents to decide on a course of action, and then either cast the arm or schedule surgery, or both.
That’s what should have happened, but because of policies that insurance company had in place to slow down utilization and save money, here’s what happened instead. The family called the Orthopedic Surgeon’s office the following morning, bright and early, to confirm the appointment time; they were told that without a referral she couldn’t be seen. They explained that they had a referral from the day before, but this insurance company’s policy is that the referral has to come from the Primary Care Doctor, not from the ER; it is part of their prior authorization process. If the patient were seen without that referral, the insurance wouldn’t pay for the visit and the full cost of it would be on the patient; since sometimes patients don’t pay their medical bills, the Ortho clinic wouldn’t schedule the visit until they received (and processed) the referral. The family had no other choice; they scheduled an appointment with their Pediatrician, who works in a totally different healthcare system, just to get that referral.
Now, if the family had known they had this option, they could have called their Pediatrician and explained the situation, and she would have sent the referral right away without an appointment, and then spent the morning advocating for her to be seen that very afternoon even before the referral had been ‘processed’, eventually either sweet-talking or strong-arming the clinic’s front desk into getting her on the schedule, or failing that, going over their heads and asking the surgeon directly (who despite all the stereotypes typically have strong feelings about not ignoring little girls’ broken arms); as primary care physicians we have to do that kind of thing all the time. The family didn’t know this, however, so they schedule an appointment for that afternoon with the Pediatrician; it felt like the best they could do.
So just after 4 PM on Friday afternoon, after seeing who knows how many patients that day already, the Pediatrician has this little girl walk into her office and she discovers the situation they are facing. It’s far too late to get them in to see the Orthopedic Surgeon that afternoon, even if they could get them on the schedule (they couldn’t), and even if the clinic were only across town (it wasn’t). The Pediatrician asks her nurses to call the Ortho clinic while she researches more about the type of fracture she has, which is very rare in a child this age. Every case study she can find tells her that the break will need surgical fixation; but some have it being done immediately and others have it casted for 2 weeks first, and the Pediatrician simply doesn’t have the Ortho background to know which is best in her case. Her plan is to ask the Pedi Orthopedist to look at the x-rays and give them an opinion; can the child wait to be seen Monday morning, or does she need to send her to the ED in another town where the Orthopedist consults, so they can treat her that evening?
The nurses get in touch with the front desk at the Ortho Clinic, and they actually tell the team that the Pediatrician can’t talk to the Orthopedist about this patient until they receive the referral (which the medical assistant was faxing at that very moment); the nurse transfers the call to the Pediatrician and she ‘pulls rank’, something we Primary Care Doctors rarely do (and even more rarely succeed at); they page the surgeon, and the Pediatrician waits on hold. Eventually they let her know that they will keep trying and will pass along the message, and she gives them her cell phone number. Despite having other patients to see and being behind on charts that afternoon already, she has a long discussion with the family about the plan, and the contingency plans, and the backup contingency plans, all revolving around what the surgeon says and if they are even able to get through to anyone with the Ortho team in the first place.
-At 4:45 she hasn’t heard anything, so she calls again. -At 5 she lets the family know she is still waiting on hold, but they can go home and she will call them as soon as she hears from Ortho; she makes sure the mom’s number is correct in the computer system so she can reach her. -At 5:15 she gets in touch with Ortho; with the resident on call, I believe. He takes the medical record number and date of birth, and the Pediatrician’s cell number; he isn’t is a place where he can look at the x-ray right now but will call her back. -At 6:30 she still hasn’t heard back (and didn’t think to get his cell phone number, she later realizes), so she calls the mom and lets them know she is still waiting. The child is doing well and they have bags packed in case they need to go to the ED to get seen by Ortho that night, which is one of the possible plans they discussed. -Also at 6:30, the Pediatrician takes her kids to a local park. Even though she is not on call, she checks her phone about every 5 minutes to make sure she hasn’t missed a call from Ortho. She doesn’t. -At 8:30 she is back home, and her partner gets to put the kids to bed alone while she sits on the phone, on hold again waiting for Ortho. She spends her time reading every case study she can about this type of fracture; she is increasingly unconvinced that it can safely wait until Monday to be addressed. -At 9 PM she hangs up and calls the mom instead (at that point you are reaching the unprofessional hours of the night, and as silly as it seems a lot of doctors feel like they are leaving the wrong impression by calling past 9 or 10 PM); she apologizes profusely that she hadn’t been able to reach Ortho and advises her to go to the ED in the other town where they can get Pedi Ortho to look at her arm. Hopefully that ED trip will end up being ultimately unnecessary, she says, and the surgeon will look at her arm and get new x-rays and tell her to come back to clinic on Monday after all (now that she at least has a referral in place)…. But if not, if they do think she needs surgery right away, it will have been worth it. This is an exercise in frustration, but it’s what she would do if it were her kid and she couldn’t get an expert opinion in any other way. -At 9:10 PM Ortho calls her back in response to that second round of calls; an older doc this time, probably the attending. She tells him the story and he is motivated to help this kid, as most doctors almost always are. He pulls up the x-rays and they aren’t showing him what he needs to see; he asks if she can get new x-rays at different angles (naturally assuming she is at an ER or Urgent Care facility because of the hour). She explains that she is in her living room, and the patient is in her living room, and neither living room has an x-ray machine (the snarkiness is my own addition). He wants to run the x-rays by a colleague; he will call her back. She calls mom and lets her know to pump the breaks on driving to the other ER, which I should mention at this point is over an hour away. -At 9:20 the surgeon calls back. They agree the fracture shouldn’t wait until Monday, and they need additional x-rays to come up with a specific plan. But, realistically they aren’t going to do anything about it at midnight tonight anyway, especially with it already in a cast. They recommend letting the family sleep at home and then heading to the ER first thing in the morning; he is going to notify the ER doc and the Orthopedist on call the following day to make sure everything that is suppose to happen, does happen. -At 9:25 The Pediatrician calls mom again and explains everything about the plan in detail, and reassures her that now there is solid Orthopedic surgical advice behind the recommendation; mom is comfortable with the plan and is ready to drive to the ER tomorrow morning. The child is resting comfortably after taking some pain medicine, but still not moving her arm. The Pediatrician finishes the visit note on the computer, then goes back to her other lingering clinic work, and eventually goes to bed. She would have clinic work to catch-up on the next day (Saturday), of course; but that’s the natural penalty for 1. taking the extra time to coordinate care for this patient, and 2. daring to spend a few hours with her kids on a Friday evening.
Saturday morning the family arrived at the ER promptly, and after a little confusion and a few explanations, everyone realized this was the child the Orthopedic surgeon and ER doc had been talking about last night. Ortho was paged, she had her new x-rays done, and had surgery on Sunday to fix the fracture.
From Wikipedia: “Insurers have stated that the purpose of prior authorization checks is to provide cost savings to consumers by preventing unnecessary procedures as well as the prescribing of expensive brand name drugs when an appropriate generic is available.”
So to sum up, this Pediatrician spent well over 2 hours on the phone over the course of an entire evening, coordinating care between two hospitals, her clinic, and two Orthopedic surgeons, in order to facilitate weekend, emergency room based specialist care for a little girl with a broken arm… who should have just been seen in Ortho clinic on Friday instead of seeing her Pediatrician in the first place. (By the way, the doctor in question billed this to her insurance at the level of a 25 minute visit; we don’t really get to bill for our full time the way lawyers do).
Why? Because this healthcare system’s policy is to not trust an ER doctor that they employ to know that the patient needed to see an Orthopedic surgeon they also employ, and instead require a referral from the PCP. Because that policy slows down the delivery of care and, in aggregate, means they have to pay for fewer specialist visits, and that means they get to keep more money from insurance premiums as profits; or in their words, “cost savings to consumers.”
One thing that has become predicable throughout the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is that any story, any recommendation, any development, or any piece of data that can be interpreted as meaning that the danger of COVID-19 has been inflated, misrepresented, or exaggerated by medical experts will be interpreted that way by a large percentage of our population. This is no longer surprising, but honestly it’s also completely understandable. We all hate this pandemic. Whether you are working on the front lines in clinic or in the trenches at the hospital treating COVID-19 every day, whether the virus has harmed or killed a friend or family member, whether your job or business has been affected, or even if you just really miss people, we are all ready for this to be over. The hard path forward involves biomedical research, redoubling mitigation efforts that we are all exhausted of, and at this point, modifying holiday plans and preparing to deal with the quagmire of cascading clinical probabilities that are required to fight the virus in the midst of cold and flu season. But the quicker and easier path to getting rid of this hated virus is undoubtedly to just choose not to believe in it at all. And while this “just don’t believe in it” approach is likely to be about as effective as it has been for any of the other problems I’ve tried it for (taxes, bills, excess carbs), I amsympathetic to the appeal of it. If the pandemic has not affected you directly- or maybe even if it has- it may be very tempting indeed to buy into a video like Plandemic, which tells you that the whole thing is just a government conspiracy, or into the America’s Frontline Doctors‘ video which tells you that there is already an easy and inexpensive cure if you just drive to the see the right doctor. Life can be normal againright now, these sources say; all of your hopes are true and all of your caution and privations can finally come to an end. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying I get it.
But what has been surprising- and consistently surprising, to me at least- is which wild facts people will latch onto to create these false narratives. Before today, I would never have expected this paragraph from the CDC’s weekly updates by select demographic and geographic characteristics to be the next cause of viral misinformation:
What is the claim being made?
If I chose to end this blog after today, I would feel I had really come full circle; my very first blog post was about the myth, popular late in March (and persistent even today), that doctors were lying on death certificates to make the virus seem more dangerous than it really was. Today’s myth is that analyzing the diagnostic codes on death certificates –those incorruptible sources of reliable data- reveals that the virus isn’t actually very dangerous at all, and the CDC has just admitted to it. Bypassing the irony that this later misinformation is being circulated by exactly the same people who have been sharing the first for months, we can spend today’s blog post (48 hours late as usual, this time because our internet was out all day yesterday!) analyzing these claims. They seem to have taken two forms.
The first, and more moderate, is to claim (or at least strongly imply) that because 94% of deaths from COVID-19 also had other diagnostic codes listed on the death certificate, it means that people without ‘underlying medical conditions’ are not actually at a very high risk of dying from the virus. And in one sense this is true, even if this new data from the CDC doesn’t actually really have anything to do with that. Your Local Epidemiologist says this better and more succinctly than I can:
And she’s absolutely right; we have been saying this from early in the pandemic. But not just saying it; thinking it and believing it, too. Every decision I make as a physician, from admitting someone for COVID-19 to starting or stopping a medication, referring them to a specialist, or even recommending exercise or lifestyle changes has to take into account their medical history (and a host of other factors). While there are some symptoms we can warn everyone about, the counseling and support we provide for patients seeking evaluation and treatment of COVID-19 has a lot to do with their individual risks from the virus and how it might manifest in their lives based on their age and other medical conditions. This 6% misinformation became viral just yesterday, yet if you asked any doctor last week they would have already told you that the younger and healthier you are the less likely you are to end up in the hospital or die from COVID-19, and the more medical complications you have the more concerned they are about you having the virus. I know because this is exactly what I was saying to people in clinic last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. Yes, many young and otherwise healthy people have died tragically and shockingly from complications of the virus; but this is still a rare occurrence on the whole compared to the number of young, healthy people who have had the virus. When I counsel people at low risk of complications from COVID-19, we of course talk about the signs and symptoms they should watch for that would trigger a trip to the ER, like chest pain and shortness of breath; but I also want to make sure they aren’t sitting at home, anxiously wondering when the virus is ‘going to get them’. I want them self-isolating; I don’t want them to be afraid. But this relative reassurance towards the young and healthy is actually undercut ever so slightly when you combine headlines like these with the actual data being reported from the CDC, which I’ve included below.
When you look at the other diagnostic codes listed in the table above, you will notice that codes like E78.2 and I10 are listed; high cholesterol and high blood pressure, respectively, both conditions I’ve been diagnosed with in the past (and probably still have, if I would ever go get a check-up. Doctors really do make the worst patients). At 35 and having never spent a night in the hospital as a patient in my life, nobody would call me high risk for complications of COVID-19. In fact, if I contracted COVID-19 and died of it this week, two things would happen. First, my blog would probably get a lot more hits for a couple of days (and this paragraph in particular would seem very bitterly ironic). But second, I would be held up as an example of how being young and in relatively good health is not a perfect guarantee of safety from the virus. YetI would be a part of the 94%, not the 6%.
