Update 11/30/2020: For some reason this particular post got picked up by Google’s algorithms and ended up on the first page of results for a few search terms like “COVID vs. Car Crashes,” and so continues to get visits frequently almost 4 months later. Which is pretty cool I guess. But the big take away here is this; just like the graphs showing COVID-19 death data from March were already inaccurate and undersold the severity of the pandemic compared to car crashes by August when I wrote this post, so the graphs and data from this post are now out of date. We were at 165,000 deaths then; it’s 267,000 now. I’ll post some updated graphs below to illustrate this, but when I said in August “there is reason to believe that COVID-19 will settle in as the 3rd leading cause of death in 2020” it just so happens I was exactly correct. It wasn’t a hard guess; the gap between Heart Disease and Cancer and the 3rd and 4th leading causes of death is so great that it was a no brainer, as anyone who plays the board game Wits and Wagers will tell you. The real question is whether or not COVID-19 will overtake even Cancer and Heart Disease in 2021. I highly doubt it, especially with effective vaccines available soon and constantly improving treatment techniques and medication regimens… But it largely depends on how overwhelmed the medical infrastructure becomes over the next few months following Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Updated graphs from November 30th, 2020:
I first saw this graph on Facebook last month; at the time I was writing extensively about asymptomatic cases, death statistics, herd immunity, and other topics and didn’t have much margin to spare for it. Besides, multiple people have written extensively and well about this topic over the last several months as these silly comparisons between COVID-19 deaths and car accidents, heart disease, cancer, and any number of other causes of human death and suffering have been rampant.
But yesterday evening, when falling asleep at 7 PM exhausted and slightly delirious from what I thought might be COVID-19 but turned outto be from not drinking enough water while working at our outside COVID-19 clinic in 95 degree heat, which is not technically a COVID-19 related illness (and would not be recorded as one regardless of what the conspiracy theorists tell you), I came across a meme along the same lines and felt it was time to say something about these fallacious comparisons. I’m going to start with traffic accidents and heart disease today, for the sake of thoroughness, but tomorrow I’ll try to address the memes that really got my blood boiling; the ones comparing COVID-19 to human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Contagious vs. Non-Contagious Illnesses
You have no doubt seen some version of this argument before now. It usually has a very simple formula, which we will try to tackle one by one:
Compare COVID-19 deaths to another leading cause of death.
Ask why the other cause of death isn’t being talked about/doesn’t shutdown the economy/isn’t a national issue.
Imply or outright state it’s because the media/doctors/the powers that be want you to be afraid for some nefarious purpose.
(In all fairness, the authors of the article above seemed to be writing it just to raise awareness about programs to help teens drive safer; the headline comparing it to COVID-19, while typical of the format this argument has taken across the internet, is seemingly just to garner clicks in this case)
We’ve seen charts like the one above, showing the “incredibly small number of deaths” from COVID-19 compared to real killers like heart disease and stroke. “See, it isn’t even as bad as the flu!” We’ve seen statistics that are next to meaningless, like “COVID-19 will only make up 5% of deaths in the US this year,” which is supposed to sound to laypeople like COVID-19 isn’t that big of a deal, but is actually a terrifying thing to hear as a physician. We’ve been asked, knowingly, why we didn’t “shut-down the economy” for H1N1 in 2009… Maybe because nobody was trying to undermine the president’s chances of re-election? We’ve been asked why we don’t social distance because of car accidents, and then been told the answer; because COVID-19 is all about creating fear.
During the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic we’ve seen physicians, epidemiologists, laypeople, politicians, and misinformation hucksters compare COVID-19 to the common cold, influenza, measles, ebola, HIV, SARS and MERS, and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. While these comparisons have often been made with false statistics or poor understanding of epidemiology and thus led to incorrect, often diametrically misleading conclusions, the comparisons themselves are indeed apt. SARS-CoV-2 is a contagious, viral illness, just like those other diseases, and the danger it poses depends on how contagious it is, how deadly each individual case is, and the long-lasting sequelae it causes, just like those other illnesses.