The reality is that in saying “94% of COVID-19 deaths had underlying conditions,” these stories are addingnothingto and are in fact dumbing down the more sophisticated knowledge we already have, and share with our patients daily, of the most important risk factors and conditions that predispose someone to COVID-19 being a likely threat to them. They are meant to lure you into a false sense of security, because it’s so easy to think they mean somebody elsebesides you(even if you do in fact have some of those diagnoses, like I do) and a relatively small group of people. But when I look at the chart, I realize that even I fall into that group with “2 or 3 underlying medical conditions” that they are saying 94% of the COVID-19 deaths occurred in; in fact, most Americans do. And when a statistic includes me, privileged to be in pretty good health as I am, but also my patient battling metastatic kidney cancer and my patient suffering from both CHF and COPD, maybe it just isn’t a very useful statistic in the first place.
But the more dishonest and blatantly ridiculous claim, which has absolutely no justification, is to say that only the 6% of deaths with just COVID-19 listed on the death certificate actually count as COVID-19 deaths. Take this one Facebook poster who has been widely shared, who had the gall to take this to the next step and “calculate” that only 9,210 people had “actually died from Covid.” Probably because she was willing to put a number on the deaths, this post has been shared 21,000 times on Facebook; but it’s hard to believe that someone with a doctorate degree, any doctorate degree, could have such little grasp on basic statistics.
This post entirely misrepresents everything within our complex understanding of medicine regarding the impact of medical comorbidities, the myriad causes and steps leading to death in COVID-19 or any other illness, and even the very process of completing a death certificate. In her estimation, Dr. Hesse is saying that a diagnostic code on the death certificate other than COVID-19, literally any other code, is sufficient evidence that the patient did not die from COVID-19. This is not only preposterous and dishonest but also just plain silly. We are going to explore these issues more thoroughly in the next section, but briefly, just look at the chart above and begin googling ICD-10 diagnostic codes for yourself to test the logic of her interpretation. Yes, I can absolutely believe that some of the patients whose death certificates reflect both COVID-19 and also diagnosis code C71, Malignant neoplasm of brain, may actually have died from the brain cancer and were only found to have the virus incidentally. We can’t tell from the data if that did in fact happen, or how many patients might have such a presentation. But with COVID-19 being an acute illness and brain cancer being a chronic illness, the disease and treatment of which also predisposes you to infectious illnesses, it is at least as reasonable to assume that the majority of patients who died from “COVID-19 and brain cancer” actually died from COVID-19, which they were more vulnerable to because of their pre-existing brain cancer.
But Dr. Hesse’s assertion that only the 9,210 “COVID-19 only” deaths should count also has to stand up to scenarios like, say, any hypothetical patient who was certified as dying with COVID-19 and R09.3, Abnormal sputum, or COVID-19 and N20.0, Kidney stones. Again, we can’t tell fromthis data whether any such patients with only those codes exists; but neither can Dr. Hesse, and for her argument to be valid, each and every possible diagnostic code included in the chart above would, if added to a COVID-19 death certificate, nullify COVID-19 as a primary or contributing cause of death. That is what she is saying, and it is obviously ridiculous. What this error betrays is a complete misunderstanding, whether intentional or accidental I know not, of how death certificates are completed and the information they are meant to capture. Even though it means a longer essay, I do think it’s worth taking the time to revisit this again.
What information do we include in a death certificate?
Once you have been trained to complete death certificates (and have actually done it), this “6%” argument is not even momentarily tempting or convincing. I know what you are thinking; “but TJ, we haven’t been trained to complete death certificates, so you are asking us to trust you with this area of specialized knowledge we don’t have access to.” Well good news reader, the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, DSHS, has got you covered. If you want to understand this 6% statistic from the CDC, I highly recommend that you watch from 1:44 to 3:08 of this video.
Obviously each state will have its own version of this software, but they are all intended to convey the same information; the death certificate is not a high-stakes multiple choice interrogation asking the doctor, “What disease caused the patient’s death? Was it COVID-19 or heart failure? ANSWER THE QUESTION!” Rather it is an opportunity to distill the sequence of events leading to the patient’s death, recorded in greater detail in the medical record, into a structured narrative that explains how they died. When a doctor includes coronary artery disease on the death certificate, they are not making a political statement or a value judgement, but rather an honest reflection of the part this disease played in the patient’s death based on their medical knowledge and their intimate understanding of the progression of illness as the patient’s treating physician. And it is exactly the same with COVID-19. Moreover, this is not something that the physician derives a financial benefit from or an opportunity to defend the medical care the patient received (in fact, I have listed iatrogenic injury on the death certificate when I felt that my own mistake or that of another medical professional contributed in some way to the death of the patient), but rather something that is important for public health information and, in various ways, important to the family of the deceased.
Briefly, I’d like us to complete a medical certification for a death certificate together, again using my hypothetical death from COVID-19 as an example. In this scenario, let’s say that I get sick with cough and loss of taste and smell this week and am diagnosed with COVID-19. Around day 10 of my symptoms I begin to experience chest pain and shortness of breath, and I go to the ER. There I am found to be hypoxic and my chest x-ray shows bilateral peripheral consolidation consistent with ARDS. they begin to treat me with dexamethasone, remdesivir, and oxygen. Over the next few days my respiratory distress increases and, even allowing some permissive hypoxia in order to avoid intubation, the doctors simply cannot keep my oxygen level within safe parameters; they make the difficult decision to intubate me and put me on a ventilator. I am ventilated in prone positioning using the latest and best evidence-based ARDS/COVID-19 ventilation strategies from the genius doctors over at EmCrit and PulmCrit. Unfortunately, I continue to become progressively, severely hypoxic, and eventually suffer cardiopulmonary arrest. Resuscitation is attempted but ultimately efforts to revive me prove futile; the lungs are not compliant, effective ventilation still cannot be achieved, and return of spontaneous circulation is impossible. I’d make a joke about making the life insurance check out to my wife, etc. at this point, but honestly when I reflect on how many people have died from this sequence of events over the past six months, it’s pretty sobering. I’ve made myself sad just now thinking about all of the families that have lost a mother, father, sibling or grandparent in exactly this way.
Once I’ve died, the doctor treating me will have to record it in a death certificate; we can use the Texas system, since it’s what I’m familiar with.
Here in Part I we list the immediate cause of death. In my case, it’s going to be cardiac arrest. Because this is technically the immediate cause of death in every death except those caused by brain death, some doctors would leave this out. Since resuscitation efforts were made and the arrest was a distinct medical event, I would probably include it, but an argument could be made either way. Next we need to describe the events that led to this. I’m not going to include respiratory arrest because I would feel it was a bit redundant, and besides, I was already not breathing on my own when the cardiac arrest happened since I was on a ventilator. Instead, I would say the arrest was due to respiratory failure. The respiratory failure was due to ARDS, Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, and you could make a case here for including viral pneumonia as well. Finally, the ultimate cause of this cascade of complications is my infection with COVID-19.
Next I would need to list any other contributing factors in Part II, and here is where the quandary usually comes in, because now I have to decide whether my high blood pressure and high cholesterol belongs in Part II, “other significant conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause,” or in Part I further down in the chain of events. In this case it’s easy; my high blood pressure is a significant medical issue and made me at higher risk from the virus, so it belongs in Part II; but it didn’t cause me to get COVID-19, so it doesn’t belong in Part I. My chronic right shoulder pain didn’t contribute at all and gets left off the death certificate. These decisions aren’t always easy; sometimes a condition didlead directly to death in chain of events that are causative narratively even if not pathophysiologically; for instance a patient who is hospitalized for a hip fracture and then develops sepsis from a central line. The hip fracture didn’t cause the infection that kill them, but it was a direct part of chain of events. But what about the vertigo that caused the fall that caused the hip fracture; does that belong in Part I or Part II? I have a physician friend who works in hospice care who completes death certificates almost every day (I have completed maybe a dozen); he says this is typically the hardest decision point when it comes to completing a death certificate, deciding what was really a cause and what was ‘only’ a contributing factor. Still, it’s straight forward enough in my hypothetical case, and we can finalize my death certificate as follows:
Cause of Death – Part I: IMMEDIATE CAUSE a. Cardiac Arrest. DUE TO b. Respiratory Failure. DUE TO c. Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome. DUE TO d. COVID-19.
Cause of Death – Part II -Hypertension, Hyperlipidemia
So, for young, relatively healthy me who died from the most stereotyped and straightforward case of severe COVID-19 I can conceive of, we have 5 other diagnostic codeslisted on the death certificate between direct cause conditions and contributing conditions. Contrast that to what a Texas death certification with only the diagnostic code for COVID-19 -the only types of death certificates Dr. Hesse believes count as COVID-19 deaths- would have to look like:
Cause of Death – Part I: IMMEDIATE CAUSE a. COVID-19 DUE TO b. ________________________ DUE TO c. ________________________ DUE TO d. ________________________
Cause of Death – Part II ________________________
My friend, the hospice doctor, has completed over 500 death certificates (a conservative estimate) since finishing residency a few years ago. He says he has included just one diagnostic code alone maybe twice. What Dr. Hesse sees as the ‘real’ COVID-19 deaths, these 9,210 death certificates without any other documented diagnoses, I see as an anomaly; I am forced to ask myself how that many death certificates were complete in what I consider to be such an incomplete and insufficient manner. I have two theories, aside from some doctors simply not giving the proper attention to the task that they should have or not understanding the importance of completing the death certificate thoroughly. One is that some of the doctors who have been taking care of patients in this pandemic simply might not be familiar with how to complete a death certificate. This pandemic has brought doctors out of retirement and graduated 4th year medical students months early to shore up the frontlines; surely some just haven’t had even the 5 minutes of training from the video above and don’t know how to complete the forms properly; frankly it’s a low priority in their training right now. But second, some of the death certificates for COVID-19 patients have been completed by doctors who were incredibly overwhelmed. When we consider places like New York City, where doctors and nurses were dropping from exhaustion during shifts and barely had time to document at all, and were seeing multiple deaths per shift, each and every shift for weeks, it is reasonable to expect that some of those doctors no longer felt that taking the extra time to document a complete death certificate series of events was a priority. I can’t argue with them; it wouldn’t be. As important as the death certificate is to the patient’s family and for public health purposes, it is a low priority in a crisis when your time would otherwise be spent taking care of living patients or trying to shore up your own physical and mental reserves. If this is the case, the doctors who typed “COVID-19” and submitted the death certificates probably had no idea that such an action would contribute to even more dangerous medical misinformation threatening to extend the pandemic a few months later; a lesson in unintended consequences.
So what do all of these other codes mean?
There are many ways to interpret the diagnostic codes listed in the comorbidities table from the CDC’s latest update. We could spend hours in speculation, wild surmises, or careful parsing and analysis (if you’re a nerd) to try to recreate the narratives of the deaths represented by this data. The amount of analyzing, explaining, and even guesswork we could devote to this is endless. But briefly, I’d like to explain how to understand the majority of these diagnostic codes and the diseases, conditions, or symptoms they represent by considering them in three large categories.
Other ways of describing COVID-19. The first category that these “other diagnostic codes” fit into is simply other ways of describing the symptoms and complications of COVID-19 itself. If I treated you in the hospital for a CVA (cerebrovascular accident; a stroke), but I also added on diagnosis codes for right arm paralysis and slurred speech, you wouldn’t review the medical record and say, “see, I wasn’t treated for stroke after all! They were treating me for right arm paralysis and slurred speech and just added that ‘stroke’ code on because Dr. Webb probably gets some sort of kickback for it.” The paralysis and the slurred speech delineate more specifically which stroke symptoms you experienced; their inclusion creates a more complete record of your presentation and treatment. In fact, it isn’t at all uncommon to have multiple diagnostic codes that actually say the same thing, due to different doctors and different departments interacting with your medical chart and, again, for the sake of completeness. If I have already added “slurred speech” to your chart, the neurologist later adding ‘expressive aphasia’ doesn’t actually add anything to your medical record (except a little reminder that she’s smarter than me); but it might be more appropriate to document it this way for the referral to speech therapy she is ordering for after your discharge, or to have this diagnostic code associated with the MRI. The synonymous diagnostic codes are repetitive, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are redundant.
Now apply this logic to death certificates and COVID-19. We’ve already discussed that most doctors would like to be as complete and thorough as possible with death certificates and that it is somewhat odd to list only one diagnostic code without providing a fuller narrative. When we see diagnostic codes like J96 (respiratory failure; 54,803 cases), R09.2 and I46 (respiratory and cardiac arrest, 3,282 and 20,210 cases respectively), and J12.9 (viral pneumonia, unknown number of cases, but contained within the “Influenza and Pneumonia” group), all the doctor is doing is using additional diagnostic codes to clarify the events affecting the patient’s lungs that led to death. In fact, it would not be inappropriate to include all four of these codes for many COVID-19 deaths, because the natural history of viral pneumonia due to COVID-19 leading to respiratory failure and eventual arrest is unfortunately far too common. The same applies to codes like A40 and A41, Sepsis (14,053), which is not even a diagnosis in itself but a syndrome describing the body’s systemic reaction to infection, and many of the “all other conditions” codes like R09.1, pleuritic chest pain and R09.0, hypoxemia.
But the most obvious example is J80, Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (21,899 cases). This is literallythe severe respiratory syndrome caused by COVID-19, yet people like Dr. Hesse who claim to have evaluated this data carefully did not include these deaths in their “real” COVID-19 death count. To be clear, if a patient’s death certificate listed only COVID-19 and ARDS, these medical misinformation hucksters wouldn’t count them; that patient died of ARDS, they would say, not COVID-19. It’s like saying someone didn’t die from falling off a plane without a parachute, they died from the landing. It’s the bad dad joke of medical misinformation and the clearest piece of evidence we have that those originating this narrative are either extremely unqualified to interpret this information… Or else are not in earnest with their conclusions, but instead are pushing misinformation intentionally from what motivations and purposes I cannot say.
Conditions that really do make COVID-19 more dangerous. Much of the work I have seen refuting the “6%” misinformation so far has focused on the concept of comorbid conditions or medical comorbidities. Simply stated, these are diseases or conditions that make us more susceptible to other disease processes or more likely to have complications from them. Some of these diseases are also extremely dangerous in themselves, and others are primarily dangerous because of their role in predisposing to other conditions. A good example of the former is Congestive Heart Failure (I50, 10,562 cases). This is an extremely dangerous, chronic disease that has a fairly low 5 year survivability from the date of diagnosis (average of 62%, but as low as 48%, in African American men because of healthcare disparities). You can absolutely die of complications from heart failure, but it also increases your risk for many other diseases and infections. It is both a primary cause of death and a comorbidity, and without a more detailed dataset or an intimate understanding of each case, we cannot possibly say how many of the 10,562 people who died with both COVID-19 and heart failure died from heart failure complicated by COVID-19, from COVID-19 which they were more vulnerable to because of heart failure, or from a more complex clinical picture that involved heart failure, COVID-19, and other contributing factors. But is this information going to change anything for us? The medical misinformation spreaders want you to believe that all 10,562 of the people who died with both heart failure and COVID-19 died at the time they would have from their heart failure with or without a viral pandemic. They want you to believe this based on nothing other than the fact that it fits a more comfortable narrative; but it flies in the face of what we are hearing from doctors, nurses, family members, and patients of those with heart failure about the way that COVID-19 affects those who are already suffering from these types of chronic illnesses.
Other examples in this category include renal failure (N17-N19, 13,693 cases), COPD and other chronic respiratory disease (J40-J47, 13,780 cases), and quite a few of the “other conditions and causes” listed, such as N04 (Nephrotic Syndrome), L93 (Systemic Lupus), and of course B20 (HIV), just to name a few. The people spreading this misinformation are putting the people with these illnesses at greater risk, specifically, by either pretending that COVID-19 is not a threat to them (the “only 6% count” crowd) or by seeming to claim, callously, that caution as a society isn’t warranted on their behalf (the “94% had comorbidities” crowd).
But within this category we also include diseases that are not likely to kill you on their own, and which would have almost certainly been included on the death certificate due to the physician’s conviction that they made the patient more susceptible and less able to resist the complications of their COVID-19 infection. These include Obesity (E65-E68, 5,614 cases), Alzheimer’s disease (5,608 cases), and of course other types of dementia (F01 and F03, 18,497 cases). Do we really believe that a patient with COVID-19 and obesity listed as their causes of death have died from obesity, and that their having COVID-19 was a coincidence? That is not something that happens. Dementia in particular is an interesting conundrum, because with COVID-19 harming so many people in nursing homes it is potentially not only a physical risk factor, which it most certainly is, but also an epidemiological risk factor; many doctors might include a patient’s reason for living in an assisted living facility, such as dementia or disability, within the death certificate as part of the narrative of how the patient came to be exposed to COVID-19, the same way we might list arthritis on the death certificate for a patient who suffered a heart attack during physical therapy. Again, these are not competing diagnoses that draw responsibility for the death away from COVID-19, but rather a fuller picture (that is, as full as can be told with diagnostic codes alone outside of the full medical record) of the patient’s story leading up to their death.
Finally, a few categories of disease deserve some extra discussion, and those are diseases that could cause death all on their own but almost certainly didn’t for the patients reflected in these death certificates. Hypertension (I10-I15, 35,272 cases) is incredibly common and usually leads to longterm organ damage rather than acute crises, but can present with severely elevated pressures that lead to stroke or another vascular event. However, this would typically be indicated with the diagnosis code I16, hypertensive crisis or I16.1, hypertensive emergency, which are specifically not included in the diagnostic codes for the hypertension group in this table. It is possible that this is just a common coding error on death certificates, but I doubt it; if the physician believed that the severity of the patient’s hypertensive crisis led directly to their death, they would likely take pains to emphasize this on the death certificate; applying a code for essential or secondary hypertension instead suggests that they regarded it as a comorbidity or at most a contributing factor. Diabetes (E10-E14, 25,936 case) is another example. Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA) is a severe metabolic disorder that often requires ICU level care; but this is primarily due to how labor intensive it is to treat, and the mortality rate remains low. These 25,936 people who had both COVID-19 and diabetes did not die from DKA, which accounts for less than 2,500 deaths annually. Instead, both diabetes and hypertension, just like dementia and obesity, are comorbid conditions that make the patient more susceptible to and likely to experience worse outcomes from other diseases, and as such their role in this list of additional diagnostic codes on COVID-19 death certificates is the same as their role in death certificates for patients who die from stroke, heart disease, and influenza; yet no-one is claiming that because a patient had high blood pressure and diabetes, their death from the flu didn’t count.
Conditions that might have nothing to do with COVID-19 and mighthaveactually caused the patient’s death(maybe) Finally, we have conditions that, based on the diagnosis code alone, we know to be incredibly dangerous and also to be common causes of death. Some of these, like certain cancers (C00-C97, 7,415 cases plus some of the ‘all other conditions’ group) we can treat similarly to heart failure or COPD; they may predispose you to COVID-19 or raise the risk that your COVID-19 course of illness will be severe, or they may be immediately dangerous in and of themselves and be worsened by COVID-19 or not. If someone wants to ask how many of the thousands of deaths that included a cancer diagnosis were actually caused or hastened by COVID-19, and how many just happened have the virus during the days leading up to to death from a terminal malignancy, I think it’s a fair enough question; though from what I’ve heard from friends who provide hospital and hospice care, the former does seem to be very common. In the latter cases, if such cases are at all common, the additional suffering from COVID-19 must be felt in other ways; in the barriers it places to those individuals being surrounded by family and friends as much as possible during their final days.
We could legitimately ask the same question for some other diagnoses on the list; heart attacks and cardiac arrhythmias (18,103 and 9,812 cases respectively), pulmonary embolism (I26, contained in the 8,743 “other disease of the circulatory system”), and strokes (I60-I69, 7,653 cases) are all very deadly on their own. However, unlike with cancer, which has no known or proposed causal relationship with COVID-19 aside from immunocompromise, the virus is known to cause a hypercoagulable state that has caused all of the above pathologies. How many of the deaths that involved these diagnostic codes were due to these conditions and how many were in turn due to COVID-19 is known only to the doctors, nurses, and family members that were involved in their care. Attempts to make absolute statements that these deaths simply were not caused by COVID-19 (despite the doctor writing the death certificate feeling they the virus did in fact contribute to the death) because another dangerous disease was also involved are based entirely on a desire to minimize the danger of the virus, and not on any interpretation or analysis that can be legitimately conducted from this set of data.
The final set of diagnostic codes we need to look at are the 5,133 included in COVID-19 death certificates under the category “Intentional and unintentional injury, poisoning and other events.” We don’t know which codes specifically show up in these death certificates, but much like the other ‘other’ catch-all categories it contains diagnoses ranging from S00.37XA, Other superficial bite of nose (a diagnosed I received today courtesy of my 16 month old), to X95.9, Assault by firearm. What is going on here? Much like the “other” diagnostic codes we talked about above, there may be any number of reasons that some of these codes might be on a COVID-19 death certificate. Some may be complications that arose in the hospital, such as SO6.9, Intracranial injury, when a COVID-19 patient experienced a syncopal episode and hit their head. Some may be part of a historical narrative, for instance a patient who experienced a prolonged hospitalization following a V03.10XA, Motor vehicle collision injuring a pedestrian, which ultimately ended when they died from respiratory failure due to COVID-19 contracted in the hospital. Again, without access to the actual death certificates, medical records, and medical staff who treated these patients we simply do not know what circumstances or patient history necessitated the physician to include both COVID-19 specific diagnostic codes and codes for accidents or intentional and accidental injuries in the same death certificate; but it absolutely does not stretch the bounds of credulity to believe that such circumstances do indeed occur.
Nevertheless, I want to cede this point to the conspiracy theorists, if only for just a moment. What if we do “admit” (as ridiculous as it is, and with apologies to the families of the individual people whom these death certificates represent) that each and everydeath certificate listing one or more of these accidental and non-accidental injuries represents a patient who died from some horrible accident, with COVID-19 just tacked on but clinically silent? You see, since the beginning of the pandemic the conspiracy theorists have been telling us, with no evidence, that “if somebody gets hit by a car they are calling it a COVID-19 death” and “if someone gets shot, they call it COVID-19 to inflate the numbers.” This data, from actual death certificates, now shows that the maximum possible number of such falsified death certificates tacking on COVID-19 to an accidental death is 5,133; compared to 183,000 deaths from COVID-19 and an estimated 80,000 total deaths from accidents in that same time frame. And again, that’s assuming that no other possible explanation exists for those “other accidental and non-accidental injuries” contributing to a person’s death from COVID-19.
Many of the diagnostic codes listed don’t fit easily into just one of the above categories, because we just don’t know enough about the history of the people whose battles with and deaths from COVID-19 are represented here. We don’t know, from this data set, whether the physician completing the death certificate was indicating a new stroke as a primary cause of death, or an stroke that lead to a rehab stay where the patient contracted COVID-19. We don’t know whether diabetes was listed because it was poorly controlled and played a major role in the hospitalization, or whether it was well controlled and was only included because that physician knew that diabetes is a risk factor for the patient’s unfortunate bad outcome from COVID-19 infection. We also have no idea what to do with codes that are so benign in themselves that they don’t really seem to have a place on a death certificate at all, yet the physician clearly regarded as an important part of the patient’s history leading up to their death.
But what we do know, with certainty, is that this new data released from the CDC does not mean. If you’ll spend just a few minutes really looking at the data, at the ages and the conditions mentioned, you will realized that it cannot mean that 94% of the people who have died from COVID-19 were incredibly sick, incredibly frail, and incredibly old people with many other diseases who would have died soon anyway; that argument is as bankrupt in its analysis of this data set as it is ugly in its callousness. That is not what the CDC means when they tell us that 94% of death certificates listed ‘more than one diagnostic code’ or contributing factor, as we’ve clearly demonstrated above. And even if it were (and it’s not), it would not somehow mean that the lives lost to COVID-19 were less valuable; those who see this false idea that 172,000 of the 183,000 people who have died from COVID-19 were sick already as a compelling reason to stop mitigation efforts need to carefully consider whether their only motivation for taking caution has been their ownpersonal health and safety this entire time… And then try to understand why that has not been the sole or primary motive for the rest of us; that the safety of those around us, including the medically vulnerable, is actually sufficient reason for some inconvenience and even sacrifice on my part.
And we also know with certainty that no real scientist, statistician, epidemiologist, or physician, and certainly no one who actually treats patients on their death beds and then completes death certificates to capture the complex and detailed medical events of their final days would ever believe the idea that the 6% of death certificates with only COVID-19 listed as a cause of death represents the “real” death told of this horrible virus; at least not without some herculean effort of intellectual dishonesty and self-deception.
I’ve promised at least a dozen people that I would write about this over the past month and have so far utterly failed them. The truth is that it’s such a huge topic, and so fraught with the risk of saying something too extreme and dogmatic, that it’s hard to even know where to start. In a way, being at least a month late to this topic is much, much more comfortable, because not only do we have much more data now, but I can write in the certain and comfortable knowledge that my essay will have no impact whatsoever on what we do about reopening schools (not that it would have anyway). My goal therefore, besides keeping out of trouble, is to provide whatever insight I can into whether or not it’s safe to reopen schools and then what you, dear reader, can do to mitigate the inherent risks within your own scope of influence. I don’t always lay out a thesis statement at the beginning of these essays, because despite what I learned in Freshman honors English, I usually don’t have one (sorry Mrs. Greer!); but today I want to address whether going back to school is going to worsen the pandemic, whether it is worth the risk, and what parents, educators, and we as a society can do to make this situation as safe as possible.