But the comparisons in the chart above are not all apt, because most are not contagious diseases, and fighting them requires entirely different monitoring, treatment, and prevention principles compared to viruses like measles, ebola, or COVID-19. Yes, preventing diabetes would be easier if we, as a society, decided to rearrange our lives and our community norms to focus on physical activity and healthy eating, eliminate food desserts (or is it deserts? both contribute to diabetes so I’m going to leave it as-is), provide nutrition education as core curriculum in our high schools, and take any number of other steps to become a healthier nation with better and more equitable access to healthy choices overall. But those changes take a lot of time to implement. While there are plenty of ways to help in such efforts, such as shopping at grocery stores intentionally built in food deserts, places like Waco’s Jubilee Food Market, there’s very little that you can do, right here in the middle of your afternoon, to prevent someone you are coming into casual contact with from developing diabetes or heart disease today. As passionate as you are about fighting heart disease and diabetes, you can’t go to a coffee shop and start yelling about metabolic syndrome to try to raise awareness; they kick you out for stuff like that. But you can do things today to prevent the spread of COVID-19, like wearing a mask and social distancing, and a big societal push in that direction makessense for COVID-19, where for chronic illnesses with modifiable risk factors it makes more sense to focus on sustained, long-term efforts over generations than urgent, short-term pushes.
Me at Pinewood Roasters, trying to warn people about chronic illnesses.
Moreover, diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease don’t typically kill you all at one time. As we’ve discussed multiple times before, these chronic diseases increase your risk of multiple other ailments, including your risk of a severe case of COVID-19. Saying we shouldn’t worry about COVID-19 because ‘look how bad heart disease is’ is a bit like saying the people on the Titanic shouldn’t worry about the iceberg, because it’s really the water that ultimately killed most of them. There’s a synergy between COVID-19 and heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions, and you aren’t doing congestive heart failure patients any favors by trying to shift the focus off of COVID-19 transmission and slowing the spread of the pandemic; that kind of approach is only going to increase the number of deaths from both conditions.
“Why don’t we shut down the economy for ________?”
But the other reason these comparisons fail is because, to the degree that the approach to treating and preventing them is similar, the responses of the media and doctors to these causes of death has been similar to that of COVID-19. Various people who share these statistics say things like, “we don’t shut down the economy over diabetes,” “we don’t close schools because of car accidents,” and “we don’t social distance and stop going to bars because of liver disease” (I made that last one up because it was the most ironic possible instance of that line of argument). Dr. Phil made this exact same argument on Fox News back in April.
But none of this is actually true, is it? One of the reasons that school gets cancelled on days with severe snow storms (or in Texas, days where someone might have seen some white stuff falling from the sky when it was the wrong season for Crepe Myrtles) is because severe ice on the roads would increase the risks inherent in traveling back and forth to schools; we cancel school precisely because there is an increased risk, above that at normal times, of people dying in car accidents. We also have tons of laws related to traffic safety, including speed limits and traffic signals, without which we could no doubt get to work quicker and be more productive, and laws about texting while driving without which doctors, at the very least, could be much more productive during our commutes. We have all of these rules and regulations in place because the danger has been recognized.