Is going back to school going to make the pandemic worse?
Answer: Yes, absolutely.
Did you want me to elaborate, or is that sufficient? The reality is that I can see no way that this isn’t going to make the pandemic worse. On some level this math is incredibly simple; more people in close quarters means more cases, and more cases means more deaths. The real question is how much worse will reopening schools make the pandemic, and as we discuss below, whether that risk is justified right now. This question is going to answer itself in a few months, maybe even within a few weeks; but right now the best we can do is guess.
When I first started writing about this issue, I wasn’t sure what conclusions I would draw (which is generally a good way to start, if you can do it). I actually expected to arrive at answers that were cautiously optimistic, but as I went through the current data I became more concerned. My goal in writing this was not to sound an alarm or argue a point but to evaluate the evidence, and if you find my conclusions somewhat more discouraging than you had hoped, please know you aren’t alone; I was discouraged too. We are going to look at three types of evidence; what the epidemiological and experimental data tells us about how children and adolescents spread the virus, what has already happened in other places that have reopened schools, and what the risk is to these populations, to educators, and to the family members of school aged children and adolescents.
Can children spread the virus? I’ve said before that for any discussion of whether or not children and adolescents can spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the burden of proof would be on the side of proving that they don’t, not proving that they do. We have decades- nay, millennia- of experience with and evidence of children spreading viral respiratory illnesses. I see it literally every day in my clinic and have experienced it within my own body when I have been laid up for days (I’m told this is called a “man-cold”) from a virus that one of my adorable walking fomites brought home from parents-day-out or Sunday School (or whatever your church calls it to avoid having to call it Sunday School). Under normal circumstances we take this very seriously; we cancel birthday parties when one of our kids has a fever and we regretfully reschedule plans with friends when a respiratory virus has affected our family, because we know that we could spread it to their family. In fact, this is such a truism that it is accepted conventional wisdom, and I regularly have parents tell me of a cold or the flu that their children got it from a cousin and are “just passing it around” within the home. Barring some compelling microbiological difference, there is no reason to assume that it would be any different for COVID-19. Without definitive evidence, I simply do not find claims that ‘children don’t spread the virus’ convincing. It is well and good for people like British Epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse to say that there have been ‘no recorded cases worldwide of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil’ (‘pupil’ is a British word for ‘student’), but aside from the problem of seeming to claim categorical knowledge, saying this in July when schools had been closed since the early days of the pandemic in March paints the risk as being low with much more confidence than the evidence warrants. But epidemiology is an applied science, and what we get wrong in our models and assumptions, the virus will correct for us in the bodies of students and teachers.
Nevertheless, the evidence was initially encouraging. A review of available evidence published on July 31st in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics asserted that “children most frequently acquire COVID-19 from adults, rather than transmitting it to them,” while acknowledging that this is a significant divergence from transmission patterns in other viral respiratory illnesses such as influenza. The authors concluded, “On the basis of these data, SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools may be less important in community transmission than initially feared.” This conclusion is based on a study from Switzerland that tracked cases in 39 households, and another in China that included 68 children with confirmed COVID-19.
The same month, a study from Korea that traced contacts of 5,706 individuals with COVID-19 found that the highest transmission rates were for the household contacts of school-aged children with the virus, and concluded that “rates were higher for contacts of children than adults.” Because we are talking about COVID-19, this claim might be considered controversial. If we were talking about literally any other respiratory virus, every parent I know would respond by saying, “well… yeah.”
This finding, from a much larger study, provides a more balanced context for the major enigma from the AAP article; a German experiment that showed that viral loads in the nasopharynx (nasopharynxes? nasophari?) of children were as high as those in older people, “raising concern that children could be as infectious as adults” (Update: this result has since been confirmed by a study at Massachusetts General Hospital released yesterday, August 19th, which actually found viral loads in children with COVID-19 that were higher than that of severely ill hospitalized adults). The AAP article offered a few possible explanations for why this did not line up with the reassuring findings from the small epidemiological studies they reviewed. First, because children are more frequently mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic, releasing fewer infectious respiratory particles during their illness compared to adults. Sure; but adults don’t generally pick their noses and then touch every single muffin before deciding which one they want for breakfast. Maybe with this disgusting example from my life this morning in mind, the AAP article added, “Another possibility is that because school closures occurred in most locations… most close contacts became limited to households, reducing opportunities for children to become infected in the community and present as index cases.” And if that is the analysis of the most optimistic academic article on reopening schools I’ve seen yet, what will be the conclusions of the epidemiological studies from 2 months from now?
Are we actually seeing COVID-19 cases transmitted by children? The second type of data reveals yet another benefit of pathologic procrastination, because if I had written this a month ago we wouldn’t have some of this data at all. A recent analysis showed a surge of nearly 100,000 new pediatric COVID-19 cases in the latter part of July, prompting Pediatric Infectious Diseases specialist Dr. Sean O’Leary of Children’s Hospital Colorado (where I did all of my pediatric rotations in med school) to say “I think it’s showing that, yes, kids can get infected and can spread the infection.” This trend continued this month, with 75,755 new cases from 7/30 to 8/13. To put this in context, that means that nearly half of US COVID-19 cases in children have been confirmed in the last 4 weeks. Still, while some school-related activities and sports camps were happening over this time frame, this was before most schools actually reopened; once they do, these numbers may end up looking small. In places where they have reopened, we have read about high schools, middles schools, and kindergartens shutting down, quarantining massive number of students, or further delaying reopening due to large numbers of exposures to the virus and increasing numbers of confirmed cases among students and staff. This is mirrored in other places where young people are together en masse. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has switched entirely to online classes (and now Notre Dame and Michigan State) for the semester due to multiple clusters of transmission on campus, and we have read reports throughout the Summer of camps closing due to massive outbreaks among campers and counselors.
More to the point, I see this all the time. I’ve evaluated hundreds of patients for COVID-19 over the past several months, and there has not been a strange, unexplained phenomenon of patients not getting sick from their kids. I know there are some people who will never believe in COVID-19 transmission in children from studies in Korea that demonstrate thousands of cases; so I’ll just tell you now, I’ve personally seen many people who got COVID-19 from their children. We’ve seen children stay with cousins who tested positive, and then bring the infection to the adults and other children in their own household. We’ve seen families of 5 or 6 all test positive for COVID-19 after one of the children developed symptoms first. I haven’t seen any teachers get COVID-19 from a student; but I don’t think any of our local schools are actually open at this point. But transmission from children is happening and has been happening, and as much as we all wish against it, there is simply no chance that we won’t see community transmission clustered around schools once they are reopened.
Yeah, but children aren’t at a high risk from COVID-19, right? The inevitable questions is, so what? Aren’t kids immune? Or if not immune, at least far less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults? To some degree, the answer is “yes, thank God.” If this were the Spanish Flu of 1918, which disproportionately killed children, our society would not even be dreaming about reopening schools. As a parent of four small children, the fact that children are relatively safe from the virus has been the main reason I have felt comfortable seeing large volumes of patients with COVID-19-like symptoms daily over the past several months. As we discussed in the article addressing the America’s Frontline Doctors video, and again when discussing misinformation around COVID-19 and Human Trafficking, we don’t actually know the exact mortality rate among children. We do know it is much lower than for other groups.
We also know it is not zero. While 20 of the states included in the latest analysis by the CDC reported zero child deaths, the rest reported at least one, and the mortality rate was as high as 0.6% in confirmed cases. The state with this frighteningly high mortality rate? Texas. Now before we break out our calculators and start to panic at the realization of what a 0.6% case fatality rate in children means, this is definitely an outlier (and I believe drastically overestimates the actual infection fatality rate in children), and of course it only includes identifiable cases; this mortality rate still cannot account for asymptomatic cases or minimally symptomatic children who don’t get tested. Nevertheless, not-zero multiplied by a lot is still a lot, and there is reason to expect that the 400,000 child cases of COVID-19 in the US so far may soon be a drop in the bucket. Some of the children who become infected over the coming weeks and months as schools reopen will, in fact, die, and for many of us who are affected by these deaths, this pandemic will no longer seem to have miraculously ‘spared children’ the way it has over the past 6 months with schools closed and children mostly kept at home.
But more importantly, death rates do not tell the entire story. While we have seen few child deaths, we have seen many children hospitalized for COVID-19, and an analysis of hospitalizations published just last week reveals that out of all hospitalized children with COVID-19, about one-third require ICU level care (though require mechanical ventilation far less frequently than adults). There are many ways to explain and understand this data, some of which are included in their analysis and some of which aren’t; but their conclusion is 100% spot-on:
“Children are at risk for severe COVID-19. Public health authorities and clinicians should continue to track pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. Reinforcement of prevention efforts is essential in congregate settings that serve children, including childcare centers and schools.”
Dr. Lindsay Kim, et. al
Finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we aren’t actually most worried about the kids. If you look back at the chart from the CDC above, the groups that we are worried about most are the ones who are 1,400 times, 3,500 times or 10,000 times more likely to die from COVID-19 infection than school age children; their older parents and grandparents. Without any conclusive evidence that children ‘can’t spread the virus’ and more than enough compelling data that they can, we have every reason to believe that the population at greatest risk from reopening schools will be the grandparents of school-age children, not to mention older parents, teachers, and educators. As a society, we are now in the impossible position of choosing whether our children will forego being educated, socialized, fed, and nurtured inside of schools or whether they will be exposed to a deadly virus (soon, two deadly viruses; flu season is coming) that they can bring home to vulnerable family members.
Is it worth the risk?
Answer: I have no idea.
Child abuse So we know that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to get worse when schools reopen, but we don’t know by how much; and the other side of the equation is the risks associated with not reopening schools, which go far deeper than a semester or two of stymied educational attainment and missing out on the various intracranial and orthopedic injuries associated with high school sports (yes, I was on the Quiz Bowl Team. How did you know?). Since the beginning of the pandemic and the early closing of schools, cancelling of Summer programs and camps for children, and other mitigation measures that meant keeping children within the confines of their homes and family circles, we have been talking about, writing about, and worried about the possibility of child abuse and neglect going up during this crisis, especially when combined with unemployment, increased stress and anxiety, and grief related to the pandemic. And while this has been written about extensively by child advocates and physicians (like myself) who are also very concerned about the very real threat of COVID-19, it has also been used, similar to the issue of human trafficking, by people whose only real goal has been to diminish the threat of the virus and fight against any and all mitigation efforts.
So let me be clear. There is something gross and disturbing about people who have done everything within their power to make the pandemic worse, from neglecting social distancing to spreading misinformation and fighting against mask wearing, now saying that it is the people with legitimate epidemiological concerns about reopening schools who don’t care about child abuse. If it weren’t for people like this, we would be in a position to reopen schools much, much more safely and mitigate both threats more effectively. I deal with child abuse and its ramifications every day of my life; peopledon’t get to use it to try to give their deliberate pattern of denialism and irresponsibility throughout this pandemic the moral high ground. Reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic is an incredibly complex and difficult decision; but we are in this position, at least partly, because of them.
Well, so much for not getting myself into trouble.
The question of child abuse during the pandemic is one that remains unanswered. We all intuitively feel the danger of having children at home more and not having teacher’s eyes on children, especially in the midst of all the other risk factors we mentioned above. We all know of cases where a teacher or other educator has been the key person to report an abusive or neglectful situation and allow social services to intervene; I have seen this happen myself. But the idea that keeping children home from school will lead to a drastic rise in missed child abuse cases may overestimate the efficacy of the systems we have in place to report and investigate child abuse under normal circumstances. An in-depth article from The Marshall Project provides a careful analysis of the dynamics of mandated reporting, and while I think this is still an essential function of teachers, articles like this one from Mother Jones that list the huge drop-off in reports of suspected child abuse following school closures in March may be engaging in sensationalism; the vast majority of calls are not found to represent confirmed child abuse or neglect, and saying that, for instance, Illinois officials “received 6,672 reports of abuse in the week before the governor’s order to close, and 3,675 in the week after” does not mean that 2,997 abused or neglected children were missed.
There’s a balance here; early detection is the key to protecting children in child abuse situations, and there have been some reports by ER physicians that while the numbers of children presenting for child abuse are going down, the cases they do see seem to involve more severe or extensive injuries. Intuitively, we may believe that this is because of school closures… But most of this pandemic has so far taken place during months when schools would have been closed anyway, and it seems every bit as likely that the worsened severity of these child abuse cases is due to the other pressures of the pandemic not related to schools, like stress and anxiety and economic hardships. As the article above points out, we saw similar increases in child abuse severity during the 2008 recession even without school closures. Moreover, the long-held belief that child abuse peaks at all times children are home from school – the Summer, Christmas break, etc- seems to be a myth, and we are left to conclude what we really should have known already about the causes of child abuse; that they are complex. Blaming school closures for child abuse ignores this complexity in favor of a narrative that only seems to make the decision to reopen schools easier.
Other risks to children due to school closures I have a friend who spent his entire Fall and Summer, before leaving a few weeks ago for Physician Assistant school, trying to get food to thousands of children who normally rely on school breakfasts and lunches for a substantial part of their weekly nutrition. I should note that he was working with an organization; he wasn’t just making tons of sandwiches and then driving around handing them out across Texas and Louisiana. Without people like Dustin and organizations like Texas Hunger Initiative, many of those children would have faced significant nutritional deficits throughout this pandemic, and many children across our country don’t have access to programs like this. Moreover, school is not just a center of learning; many essential services such as counseling, speech and physical therapy, and support for learning disabilities and learning disadvantages occur within school walls. Moreover, the families who have least need of these services and the least reliance on school lunches are also the families that are most likely to have educational books in the home, stable internet and redundant internet-capable devices that can be used for distance learning, and other privileges that allow them to engage with learning resources regardless of the status of in-person school. The real threat to education posed by the pandemic isn’t the risk of students missing a year of school across the board (what, are we trying to beat the Russians to the moon?), but the risk of perpetuating and amplifying educational disparities.
But to make things murkier still, those are also the same students that are themselves most likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, and whose parents and grandparents are at the greatest risk from the pandemic, due to healthcare disparities that often cut along the same racial and socio-economic lines as educational disparities, due to the same historical, systemic injustices. I hope you didn’t come here for answers; it really feels like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the only certainty is that the families and children in our society who are already the hardest pressed on all sides at baseline will suffer the most dire consequences from whatever decision we make. Trying to correct this and share our portion of the burden should be at the forefront of whatever policies or personal decisions we make going forward.
What can we do as parents?
Be responsible I hesitate to put this one first because I realize it might sound accusational. Please look at the section heading; ‘what can we do as parents’; please understand that I’m including myself in this category (since I am not an educator or a society) and preaching this mini sermon to myself as well. Nevertheless, this is not an admonishment but a plea, to all of us, to take this virus seriously. As a primary care physician who sees many children, I have some version of this conversation a few times a week:
Me: Good morning, tell me what brings you guys in today. Parent of child: The school called this morning and said he had a fever of 119. Me, panicky: Wait… 101.9? Parent of child: Right. Me, less panicky: Whew… Ok, so when did his symptoms start? Parent of child: He started with a cough 3 days ago and felt warm last night, but I didn’t have a thermometer. They checked him at school today and called me.
As a parent I’ve done this myself; not just misspoke and said the wrong temperature because I had been up with a fussy child all night, but also sent my child to daycare or school because I didn’t really believe they were sick and I was able to rationalize away their symptoms. I’ve received that phone call before; your 2 year old has a fever at parents-day-out, your 5 year old threw up at Vacation Bible School; come and get your child. And the thing is, out of anybody, I should really have known better. But some children have minor coughs and off days so often that under normal circumstances playing a game of chicken with the symptoms and letting the school or daycare be the ones to make the final call that they are really sick is understandable. Not justified, but understandable.
These are not normal circumstances.
As parents, now is the time to take those minor symptoms more seriously and call your PCP or bring your child to their doctor for milder symptoms than you might have otherwise; or even just to keep them home for a day and monitor their symptoms to see if they really do develop into something serious. This is especially important if your job provides sick days or personal days and you have HR policies and supervisors that don’t penalize you for actually using them, which is a privilege so many people simply don’t have. A certain percentage of those runny noses and mild coughs are going to be COVID-19; better my child stay at home and me call in sick, than him give it to a classmate whose parents’ only option when he becomes ill is to leave him with a grandmother already in poor health. As a community, we have to take the responsibility of protecting other people’s children, and families, as seriously as we do the responsibility of protecting are own; and the time to start that is right now.
Consider alternative schooling/home schooling/schooling at home Homeschooling has always involved a good deal of privilege. I say that as someone who homeschooled until 8th grade, whose wife was homeschooled through highschool, and who(se wife) currently homeschools our children. We did not grow up wealthy and my mother enjoys working (and started working again once we had graduated), but my parents made more sacrifices than I realized at the time to allow her to stay home and teach us, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Most of the homeschooling families I know (and we know a lot) are not wealthy; keeping one parent at home to teach means financial hardships they wouldn’t have to bare otherwise. And the sacrifices aren’t just financial; my wife has left hobbies unpursued, books unread (and unwritten, if I could ever get her to write that series of children’s books), and a nursing career she loves temporarily on hold, all to teach our children at home.
But the fact that we canchoose to make those sacrifices in the first place represents an awful lot of privilege, and there are many, many families for whom homeschooling is just not a viable option. Under normal circumstances, homeschooling is a hard decision for us. We believe in the public school system, and we realize that keeping our children at home means our voices aren’t contributing to the PTA, advocating for issues at the local elementary school or before the school board, or supporting the teachers and students and families that our own children would be interacting with every day. We try to be involved in and advocate for our community in other ways, but there’s no denying that we are less effective in this by homeschooling. It also means that our children miss out on opportunities to show love and kindness to people outside of their family circle every day. Sure, I guess there’s a possibility that my 8 year old would be the Regina George of the local 3rd grade or my 5 year old would be the Flash Thompson of Kindergarten, but I have enough pride as a parent and faith in my kids that I think it more likely they’d be an influence for good than otherwise. I think it’s fairly certain that somewhere in town an 8 year old is deprived of a best friend because my daughter is doing school at home with us.
So far we still feel that that’s the best decision for our family, but it’s definitely an ongoing discussion each and every year. But right now, with COVID-19, the privileges inherent in schooling at home can actually be used on behalf of the other children and families, and the teachers, at the local schools that our children won’t be attending. Each child that can safely be kept at home and successfully educated this year through distance learning or homeschooling makes it that much easier for teachers to maintain social distancing in the classroom, that much safer for teachers and other school staff in terms of transmission risk, and that much less likely that other students will become infected and bring the virus home to parents and grandparents. This year, at least, homeschooling was an easy decision for us; and if you have the resources, financial and otherwise, to successfully school at home for a semester or a school year, this is definitely the year to give it some careful consideration.
What can you do as an educator?
I just want to say, at the outset of this section, that I think that asking teachers and school principals to do the work of epidemiologists and government health officials and keep children safe from the virus is pretty lame. I am sorry that you are in this position; I hear your stress. I taught high school physics and physical science (and theatre!) for 8 months after college, and realized it was not something I was good at and certainly not something I could do for the rest of my life; I admire anyone who does it, and particularly anyone who does it well. When I left teaching to go to med school, I knew on some level that I was signing up to be on the front lines of any global pandemic that might happen to come our way; but when you became a teacher, you weren’t. So even though this shouldn’t be your job, I’d like to share some advice for how you can help keep yourself and your students, and their families, safe. Being months late with this post, I’m certain that any educators who might read this are already far along in the planning and implementation of their COVID-19 response plan, and those who have reached out to me have shared incredible, creative ideas to keep themselves and their students safe that I never would have thought of.
Seek counsel A physician friend and residency classmate reached out to me in May when her child’s school asked her to give recommendations on reopening school safely. At the time we were operating under the assumption that the pandemic would be well in hand by the Fall, and that the biggest concern would be preventing a second surge. Clearly, this is no longer the case. Nevertheless, we brainstormed on the best and most practical ways to reduce transmission between students while interrupting their education as little as possible. We had ideas for reducing transmission during PE, music class, alternatives to all school assemblies, managing bathroom breaks and lunch and hallways during class changes. I briefly considered sharing a big list of ideas here, but the reality is that the changes that would help will be different for every school, every building and class schedule, and every situation. You know your school, I don’t; your ideas will be better than mine. And better still will be your ideas with the input of a physician or epidemiologist or other medical professional who has an intimate understanding of infection control and viral transmission and who takes the pandemic very seriously. Reach out to one in your community and ask them for help; they have a vested interested in keeping your school safe, even if they don’t have a child that attends there. Most would be honored to help with this work (and would be even more honored if you then actually followed their advice!). This works best as a two-way conversation; the medical professional is going to see opportunities for changing processes and physical spaces and creating a safer school that wouldn’t occur to someone without their education and experience; and you, the educator, are going to be in a position to tell them which of their ideas will work for your students and your classroom, and which need to be modified or scrapped. Then, when things have calmed down and we’ve finally got this virus under control, you can reach out again to seek their advice on deescalating the measures you’ve put into place and slowly returning to normal. And then later in the year when you need someone to speak to your students about going into healthcare at the next career day, guess who you are gonna call…
Get clever As I’ve worked on this post, I’ve heard from teachers whose schools have implemented some incredibly clever and ambitious ideas. I’ve been told about schools keeping kids in cohorts throughout their entire daily schedule, even organizing sports activities and lunch and recess around these small, consistent groups. I’ve heard of multi-grade classrooms to keep siblings, cousins, and neighbors together, limiting the network of contacts per child. I’ve heard of classroom modifications, curriculum changes, changes in sports schedules, and restructuring of school-wide events. I’ve also heard of schools that are doing next to nothing (besides enforcing stricter social media policies for teachers), and teachers who are scrambling to keep their own classrooms as safe as possible within a school that is essentially denying that any danger exists. I’ve even heard of teachers taking a break from teaching this year because they couldn’t see any way to keep themselves, aged parents, or at-risk household contacts safe while being in the classroom every day. As a society, there is no denying that we’ve failed these teachers.
The classroom or school-wide plan that protects children from getting and spreading SARS-CoV-2 better than any other plan in the country is probably not “just keep children 6 feet apart,” “put up plexiglass between desks,” “masks at all times,” or “check temperatures at the door,” though it almost certainly will include some of those components. No, the best plan has probably already been devised by some creative, well-informed, scientifically minded out-of-the-box thinker somewhere. With any luck, it has been listened to and implemented; but unfortunately, too often it will probably be ignored by decision makers for being too weird or wonky, too conceptually challenging, or too inconvenient to implement. But now is exactly the moment that we need those creative and wonky ideas, because the stakes are too high to just hope it goes away if we can just ignore it hard enough.
Can your track or cross country team set up a Fitbit team challenge instead of practicing together after school?
Can you use pegboard and cardboard and printouts (that you’ll have to buy yourself, I realize) mounted on the walls of your STEAM class to make an interactive workspace that keeps students facing toward the walls for most of the class period instead of toward the teacher or across a table toward each other?
Can you recruit that pop culture savvy AV kid (this is an oxymoron; none of us AV kids are pop culture savvy) to create some awesome Cast of Hamilton style video mash-ups so that your Zoom band rehearsals are Youtube worthy instead of unmitigated disasters?
Can you use your school’s external doorways and internal layout to create a continuous one-way circuit during classroom changes, like Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s star belly tattoo machine?
I don’t know. Some of those ideas are probably things you’re already doing, or that you’ve already thought of and abandoned because there was just no way to make it work at your school or in your class. That’s my point; decreasing transmission right now is going to mean sound epidemiology principles combined with creative teaching ideas and applied to your individual teaching situation. Even for those schools that are very well prepared already, we have to keep in mind that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy; once schools do reopen, one size fits all solutions or rigid adherence to plans made over Zoom during the Summer are likely to mean insufficient protection and excessive interruption of learning if they aren’t reevaluated and readjusted. It’s a lot, I know; but all of us fighting to stop misinformation and promote mitigation efforts and health behaviors that would have slowed the virus have, so far, pretty much failed; so now it is apparently your problem to deal with. You need bold strokes because we’ve failed to convince more folks.
Advocate, advocate, advocate Me using my blog to tell educators to advocate for each other, their students, and their communities is like hospital administrators pulling doctors aside to tell us how to treat patients (oh wait, that happens literally every day); this is clearly something you are already doing and is, in fact, a major part of your job. Nevertheless, this is now a more important job than ever, because there are so many stake-holders when it comes to reopening schools and not all of them care about the health of your students or their families.
In a moment we are going to talk about what the rest of us can and should be doing to support you during this time. Please keep lending us your voices. I know it feels like society has decided to ignore the collective and individual voices of teachers (I’m a doctor who writes a blog on medical misinformation; trust me, I feel you), but without understanding what’s happening in your schools and classrooms the rest of us have no hope of advocating for you in the ways you need most. We want to help. If your school has enforced social media policies that don’t allow you to say when you are concerned about the safety of your colleagues or your students, find ways to get that information out there anyway. Be sources of good health information and fight misinformation in the classroom every day. One thing I’ve heard from teacher after teacher is that their students have been amazing; wearing masks at a high rate without grumbling or complaining, practicing good distancing in the classroom, and in general being the best of us in taking the pandemic seriously. That is going to fatigue over the next few months without your example and reinforcement, but you are in a much better position than any of the rest of us to help lead this generation in doing the tedious day-to-day epidemiology work that we, their forebears, have failed at.