We also have laws about cigarette advertising and smoking inside restaurants and places of business, laws regarding industrial and toxic exposures, laws about medical leave for chronic, progressive illnesses like cancer, and laws about sick leave and not being fired because of medical issues. It’s true that these laws often provide depressingly little protection for employees, but they are in place and it’s erroneous to say that we don’t “allow” these medical issues to affect ‘the economy’ or ‘our freedoms’. The one key difference is that none of these approaches are proactive the way that masking, social distancing, and strategic closings are in a viral pandemic. Things like scheduled exercise breaks and company-sponsored healthy mealsare proactive ways to fight heart disease and diabetes and would definitely boost the economy if adopted widely, but they are difficult to implement and need a high degree of buy-in from both businesses and employees; they are going to require cultural changes that take time, something we don’t have a lot of in the midst of a viral pandemic. Yet the economic costs of these diseases is so great that if we could somehow drastically reduce deaths and hospitalizations from them by strategically shutting down non-essential businesses and engaging in social distancing and mask wearing for a discrete period of time, it would be an obvious win for the economy, even aside from the question of the inestimable value of those human lives. But while heart disease doesn’t work that way, contagious illnesses like COVID-19 do, and the idea that any of the measures we have adopted have been ‘overreactions’ that we ‘wouldn’t do for any other disease’ belies the fact that we definitely would if we had similar options to fight those diseases (or I hope we would; I’m probably letting my naive optimism show a little too much here).
But even apart from questions of economics, diseases like cancer, diabetes, and coronary artery disease are important topics that are talked about constantly in the news, and that millions of people like me devote literally every day of their full time jobs to fighting, preventing, diagnosing, treating, and counseling people about. COVID-19 is causing a pandemic, and it’s understandable to feel some frustration that it has sometimes seemed like the only thing the news has been reporting on; but we shouldn’t pretend that sensationalization of medical topics is new or that the media has never spent significant energy and focus on these other diseases. When something negatively effects peoples’ lives to an extreme degree, like COVID-19 and these other diseases do, people are going to read and write about it; but unlike COVID-19, the interest is more or less sustained over the years. This isn’t just true for the news; it’s true for us, too; just look at this graph of searches from Google Trends. We are always thinking about these issues, as a society, at a pretty steady rate; COVID-19 is new and very dangerous, and so we are thinking about it now all at the same time.
COVID-19 is just as incredibly dangerous as the leading causes of death.
But the final and most important issue here, and maybe the one I should have started with, is that these statistics are lies, at least when you are seeing them shared on social media now. That graph above showing COVID-19 deaths compared to cancer and heart disease is from March, when ‘only’ a few thousand people had died from COVID-19 and the US had yet to hit any regional surges. It compares cases at the beginning of the pandemic to deaths from other causes for the entire year. But by the second week in April COVID-19 had become theleading cause of death, in deaths per day, and stayed there throughout all of April and half of May. Since then it has continued to jockey for position with cancer and heart disease (while disproportionately affecting people already battling these diseases), and is now on the rise again.
If we want to compare apples to apples, we could wait to compare the number of deaths once COVID-19 had an appreciable impact; the 2nd graph below shows COVID-19 deaths compared to other causes of death today. If we wanted to compare same-sized apples, we could look at deaths from COVID-19 since the first death was reported in the US on February 29th; the 3rd graph below shows deaths from COVID-19 compared to an equivalent time period, 154 days (and for the 2017 flu and 2009 H1N1, the slightly shorter period encompassing their entire flu seasons).
Looking at the 2nd graph, COVID-19 has already surpassed stroke, drug overdose, and the very deadly Seasonal Flu of 2017-2018, and there is zero chance that it won’t also surpass accidents and chronic respiratory diseases soon. But unlike the flu, COVID-19 did not begin to disappear in the late Spring and early Summer, and we are once again seeing a surge in deaths from the virus as we enter August. If we look at the 3rd graph, there is reason to believe that COVID-19 will settle in as the 3rd leading cause of death in 2020; but it has already dwarfed all other causes except heart disease and cancer. Even this graph undersells the true impact of the virus, since the proportion of deaths occurring in February and March was very low. If we were to look at the number of deaths in the 120 days since COVID-19 deaths began to rise at the end of March, the picture would be even more bleak; but posting more and more alarming graphs by limiting the time frame to the most dangerous months of the pandemic so far, in order to show how dangerous COVID-19 really is, feels a little too much like manipulating the data in the virus’s favor; and COVID-19 doesn’t need or deserve any help from us.