What can we do as a society?
Fight the virus on every possible front. If I had written this post a month ago when I should have, I’m sure I’d be saying that the best plan to reopen schools safely would be to spend the next month doing everything in our power to decrease community transmission, and then only reopen schools once we knew it was as safe as we can reasonably expect (for a more epidemiology minded discussion of what that would look like, check out Waco Epidemiologist Emily Smith’s post on “Can we open schools safely?“). In fact, this is still what I think, and if I thought there was any chance of getting it to work, I would be strongly advocating for schools to delay reopening while mitigation efforts were redoubled. In cities like my own, where our testing positivity rates have been steadily declining over the past several weeks, this might not even take that long. But if we’ve learned anything through this pandemic it’s that we cannot rely on strategies that require small individual efforts but a large degree of buy-in. So here we are, with schools reopening in the midst of a pandemic, and bracing ourselves to see how much worse it will get as a result. But as one comedian said, I guess all the bad decisions we’ve made up to this point have made this a good one?
But even if school reopenings aren’t going to be delayed until a set community prevalence or test positivity rate is reached, we can still make every effort now to decrease transmission, especially with a few weeks still to go before all of our schools are opened. We need to be practicing good social (physical) distancing and mask wearing. We need to be participating in the work of informing our own contacts when we are diagnosed with COVID-19 since our public health sectors simply have not had the manpower to keep up. We need to practice diligence in our personal mitigation efforts, even though we are all incredibly fatigued from thinking about this virus and how it has affected our lives. As a society we claim that the safety of our children in schools is one of our highest priorities, and we take massive steps to protect them. Yes, I know there are some pretty obvious areas where we haven’t been taking common sense measures to keep kids safe in schools, but we do a pretty good job of slowing down to 20 MPH and putting down our cellphones when we drive through a school zone, and we make sure kids have those safety scissors that won’t actually cut anything just to reduce the chances of one of them losing a finger. Right now, the efforts you can make to reduce community transmission- social distancing, washing hands, getting tested if you are ill, and wearing a mask- are the efforts that will keep children, their teachers,and their families safe in the coming weeks.
Extend Trust We’ve talked a lot about the role of educators and parents in fighting the virus and keeping our schools safe, but the reality is that those groups are limited in the actions they can take, with freedom from judgement and repercussions, without buy-in and affirmation from the rest of us. It’s well and good to tell parents to keep their child home for a day when they think she might be getting sick, but this requires policy changes that refrain from punishing parents for taking such a responsible action and trusting them to occasionally know, without a doctors note, when their child is too sick to come to school. Yes, that trust will be taken advantage of by some families, nobody knows it better than me; but right now I have visits every single week where parents know their child just has a mild illness and shouldn’t be in school, but had to come to the doctor to get a note for school and work; in the eyes of the school and their employer, they are guilty of faking an illness until my note proves them innocent. In the midst of a viral pandemic is exactly the time to reevaluate the wisdom of such policies and return that trust back to parents; and then keep it that way, because even aside from COVID-19 this dynamic is already dangerous during every single flu season.
Also, let’s get rid of perfect attendance awards.
Lower Our Expectations
And the same is true for our expectations of our teachers and school administrators. Being a high school physics teacher was my first real grown up job, and being a doctor was my second. There are plenty of similarities between the two, but one of the most salient is the constant feeling of being asked to do increasingly more with an ever decreasing amount of time and resources. As a primary care doctor, this often means walking out of one patient room and into the next from 8:00 to 12:30 and then from 1:00 to 5:15, providing extensive evaluation, compassionate listening, diagnosis, treatment, and teaching to each patient within a 10-15 minute window, and being expected to complete the documentation and respond to phone messages and refill requests in the often non-existent minutes “between visits” (we often don’t have time to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water “between visits”). As a teacher, it meant trying to make it through more curriculum than could possibly be covered in a year, prepare students for standardized testing, regulate behavior in the classroom, navigate and manage the interpersonal dynamics and conflicts of 13 years old, and provide counseling and interpersonal support for young people in some of the most formative and challenging years of their lives. Oh, and submit grades, which is just… I think I’ve still got some ungraded quizzes in a manila folder somewhere, and I haven’t taught since 2009.
Add to all of that the expectation that teachers will now be fighting COVID-19 transmission on the front lines of the pandemic and, somehow, teaching both in-person and online classes simultaneously, and you’ll realize what a sick joke it is to say that any adjustments we make to our expectations would be “lowering” them. We are asking so much of our teachers, and this year we are asking even more; we need to be comfortable, as a society, with accepting that less can be expected in terms of our students’ educational progress between now and May 2021 compared to years past and years to come. Somehow, in all of these discussions about reopening schools, I’ve missed all of the articles calling for a hiatus on standardized testing (or at least eliminating punitive measures related to those test results), on colleges using alternative evaluation methods for graduating seniors, and on discussions of exactly what percentage of the standard curriculum we expect teachers to be able to cover this coming semester; 50%, or just 35%? Rather than lowering our expectations, what we would really be doing is finally valuing teachers’ time and acknowledging their efforts, and recognizing that since most teachers are already working at maximum capacity as-is, we have to be willing to let something go when we add something on. If we are saying that schools need to be reopened because it is necessary to keep kids safe, detect cases of domestic violence early, and keep children from regressing academically, we need to realize that those goals do not logically imply that we can also somehow expect teachers and students to maintain the same pace of academic attainment, and that that is no longer our primary goal in reopening schools.
Be ready to pump the brakes I think this is the biggest one, and it’s going to take an awful lot of honesty when we look at the epidemiology data that emerges over the coming weeks and months. As schools reopen around the country, we have to fight stronger than ever against misinformation. We will hear that any increase in cases is due to increased testing, even if it is mirrored by an increasing test positivity rate and hospitalizations. We will be told that the overall mortality rate is dropping and it “isn’t as dangerous as we were told,” because the virus is less dangerous for children than older adults, and seeing a decrease in the overall infection mortality rate is a natural artifact of an increasing number of cases in children and adolescents- even as teachers, school staff, and family members of students are hospitalized and die due to those exposures. As flu season approaches, we will be told every possible version of doctors lying to diminish the flu and inflate the pandemic or misattributing flu deaths to COVID-19 to hurt the economy or this or that politician, as though it mattered which preventable deadly respiratory virus your family member died from.
We have to be willing to cut through the noise and look carefully at the trends in cases in our community and ask continuously whether the risk is still justified today. It would be great if I were completely wrong, if cases continued to decrease even when schools start back in earnest; but it’s hard to imagine that happening, and the decisions are likely to get even more difficult, not less, from here on out. We need to drop our agendas and our egos and our politically motivated methods of interpreting data and meet the emerging information with intellectual honesty. We need to consider school closures and audibles and readjustments as the necessary and humble work that the pandemic requires of us, and work together to keep our kids, our teachers, and our communities safe.
Trigger warning for human trafficking, rape and sexual assault, sexual abuse of children, and exploitation.
The big question we didn’t address yesterday (well, two days ago now) is whether the people making these comparisons between COVID-19 and cancer or diabetes are doing so because they truly care about those medical problems, like the nurses and doctors who treat them and the patients and their family members who are affected by them every day do, or just because they happen to find them convenient comparisons for minimizing or dismissing concerns about the pandemic. And while using a lifelong illness that causes real suffering like stroke or cancer for rhetorical purposes is a bit calloused, I can’t say I find it truly morally repugnant the way I do when the same thing is done, if indeed it has been done, with human trafficking and modern day slavery. Recently, I have started seeing a few different memes/images shared on social media making just such a comparison; but I believe they have very different degrees of merit and, I’m afraid, might be coming from very different places in terms of degree of actual sincere concern about the very real problem of modern day slavery.
Human trafficking is a truly evil industry. Some of the people who have shared these memes have quoted conservative estimates of 25 million slaves worldwide today; I believe the ILO estimates that are closer to 40.3 million, though even that was back in 2016 and the number is likely to be even higher now. This includes 5 million people, 99% of whom are women and girls, who are victims of sex trafficking and forced sexual exploitation. In addition to being robbed of their freedom and dignity, the men and women affected by modern day slavery suffer extensive medical and psychological problems that can last a lifetime, and many are subjected to nearly constant physical, sexual, and psychological violence, torture, and dehumanization. It is one of the worst offenses against human beings occurring today, and its cost in human lives and suffering is incalculable. In one sense, there can be nocomparison between human trafficking and COVID-19, because even the suffering from a respiratory virus that claims your life would be preferable to most of us compared to what is endured by victims of modern day slavery.
I first heard about modern day slavery from my friend Michelle Palmer, co-founder of the blog Tuesday Justice, back in 2008, my first year of medical school. That next year we became involved in grassroots organizations in Denver involved in raising awareness about human trafficking and modern slavery both in the United States and internationally. In medical school I hosted film screenings, attended academic conferences on human trafficking and training with the FBI and GEMS on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), and once even sat next to the author of The Vagina Monologues on a committee focused on professional collaboration to fight human trafficking in the city and state. When we moved to Waco I got involved with Unbound and eventually became one of their medical professional trainers. Over the last few years myself and one of my clinic partners have trained hundreds of physicians, nurses, other healthcare professionals, and Texas medical students to use their calling in medicine to recognize the signs of human trafficking and help address the unique medical and support needs of survivors, in addition to treating survivors of human trafficking and modern day slavery in our own clinic.
Last week, that partner and I both spent a significant number of hours in full PPE, in the 90-100 degree heat, evaluating, testing, and counseling patients for COVID-19. In 2 weeks, I’m going to lead a group of family medicine residents in a discussion of human trafficking cases; I will be working in the COVID-19 clinic that morning and that afternoon. I recognize that all of this sounds dangerously akin to self promotion, but the reality is that given my privileged position as a doctor and the scope of the problem, I feel that I’ve personally done very little towards combating either COVID-19 over the past 7 months or human trafficking over the past decade. That’s not my point. My point is that there is not a competition of awareness, focus, advocacy, or effort between the fights against these two assaults on our fellow Image-Bearers of God. The people who are fighting human trafficking are often the very same people fighting COVID-19.
And I humbly submit that memes which suggest otherwise may, in fact, be made by people who care about neither.
I wanted to start with this one because I believe it’s somewhere in the middle in terms of both dismissiveness about COVID-19 and creating a false opposition between COVID-19 and Human Trafficking advocacy. The meme makes two claims; first a statistics claim about the relative risk of human trafficking and COVID-19, and the second a claim about the increased danger to children posed by masks because it perpetuates trafficking. Let’s look at both.
Though the numbers don’t usually matter much in posts like this one, I always like to know where they come from if possible. I went to the original source, an Instagram user who, apparently, works to promote “vaccine education, toxin free living, and government corruption.” I love it when people have eclectic interests.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t list where her numbers come from or how she ended up with this ratio of 66,667 children sold to human traffickers for every one child that dies of COVID-19, and I’m going to admit that it seems a bit high even to me, someone who leans towards more liberal estimates of human trafficking. The biggest problem with her numbers is that nobody actually knows how many children and adults are bought, sold, and enslaved through human trafficking each year; it’s an illegal, hidden, underground industry and the best we can do is estimate. It’s also very easy to misunderstand what the numbers actually mean; for instance, when experts say that an estimated 200,000-300,000 minors in the US are victimized through commercial sex trafficking each year, this is based on a much smaller number of actual reports, data from homeless youth and runaways, the personal narratives of adult sex workers who entered the life as children or adolescents, internet ads through websites like craigslist and backpage, and a variety of other data sources. Unfortunately, the vast majority of children who are being exploited in this way are not known. If we used this estimate (300,000) of US CSEC victims, divided by her 66,667, it would give us just 5 children in the US to die of COVID-19; since this is nowhere close, this clearly cannot be the figure she is referring to.
The experts I trust estimate that there are about 10million child victims of human trafficking in the world today ( this number does not include the tens of millions of child brides across the globe, nor young or old adults who have been enslaved ever since they were children), and I think this must be the number of she is thinking of; nothing else even gets us close. Working backwards, this would give us an estimate of 150children (10 million/66,667) who have died from COVID-19 worldwide. This is probably closer to the number of children in the US that have died from the virus; the best estimates that I can put together would put that number at around 100 (it’s tricky since the best data sources I can find don’t distinguish specific ages within the 15-24 yo age group; I don’t know how many from that age group were older adolescents and how many were actually young adults). We could look at this data from every possible angle (I typed a whole other paragraph on hypothetical calculations and assumptions we could make here, but deleted it; it doesn’t add to the discussion), but ultimately we are going to come out with an estimate that is certainly more than 150 but somewhere less than 1,000 child and adolescents deaths from COVID-19 infection worldwide.