So these comparisons are problematic because they ask us to believe that our society doesn’t already devote enormous resources to these other problems and that they don’t have incredible impacts on the economy, and because they are comparing very different causes of suffering, disease, and death that have to be combatted very differently. And they are deceptive because they are deliberately using old data from early in the pandemic (using old data when you know new data is available is also called lying) and discounting whatever time period of the pandemic doesn’t support their narrative. But I think the mostfrustrating thing for someone like me who spends hours every day talking about and thinking about diabetes and heart disease, has devoted extra time and effort to gaining proficiency with methods of treating drug dependence and preventing drug overdose, and has spent hundreds of hours working in emergency rooms and treating people following accidents and motor vehicle collisions, is that peopleoften seem to be sharing these comparisons not because they actually care about these other important medical issues, but because they don’t mind using themto reinforce their COVID-19 denialism and conspiracy theories… and then droppingthem again once they are no longer useful or convenient. But because I’ve lost my lisinopril bottle again and apparently want to see how high I can get my blood pressure this week, we are going to save that discussion for tomorrow when we talk about the comparisons being made between COVID-19 and Human Trafficking.
I have seen this video of Dr. Simone Gold, Dr. Stella Immanuel, and Dr. Dan Erickson, and other physicians in almost every format over the past 24 hours; from a 45 minute long version to just Dr. Immanuel’s comments. My favorite presentation of it, if I’m allowed to pick a favorite, is the headline that I saw first which read, “American Doctors Address COVID 19 Misinformation with SCOTUS Press Conference.” I know it’s the oldest tactic in the book, but something about people spreading misinformation by claiming they are fighting misinformation still really gets to me. I understand this video was viewed over 14 million times before youtube and social media sites began to take it down, and I understand why. The group, America’s Frontline Physicians, present themselves in patriotic themed lab coats (I did not know that was a thing) in front of the US Capitol (or whatever building that is; I was homeschooled), and tell Americans what we have all so desperately wanted to hear for months; there’s nothing to be worried about, your lives can go back to normal now.
Several of these physicians we are already familiar with. Dr. Dan Erickson’s interview with local news stations was perhaps the biggest COVID-19 misinformation viral video until Plandemic came along (a week later), and Dr. Simone Gold has gone viral multiple times; I addressed her “COVID-19 as a Mass Casualty Event” letter on the blog back in May. Though these doctors don’t know me from Adam, to me they are starting to feel like old friends; or at least old frenemies. They are becoming more sophisticated in the posturing they take around misinformation (that sounded ominous; “they are becoming more sophisticated”, like they were killer robots from SkyNet); including in their talk the idea that they are being ‘silenced’ even though tens of millions of Americans have heard their dissenting minority opinions, claiming to speak for ‘thousands of doctors’ (this is probably an accurate number; there are about 1.1 million doctors in the US), and painting a convincing picture of themselves as the front-line doctors ‘actually diagnosing and treating’ COVID-19 and the people ‘silencing’ (read: disagreeing with) them as shadowy powers-that-be, as opposed to just being the vast majority of conscientious front-line doctors who simply hold to higher standards of evidence and have less tolerance for the invasion of political concerns into our care of patients. All of this is lent some credence by the fact that this video is being censored on Youtube and Facebook, of course; but considering the views they share really are dangerous, I have to admit that I don’t know whether censoring the video is the right call or not; I’m glad it’s not my decision to make. My approach has been to analyse and discuss, and I’m thankful for those who have provided me with the transcript and alternative links to the video for me to try to do that.
Since I worked from 8-5 today, including a morning spent in our outdoor tent clinic diagnosing, treating, and counseling patients with COVID-19, and a motorcycle drive in a torrential downpour (it said 10% chance of precipitation!), I’m about 18 hours behind on responding to this video. In interest of making this analysis available to those who have asked for it more quickly, I’m going to take it one doctor at a time, starting with a response to Dr. Stella Immanuel’s comments. The full transcript is below, up to the Q&A which I won’t spend time addressing. My comments are in blue and will be added as I go.
TL;DR: Posting now, editing and adding to later. Reserve the right to wake up at 3 AM and fix spelling erros.
Congressman Norman: (00:00) … I’ll turn it over.
I have no idea who Congressman Norman is, but it has a very sinister ‘Spider-Man villian’ ring to it, doesn’t it?
Dr. Simone Gold
Dr. Simone Gold: (00:01) Thank you. Thank you so much congressmen. So we’re here because we feel as though the American people have not heard from all the expertise that’s out there all across our country. We do have some experts speaking, but there’s lots and lots of experts across the country. So some of us decided to get together. We’re America’s Frontline Doctors. We’re here only to help American patients and the American nation heal. We have a lot of information to share. Americans are riveted and captured by fear at the moment. We are not held down by the virus as much as we’re being held down by the spider web of fear. That spiderweb is all around us and it’s constricting us and it’s draining the lifeblood of the American people, American society, and American economy.
America’s Frontline Doctors seems like a new organization, but for COVID-19 Viral Video enthusiasts like myself, seeing them all together in this video feels like the first time we saw all of the The Avengers together in The Avengers after 4 years of build-up. The group’s logo is a caduceus overlaid with an American flag; a perfectly fine image, I suppose, but taken with their political aims it sends a clear message; “we are the only doctors that true American patriots can trust.” Later, when these physicians make claims that other doctors have not been using hydroxychloroquine, have been encouraging people to wear masks, or have been advising caution and social distancing because of political motivations, please remember exactly who has overtly politicized their medical calling and emblazoned it on their lab coats. You know what my lab coat has it on? Germs (that’s what they all have, which is why I don’t wear one).
I think Dr. Gold’s discussion of the fear capturing the American people here is very interesting. Certainly there are many responses to the deadly viral pandemic that America is facing; fear, anxiety, bravado, calloused indifference, defiance. I’ve had all of those responses myself, and that was just this morning. I have seen many people suffer from anxiety about the virus, for the sake of themselves and their loved ones, and have offered a listening ear and counseling (and, when appropriate, anxiety medication); I have also seen people who consider COVID-19 to be a political tool or a hoax and have shown brazen disregard of the very real danger posed by the virus, and a great many of them are going to watch and share this video. There is something fairly calloused and icky about sharing a message that ‘you don’t have to be afraid anymore’ to people you already know aren’t taking a dangerous thing seriously. Nevertheless, I’ve actually repeated Dr. Gold’s main point here, “I don’t want you to be afraid,” at least 100 times in the past week; probably far more. When I counsel patients who likely have COVID-19, or whose loved ones do, I almost always tell them that I don’t want them to be afraid. I also tell them about social distancing and counsel them on isolation precautions, and talk to them about getting in touch with their close contacts to encourage them to quarantine, and I talk with them about reasons they would return to my clinic or go to the ER or even call 911 if their symptoms worsen. Because my desire for them not to be afraid isn’t because there isn’t anything anything to be afraid of, like Dr. Gold claims, but because because fear leads to anger and anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering… Because fear is the mind killer, the little-death that brings total obliteration… Because with great power comes great (no wait that isn’t one, sorry)… But really because God has not given us a spirit of fear, and I believe that my patients will thrive best and be most free from fear when they have a healthy respect and understanding of the virus and how to protect others and respond to complications based on the best, most reliable information possible.
Dr.Simone Gold: (00:53) This does not make sense. COVID-19 is a virus that exists in essentially two phases. There’s the early phase disease, and there’s the late phase disease. In the early phase either before you get the virus or early, when you’ve gotten the virus, if you’ve gotten the virus, there’s treatment. That’s what we’re here to tell you. We’re going to talk about that this afternoon. You can find it on America’s Frontline Doctors, there’s many other sites that are streaming it live on Facebook. But we implore you to hear this because this message has been silenced. There are many thousands of physicians who have been silenced for telling the American people the good news about the situation, that we can manage the virus carefully and intelligently, but we cannot live with this spider web of fear that’s constricting our country.