So the best guess we can make is that the original author of this meme is comparing the total number of child slaves worldwide to some estimate she has found of the total number of child COVID-19 deaths that is, at least, on the right order of magnitude. There are at least five big problems with this “calculation” of a child being 66,667 times more likely to be sold to traffickers than to die of COVID-19.
First, the 10 million figure is an estimate of current child slaves, not new child trafficking victims; the idea of ‘being sold by traffickers’ paints the situations of enslaved people around the world as a monolith and ignores the debt bondage enslaving millions of families (which is still strongly associated with physical, psychological, and sexual abuse), which is by far the most common scenario for a child slave today. It also glosses over the many forms of control and exploitation included in human trafficking that don’t involve ‘being sold to a trafficker’, which we’ll talk more about in the next section. Sensationalist language hearkening back to ‘Taken’ is not at all helpful in understanding the scope of human trafficking and modern slavery. Second, it’s very much an apples to oranges comparison since the 10 million estimate is a cumulative total built up over many years, and the number of children dying from COVID-19 is a total from just a few months of a pandemic; it is a comparison of prevalence to incidence, two very different epidemiological concepts. The total number of children trapped in slavery and the total number of childrensold into slaverysince February are clearly not synonymous, but the author of this meme has treated them as the same thing; this renders her figure, 66,667 to 1, utterly meaningless, since she isn’t even comparing the things she claims she is, let alone statistics that have a logical basis for comparison. Third, this really is a straw-man. The discussion of whether or not to re-open schools is important, and the conversations I have every day with parents concerned about the risk of their children being harmed by COVID-19 are addressing very real anxiety. We talked about this with last week’s America’s Frontline Doctors video and will be trying to address it more fully in the coming week. But epidemiologists and physicians have at nopoint argued that COVID-19 was now the greatest threat to children worldwide; in fact we’ve come home from each and every shift incrediblythankful that this isn’t like the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, when children were disproportionately affected and killed by the virus. If it were, I’d probably be living in a tent behind our fence instead just changing on the patio and dodging my children on the way to a shower as soon as I come home. Nobody is saying that children dying from COVID-19 is the heart of the pandemic, and memes like this that want to put the number of child COVID-19 deaths ‘in perspective’ are ignoring the fact that child deaths have not been the main motivator for any of our mitigation efforts. Fourth, and most importantly, the comparison doesn’t matter. Saying that one thing is terrible and dangerous and needs to be fought against doesn’t mean other problems aren’t important. Anyone can do this trick with any two terrible problems. You can say that human trafficking isn’t important because a child is 15 times more likely to be a victim of child abuse within the their own home, or that childhood cancer doesn’t matter because children are 6 times more likely to die from accidents. Just because two things are deadly doesn’t necessitate a comparison of their badness; we can be against both. The cynical side of me says that the only reason to use human trafficking, unless you are really trying to raise awareness about it, is because advocacy for victims of human trafficking confers an immediate moral high ground, and for some reason that is something that COVID-19 deniers feel they must have. They find human trafficking convenient because it paints them as compassionate and ethical and those fighting or concerned about COVID-19 as though they were ignoring this huge human trafficking problem. We wouldn’t expect them to set-up COVID-19 against something more morally benign that harms children, for instance swimming pools or hurricanes. I’d like you to stop and think about that for a moment; think about the fact that some people have decided that their personal crusade against COVID-19 justifies using human trafficking to score rhetorical points; that they have chosen to exploitthe plight of human trafficking victims, some of the most exploited people in the history of the world, for their own ends.
Fifth, though it’s not as direct a correlation as with heart disease and immunocompromising conditions like cancer, there is a potential synergy between human trafficking and COVID-19, and it has nothing to do with masks. COVID-19 has, mercifully, killed relatively very few children, but it has left some children without one or both parents, and many more without one or more grandparents; adults who, when they are safe people themselves, confer the safety, security, and support networks that are protective against human trafficking. Despite our fears as parents (I am writing this sitting across from my 8 year old who is working on her math homework) (check that; supposed to be working on her math homework), most children who are victimized through human trafficking are not ‘taken’ from their front yards or from a big crowded event; they are preyed upon by traffickers who look for social vulnerabilities; want of support, care, and love; and circumstances where children and adolescents can be controlled. The logical conclusion of any of the memes or videos or posts that call us to lessen our focus on COVID-19 prevention, regardless of motive, is more deaths from COVID-19 among adults and elders- that is, parents and grandparents- and thus more children at risk for human trafficking in the years to come.
I also said that we would talk about the claim that having children wear masks makes them easier targets for human traffickers. Besides having, as far as I know, no verification for this claim, it also relies on sensationalized concepts of human trafficking and ‘oh that makes sense’ thinking; you are supposed to envision a child being walked along the street by human traffickers with family or friends passing within a few feet and not recognizing them because they are wearing a mask. This ignores the reality of trafficking victims’ experiences and the real methods of control used by traffickers; a problem it shares, though far less gratuitously, with the memes we will look at next.
As bad as it is to essentially make up statistics, and as bad as it is to artificially pit against each other two things that harm children as though you had to choose between them, and as though being vocally against one meant you were in support of or deaf to the other (“You are against a fake virus, while I am against human trafficking”), there is an even more exploitative type of meme going around the internet that takes these same goals and cranks the appeal to visceral emotion up to 11. After careful consideration I have decided not to share these images on my blog; I am sharing heavily redacted versions below, trusting you will recognize the type of macro I am talking about here.
For those of you who have been mercifully spared from seeing the originals of these macros, or the many others circulating right now, they typically show one of three types of images in paired with text minimizing COVID-19 or juxtaposing it to human trafficking; a young child with tears in their eyes and a large hand over their mouth, a terrified child with a shadowy figure standing behind them, or a small girl bound with ropes, often in a basement or darkened room. For those who have seen and shared these images, I want to ask you to do something; go delete them (or change privacy settings; you can choose whether or not to delete them in a few paragraphs) before we move forward.
These images are deeply troubling and problematic for so many reasons that its actually hard to know where to start. “Minor” issues first, as we build towards the very worst and most troubling aspects of these images.
Bad statistics/misinformation: Trying to get people to accept false numbers or misleading statistics by appealing to emotion rather than logic is a common propaganda tactic and we don’t need it in the fight against human trafficking. The problem is big enough on its own without hyperinflating the scope of it. We talked about the ‘66,667x more likely’ above, but the other number we commonly see is 800,000; 800,000 children are reported missing each year, and the implication is that they become victims of human trafficking. The reality is that most children being trafficked in sex slavery are not reported missing because they are being trafficked by family members or are in vulnerable situations where they would not be considered ‘missing’. Most child sex trafficking victims have not been kidnapped. Moreover, that 800,000 represents mostly missing children who were found very quickly; this is the number from a 2002 study for all children who were reported missing, and includes children who have runaway or gotten lost and family abductions during custody disputes; only 115 of these were what we think of as ‘kidnapping’. Missing children, family and non-family abductions, and all forms of child abuse are serious and important issues, and they all intersect with human trafficking and CSEC to some degree; but using statistics from one problem interchangeably with that of another, or using the most dramatic possible number you can find without careful explanation or honest reflection is not helpful.
Implying silence/neglect of human trafficking issues: Comment accompanying the second image above reads “time to change the conversation.” This can be taken one of two ways; either ‘it’s time to start talking about human trafficking’, or ‘it’s time to stop talking about COVID-19′. I suggest the real goal of this meme is the latter, because unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, we have been talking about human trafficking. To quote a friend who has a degree in modern slavery studies and has worked in this field, even if there are often problems with the organizations that only work to raise awareness of human trafficking without offering other support services or or contributing to the work in other more tangible ways, “they have at least done a good job at that.” Whenever I give lectures on human trafficking and modern day slavery, I always begin the same way; by asking for a show of hands of how many people have heard of this problem before and feel they know something about it. There has been a substantial difference in the response to that question over the past decade. One of the great things about volunteering in this field is that it is one of the few issues where people from all walks of life and ends of the political spectrum find a lot of common ground; we all agree that human trafficking is wrong. Some of us believe that pornography is a major contributing factor (more on that later), while others don’t. Some believe that legalizing prostitution is an important step in fighting it, while others don’t. Some believe that essentially all efforts to confront human trafficking should be secular while others believe that the Church has an important role to play. But despite these differences, there is more common ground to be had here than in the fight against almost any other societal ill. And that has made for fertile ground for grassroots awareness work; telling someone about human trafficking isn’t likely to start a debate or argument. 12 years ago we made shirts that said “slavery still exists” and “27 million slaves: ask me more.” Today the awareness focus has shifted to trying to help people understand modern slavery better and, often, combatting the sensationalist and misleading stereotypes that still persist. COVID-19 has not diminished the conversation around human trafficking, and images like these set it back rather than advancing it.
There is one extremely important point that needs to be made in this section, and I think here is the place to make it. Maybe you are new to human traffickingadvocacy; maybe a meme like this is the first you’ve heard of it, and you naturally felt compelled to share. And if that’s the case I want to say two things. First, is that when we are talking about why these memes are problematic and my belief that some of them were made with bad intent, I by no means mean that I believe the people who have shared them have bad motives in doing so; I know for a fact that hasn’t been the case with the people who I’ve seen share the images above. I remember the sense of urgency I felt the first time I heard about children being used as soldiers by the LRA in Uganda; I rushed to my dorm and turned off the Halo game my roommates were playing to try to force them to watch the documentary (it didn’t go well) because I couldn’t believe no one was talking about this. If you are just learning about human trafficking and modern day slavery now, it probably feels the same, and the idea that some awareness efforts aren’t helpful because the images they show or the numbers they quote aren’t quite right must seem a bit strange or overly particular. My goal here is to help you understand why they are problematic, as someone who has been where you are but has since been learning about this for years, and to help you find better resources for raising awareness, like the ones I am sharing in this blog post. And the second thing I want to say is welcome, we are glad you are here; the fight against human trafficking needs you. And the first thing we need from you is to learn more, which is work that none of us can ever actually move on from. I recommend you start with Tuesday Justice’s Primer on Modern Slavery, and then read Kevin Bale’s Disposable People.
Racist overtones: One of the recurrent visual themes we’ve seen throughout these social media images is the presence of both a child victim and an adult abuser, and the contrast between them. The child is small, the adult large. The child is terrified, the adult commanding and ominous. And often, the child is light skinned, the adult dark skinned. I don’t have exhaustive knowledge of the human trafficking memes that have been shared recently and can’t tell you what percentage of the time this is the dynamic presented. I also can’t tell you if this is done with lighting effects or if the photographer actually recruited white children and POC men for these photoshoots, or which of those options would make it worse; frankly the idea that children were asked to pose for these photos in the first place is troubling enough. But I don’t think these choices are accidental. The history of characterizing black men as hypersexual beasts and violent rapists in order to play into white majority fears of their children and young women being abused stretches back hundreds of years to the very beginning of our nation, and it has been a common theme in lynchings throughout American history. Malcolm Foley, Baylor University Special Advisor to the President for Equity and Campus Engagement and expert on the Church’s response to lynching in America, and my pastor, spoke about this briefly in his interview with Christianity Today following the death of Ahmaud Arbery. He in turn recommends you read Southern Horrors by Ida B. Wells, which addresses this topic in great detail.
“There is hardly a town in the South which has not an instance of the kind which is well known, and hence the assertion is reiterated that ‘nobody in the South believes the old thread bare lie that negro men rape white women.’ Hence there is a growing demand among Afro-Americans that the guilt or innocence of parties accused of rape be fully established. They know the men of the section of the country who refuse this are not so desirous of punishing rapists as they pretend. The utterances of the leading white men show that with them it is not the crime but the class. Bishop Fitzgerald has become an apologist for lynchers of the rapists of white women only. Governor Tillman, of South Carolina, in the month of June, standing under the tree in Barnwell, S.C., on which eight Afro-Americans were hung last year, declared that he would lead a mob to lynch a negro who raped a white woman. So say the pulpits, officials and newspapers of the South. But when the victim is a colored woman it is different.”