Dr. Simone Gold: (01:45) So we’re going to hear now from various positions. Some are going to talk to you about what the lockdown has done to young, to older, to businesses, to the economy, and how we can get ourselves out of the cycle of fear. Dr. Hamilton.
Dr. Bob Hamilton
Dr. Bob Hamilton: (02:03) My name is Dr. Bob Hamilton. I’m a pediatrician from Santa Monica, California. I’ve been in private practice there for 36 years. And today I have good news for you. The good news is the children as a general rule are taking this virus very, very well. Few are getting infected. Those who are getting infected are being hospitalized in low numbers. And fortunately the mortality rate of children is about one fifth of 1%. So kids are tolerating the infection very frequently, but are actually asymptomatic.
And thank God for that. As a father of 4 young children, I cannot even imagine the anxiety, fear, and paranoia I would experience if we were living through a pandemic like the Spanish Flu, which disproportionately killed young children. I cannot imagine the pandemonium, the incredible amounts of fear, and even the difficulty in staffing clinics and hospitals if exposure to the virus put our children‘s lives at great risk instead of just our own. Though Dr. Stella Immanuel below discusses the panic that her patients commonly present with when they believe they may have COVID-19, I’ve only see this a few times; many patients need reassurance and education, but only a handful have been truly on the verge of a panic attack. But I have seen many, many people very concerned about their children and grandchildren. In fact, when I inform patients that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19, they usually ask “what about my children?” before they ask any other question.
The truth is we don’t know the mortality rate among children, for a lot of the same reasons that it’s so hard to lock-down a true infection fatality rate in general; imperfect testing, asymptomatic cases, minimally symptomatic cases that are never tested, and still being fairly early in the course of the pandemic and not having all of the data we need. But we all agree it’s smaller than for older patients, and Dr. Hamilton’s estimate of 0.2% is within the commonly accepted range based on the data we do have. I would point out that 0.2% is still a very alarming mortality rate for a virus that is as infectious as COVID-19; but a lot of us hope the rate is actually even lower and that children tend to be asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic at a high enough rate that we are simply missing most cases. We hope, but we don’t know. So while I can counsel the patients who anxiously ask me if their children are going to be ok (which would be the very first question on my mind as well) that they are at less risk from COVID-19 than any other age group, I cannot promise them that their children will be unaffected or free from risk, and I still counsel them on what to watch for.
Dr. Bob Hamilton: (02:38) I also want to say that children are not the drivers of this pandemic. People were worried about, initially, if children were going to actually be the ones to push the infection along. The very opposite is happening. Kids are tolerating it very well, they’re not passing it on to their parents, they’re not passing it onto their teachers. Dr. Mark Woolhouse from Scotland, who is a pediatric infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist said the following. He said, “There has not been one documented case of COVID being transferred from a student to a teacher in the world.” In the world.
I think here Dr. Hamilton is straying into a fairly disingenuous way of looking at these statistics. One of the first and most widely followed mitigation steps early in the pandemic was to transition schools to online learning. More than closing non-essential businesses, more than observing social distancing, more than wearing masks once sufficient evidence to support mask-wearing was amassed, children were compliant with not being in school at very high rates because schools were, physically, closed. I will accept that children have not been thedriver of the pandemic; they are also one of the groups that has been kept at home most successfully during it. Saying children have not driven the pandemic is not the same as saying they would not have or might not if these mitigation measures were not followed. The question of whether or not children can or will drive the pandemic once schools reopen in person is nuanced and difficult; I’ll try to address it in the next paragraph and in greater detail in a later article. But it’s important that we don’t fall into the trap of evaluating the course the pandemic has taken so far without taking into account the effects of the precautions and mitigation measures we havetaken in response to it.
Dr. Bob Hamilton: (03:19) I think that is important that all of us who are here today realize that our kids are not really the ones who are driving the infection. It is being driven by older individuals. And yes, we can send the kids back to school I think without fear. And this is the big issue right now, as Congressman Norman alluded to, this is the really important thing we need to do. We need to normalize the lives of our children. How do we do that? We do that by getting them back in the classroom. And the good news is they’re not driving this infection at all. Yes, we can use security measures. Yes, we can be careful. I’m all for that. We all are. But I think the important thing is we need to not act out of fear. We need to act out of science. We need to do it. We need to get it done.
Again, just because children in school have not driven transmission so far, because they have not been in school, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a risk. I don’t know whether or not we should reopen schools normally in a few weeks. There are lots of reasons I haven’t been able to come to anything like a firm conclusion about it. The data is complicated, and it’s such an important question that it really does require a degree of thorough research and critical thinking that I have not been able to give to it yet. Part of that is my own privilege; my wife and I homeschool our four children (and I include “and I” very generously), so it’s a question that doesn’t personally affect us. Homeschooling has always involved some degree of privilege, even though it is also challenging and requires sacrifice, but that’s never been quite so obvious to me as it is now in the midst of this pandemic, when this one big question mark seems to be looming over nearly every family we know but our own. But even though it doesn’t directly affect our own children, there are many teachers and school aged children that we deeply care about (and tons that we sort of care about or middling care about), and the question has been heavy on my mind, especially as more and more close friends have asked me to research and write about it.
All of that to say, I don’t have an answer today; I hope to write about it soon, but I can’t promise I’ll have an answer then either. For now I’ll say this; I think the burden of proof has to be on the side of proving it’s safe, not on the side of proving it’s not safe. I need to review the studies on transmission and shedding in children, but the claim I’ve seen that children are very unlikely to transmit the virus seems very counter-intuitive. Transmitting respiratory viruses is what children do. I’ve got four of these booger goblins at home; the little one gives kisses by putting his entire mouth around your nose, and the 2nd youngest “whispers” to you by blowing spit into your ear and your eyeball. One of the questions we always ask someone with a cold or flu, even pre-COVID-19, is whether they have been around anyone sick. If the answer is “well I have kids” or “well I work in a school” my response is, “say no more.” If there’s one thing we’ve learned about COVID-19, it’s that it’s different. Maybe kids really don’t shed it, maybe they really don’t spread it to each other or to adults; maybe we can reopen schools with sufficient distancing guidelines that it will not endanger the lives of children or or adolescents or their caregivers, teachers, or families. If that’s the case, that’s wonderful; but it has to be very, very clearly demonstrated by real scientific evidence. It isn’t something we can risk on the type or quality of “evidence” that some of the members of America’s Frontline Doctors seem to find sufficient. We’ll try to look at as much of that evidence as we can in an upcoming post.
Dr. Bob Hamilton: (04:07) Finally, the barrier, and I hate to say this, but the barrier to getting our kids back in school is not going to be the science, it’s going to be the national unions, the teachers union, the National Education Association, other groups who are going to demand money. And listen, I think that it’s fine to give people money for PPE and different things in the classroom. But some of their demands are really ridiculous. They’re talking about, where I’m from in California, the UTLA, which is United Teachers Union of Los Angeles, is demanding that we defund the police. What does that have to do with education? They’re demanding that they stop or they shut all private charter schools, privately funded charter schools. These are the schools that are actually getting the kids educated.