Ida B. Wells, Southern Horrors
If playing into sensationalism and parental fears has little to no place in the fight against human trafficking, there is even less justification for drawing on deeply rooted generational racism. By portraying abusers as men of color and victims as predominantly white children, these images are trying to recruit some of the ugliest and most harmful racist ideas buried in the heart of our society in order to fight human trafficking; but the fight against human trafficking doesn’t want or need those racist stereotypes. Moreover, these images are portraying a scenario that is not representative at all of the reality of race within human trafficking, a crime that disproportionately affects children of color, and reinforces stereotypes that themselves go hand-in-hand with racially motivated sexual abuse of trafficking victims. I hope you’ll read the article I’ve just linked from Love 146; it’s very short and shares the stories of three survivors whose race was a selling point their traffickers used to advertise them for sexual exploitation; please take a minute and read their words.
Misrepresenting human trafficking victims: These images are also damaging and potentially dangerous because they so deeply misrepresent the real situations of victims of human trafficking. Though chains, ropes, cages and locked doors have been used to hold child and adult victims of human trafficking, they are not the most common methods. The techniques that traffickers use to control their victims are varied and sophisticated. Traffickers use shame, fear, and physical closeness in perverse combinations to make victims feel that they are the only person in the world that can be relied on or trusted. Many times they are family members or parents of the child being exploited, and use that relationship to maintain control. Other times they move victims to another city and strip them of their phones, ID’s, and social support networks to make the world outside the trafficker’s control feel even more dangerous and foreign. They use drug addiction, financial entrapment, and poor living conditions to create absolute dependence on the trafficker as a provider. They use psychological torture and manipulation to instill in their victims a sense that they are omniscient and omnipotent; they know everyone, they have contacts with the police, there is nowhere that the trafficking victim can run where they won’t find them. They use threats of violence credible and not; if you leave, I’ll kill your family, I’ll recruit your sister into the life in your place. They forge trauma bonds that make recidivism incredibly high and prosecution against traffickers extremely difficult. These methods, and many we haven’t touched on at all, make chains, ropes, cages, and locked doors unnecessary for controlling victims.
So why does it matter if these images paint a misleading picture of how victims of human trafficking are controlled and exploited? First, because it makes it more difficult for people to notice and report human trafficking when it occurs, something these memes claim to want to promote, if they are only ever looking for physical signs of restraint and enslavement. The work of grassroots advocacy and awareness organizations involves dispelling these myths so that people can really begin to understand the complex, nuanced, and insidious forms of control that are used, and learn to spot them in their interactions with victims of trafficking. When we train medical personnel to detect trafficking, we talk about the presence of a controller, sexualized language and patient narratives that normalize sexual abuse and violence, asking judgement free questions, and understanding the adverse medical findings associated with trafficking; looking for a cage or a rope is going to miss most cases of human trafficking, and all of the cases that could be detected in a medical setting. And second, because the misconception of trafficking control methods being limited to only physical forms of restraint like the ones in these images contributes to shame and victim blaming towards survivors. When we promote the idea that all trafficking victims and modern slaves are bound by ropes or chains, we are also stating the contrapositive; if you aren’t bound by ropes or chains, you aren’t really a trafficking victim. Adolescents are arrested for “prostitution,” a crime that can’t logically exist (children cannot consent to sex; “child prostitution” is always rape), and are frequently further victimized by law enforcement. They are rejected by families and loved ones because their serial victimization and the control methods they have suffered are seen as evidence of poor moral character. Society asks incredulously, “why didn’t you just leave?”, and we tell ourselves narratives that “I would have run away if it had happened to me,” without ever trying to understand what they had to endure. It even contributes to trafficking victims’ difficulty in recognizing their own abuse, because they may believe the cultural narratives that the incomprehensible torment they have endured as serial victims of rape and psychological torture don’t count unless they were handcuffed, caged, or tied-up at all times.
Sensationalizing the sexual abuse of children: This is the hardest one to write about, and also the reason this post is now over 24 hours late. In my opinion it’s the biggest problem with the images above. Recently the Texas Medical Board began requiring that all licensed physicians complete training in human trafficking, and the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) released standards that those trainings should adhere to. Though the training we conduct had only one major revision because of this, we used it as an opportunity to update the entire presentation and ensure it was something that protected the dignity of human trafficking victims and survivors to the highest degree possible. The one revision; removing an image of two teenage girls standing on a street corner at night. And the reason we removed that image was because of this new training standard:
I’m including this training standard because I want you to understand that my objection to these memes and my request that you take them down if you’ve shared them, and kindly call them out when you see others sharing them, isn’t based on personal distaste or a negative visceral reaction (which is exactly the type of reaction they are meant to provoke). These are agreed upon standards and the idea of these images being harmful is accepted among those who fight against human trafficking every day; it’s just hard to articulate exactly why. We call these types of images sensationalized because we can’t quite call them sexualized; there is nothing sexual about a child experiencing fear and torment. Yet the image is meant to arouse disgust because we know that, to traffickers and johns and others who sexually assault children and adolescents, these are sexual images; in fact, I think you could rightly call them pornography. These images of children with adult hands covering their mouths, or bound and terrified with dark figures standing behind them, clearly send the message, “This child is about to be sexually assaulted.” I don’t know of anything that has less place in the fight against human trafficking than images that, if seen by one of the millions of men and women who have survived sexual assault or the ordeals of abuse through modern day slavery, would potentially traumatize them further and bring to mind those violations. These images are exploitive; they take the worst, most hopeless and fear-filled moments of the lives of real people and reproduce them for use as promotional materials. The fact that what the creators hope to promote is awareness is a mitigating factor, certainly; if these images were used for literally any other purpose we would chase the people creating these memes out of town, society, and history; we would call the FBI on them and put them on social media blast. But the endsdo not justify the means, and we do not need simulated pornographic images depicting the moments before a rape or the psychological suffering of a child to convince people that this is an important issue. We need survivors’ stories. We need to understand the factors that contributed to their targeting, their control, and eventually to their empowerment and escape. We need to help young men and adult men understand that “non-consensual sex” is always rape and that desire for sexual interaction with the helpless and those who cannot consent is a serious mental health condition that needs immediate treatment, not a fetish or kink that can be safely indulged in as long as the victims are far enough away. We need to understand the complex networks of organized and non-organized elements that make up the human trafficking industry. We need to fight human trafficking by uniting across political and religious lines against the exploitation of children and the sexualization of innocence, not by dabbling init as these memes do.
I think it’s important to note that not all memes that compare and contrast human trafficking to COVID-19 are necessarily problematic. The meme above is clearly different, while though it is using COVID-19 to grab your attention it is not trying to diminish the seriousness or reality of the pandemic. Further, it links to the Polaris Project, a reliable source of human trafficking information and resources, which also operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a free resource that anyone can call if they themselves need help or support or to report or ask advice about a potential human trafficking situation. Some of the verbiage, like “I wonder if … people would start paying attention?”, isn’t what I would choose and maybe falls under the idea of treating human trafficking like a neglected topic, which we talked about earlier… But this is very minor and may just be an issue of generational differences in meme tone and vocabulary.
This meme also shares data instead of sensationalized images and false statistics, and doesn’t try to play on fears, racist stereotypes, or false narratives about human trafficking. Finally, it comes from a source that is beyond question focused on helping women rather than minimizing COVID-19 concerns; the Montgomery County Women’s Center in Conroe, Texas, which provides sexual assault support services including legal support, crisis intervention, counseling, and advocacy. A quick search of their social media shows that they have indeed taken COVID-19 seriously and have modified their delivery of services and planned programming to keep their staff and clients safe from the virus; once again showing that any dichotomy between caring about COVID-19 and caring about victims of sexual violence is a false one.
How COVID-19 is like Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery
I know that by this point the title of this post, “Please keep comparing COVID-19 to Human Trafficking,” must feel like sarcasm or a particularly flimsy misdirect; but I promise you I really mean it. For me personally there are lots of similarities, not the least of which are the real harm and destruction I have seen them both bring to the lives of human beings created in the image of God, and the work I have accepted of helping provide accurate information to replace the misunderstandings about them that lead to deep seated fears. But there are a few other ways I think the comparison between these twopandemics is actually apt, if made responsibly:
There is lots of misinformation out there. I would hope this post is proof enough that there is misinformation on both human trafficking and COVID-19 circulating widely. I said before that the role of grassroots awareness efforts on human trafficking has shifted from telling people that slavery still exists to helping people understand what modern day slavery is really like. This is invaluable work that is done best when informed and led by survivors or human trafficking, helping those of us in support sectors and the public in general understand the nuanced and complex nature of their experiences. Just like we try to do on this blog with COVID-19 videos and other medical misinformation, organizations like Unbound, Polaris Project, and Free the Slaves carefully break down the myths, popular stereotypes, and outright lies surrounding human trafficking and then tell the real stories of survivors and victims and the real story of human trafficking and modern day slavery. This aids in awareness, victim recognition, survivor support, laws that support survivors, and a culture that treats human trafficking victims as survivors instead of criminals. Without accurate, reliable data, this work is surrounded by a fog of biases and assumptions that inhibits the work of aiding survivors; we need to tell honest stories about human trafficking because when we share trafficking misinformation, it helps the traffickers instead.
You can make both problems worse without realizing it. We’ve talked before about the danger of asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19, and studies which have shown (though the results are open to some interpretation) that the 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms might actually be the most contagious period of time during an infection. As someone who has done pretty good but not perfect at social distancing throughout the pandemic, I find this especially concerning; all of us need to fight the false sense of security that comes with feeling healthy at the moment, thinking about our potential exposures and at-risk contacts even when we don’t think we are sick. That’s different from living in fear; living with a healthy respect for what this virus can do to us or our loved ones is wise, not fearful. But in addition to spreading this virus directly, we can make the pandemic worse with our other actions; sharing misinformation on the internet, failing to vet our sources when we share new or emerging information, supporting policies or politicians that minimize the very real danger of the virus, and fighting against non-nefarious common-well-being policies like wearing masks in public spaces. All of this increases the risks from the virus in much more subtle ways by creating a culture that minimizes personal responsibility and obfuscates the reasonable mitigation measures we can all take.
And almost the exact set of actions have a corollary in unwittingly supporting human trafficking. You probably contributed to human trafficking (as I did) today when you purchased products that had slave labor upstream in their supply chain. Some companies are better about monitoring their supply chain for slave labor than others, and there are groups that keep independent report cards for everything from the fashion industry to your local grocery store. But while buying blue jeans, chocolate, or a new smartphone may support labor trafficking and slavery in the supply chain throughout the world, there is one auxiliary consumer industry that supports sex trafficking specifically; pornography.These two industries are indelibly linked. A culture of widespread pornography use and addiction contributes to dehumanization of and violence towards women, and fetishizes demeaning sexual interactions, sexual violence, and rape, and it feeds the demand for sex trafficking from the consumer side. But the connection runs even deeper than that, because if you have consumed pornography you have not only supported the sex trafficking industry financially but have most likely participated in the sexual exploitation of trafficking victims as well. Many pornography websites, including the largest and most visited pornography website in the world (link is to an advocacy group video about the website, not the website itself, obviously), rely mostly or entirely on user uploaded content and do not have sufficient screening criteria in place to prevent the uploading and viewing of content showing the sexual abuse of children or adolescents, or content showing non-simulated rape and sexual torture. In fact, videos are often tagged with words like “teen”, “young girl,” or “innocent” in the title, yet are still streamed from their website without additional vetting or any requirement to prove that the women in the videos are actually consenting adults. This is not a theoretical risk; the sexual abuse of teenage girls and even children being streamed from these sites has been well documented. And once these videos are available on the internet, they can be next to impossible to have removed, as we have heard from survivors who have battled to have videos of their own rape taken down from these websites.
You can fight both right now. As a physician, I’m here to tell you that you can fight COVID-19 right now in the comfort of your own home (by, you know, staying there). Wear a mask when you leave the house, physical distance while building up your social circle, reaching out to neighbors, loved ones, and friends remotely to see how they are doing 6 months into this pandemic and if there’s anything they need. Help fight against medical misinformation that contributes to unsafe, pro-COVID behaviors and attitudes. And you can fight human trafficking right now as well. Start reading with one of the resources above and keep reading and educating yourself about this important topic that isn’t going to go away even once COVID-19 is a distant memory. Look into the ways that your clothing, your food, and your other purchasing choices might help or hurt the plight of slaves around the world. If you’ve read this post and have decided it’s finally time to stop using pornography, go to a website like Fight the New Drug to get more information, support, and resources, and find an accountability partner to download an app like Ever Accountable and quit porn alongside you. Finally, consider donating to an organization like International Justice Mission that actively works to intervene in situations of slavery around the world, and then sticks around to provide the legal and support services to guarantee that survivors aren’t re-victimized by their traffickers.
So no, there isn’t a fight between awareness of human trafficking and focus on COVID-19, and the people who want you to believe there is may well care about neither one of them; but we are in the fight of our lives against both, and since you do care, we could sure use your help.