This gets too deep into politics for me. Look at the various teachers unions’ demands (if they have demands) in your area for yourself and see if you think what they are asking for is reasonable. Better still, talk to teachers you know and ask for their opinion on reopening schools, the same way that you would (hopefully) ask me or another physician you know about our views on wearing masks or other medical issues related to the pandemic. I know some teachers, and I know that their greatest desire (besides something called a “smart board”) is to be back in the classroom educating and pouring life into your children. They want the schools to reopen, but they want to know the safest and wisest way for it to happen, because too much of their job already deals with childhood suffering, and seeing anything like an abnormally high number of their students (your children) die from COVID-19 because we re-opened schools in the midst of a surge of cases would break them. No profession is perfect (something I’m hoping to write about soon too, but in the meantime you should go read Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid for yourself), but if you don’t think doctors in general want you to be well and thrive, and you don’t think teachers want your children to grown and learn, I’ve got some questions about who you do trust.
Dr. Bob Hamilton: (04:59) So clearly there are going to be barriers. The barriers will not be science. There will not be barriers for the sake of the children. That’s going to be for the sake of the adults, the teachers, and everybody else, and for the union. So that’s where we need to focus our efforts and fight back. So thank you all for being here and let’s get our kids back in school.
Leave out that there really are some scientific barriers to knowing whether or not fully reopening schools is actually going to be safe for the children, which is probably the single biggest concern among teachers anyway; there’s still something very calloused about calling out teachers for not wanting to re-open schools because of concerns about their own safety.
Dr. Stella Immanuel
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (05:27) Hello, I’m Dr. Stella Immanuel. I’m a primary care physician in Houston, Texas. I actually went to medical school in West Africa, Nigeria, where I took care of malaria patients, treated them with hydroxychloroquine and stuff like that. So I’m actually used to these medications.
I’ve learned an awful lot from African physicians over the years, though I’ve never been to Nigeria and have not had the privilege to travel to West Africa since before medical school. I do not know the arc of Dr. Immanuel’s career, how long she practiced in Nigeria and how long she has now practiced in the US (I am told she used to live in the same city where I did undergrad). On my most recent short term trips to volunteer in hospitals in South Sudan and Uganda, I went in a teaching role; and while I did have some things to contribute, there is no question that I gained from doctors there more knowledge and insight than I was able to give, which is what I fully expected would happen. And nowhere was this dynamic more clear than in treating patients with “tropical diseases” like yellow fever and malaria. Diagnostic tests, medications, and clinical pictures that I had encountered primarily in textbooks were bread and butter medicine for the physicians I worked with, and I’m sure I must have seemed fairly slow on the uptake, trying to figure out the right chloroquine dose for pediatric malaria patients or recognize the differences in the clinical picture between malaria and dengue fever. While I’ve now also used these medications for malaria, in addition to prescribing them for lupus here in the US, I would completely concede more extensive experience with antimalarial agents to a West African trained doctor like Dr. Immanuel. What I cannot honestly concede is more extensive experience diagnosing and treating COVID-19.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: I’m here because I have personally treated over 350 patients with COVID. Patients that have diabetes, patients that have high blood pressure, patients that have asthma, old people … I think my oldest patient is 92 … 87 year olds. And the result has been the same. I put them on hydroxychloroquine, I put them on zinc, I put them on Zithromax, and they’re all well.
The best way to study a medication’s efficacy is a double-blinded, randomized, controlled trial. There are studies that have been done and are being done on hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 that are designed this way, and if done carefully they will provide the absolute highest quality data we will have on this medication. So far the ones we have do not show benefit. It’s worth pointing out here that one large, well-designed study is of much greater value than many small or poorly designed studies, and of infinitely greater value than any one or a few clinicians’ anecdotal experiences. But in a pandemic I do believe in an all-hands-on-deck approach to both clinical treatment and research, and I appreciate all of the doctors for whom research is not a usual interest or activity taking the time and energy to bring their results forward.
But we would not be wise to digest these results without understanding their significance. When Dr. Immanuel says she has treated 350 patients for COVID-19, that feels like a fairly large number; especially compared to the dozen that Dr. Bartlett had treated to support his claims for budesonide or the 50 that Dr. Procter had treated in a recent viral facebook post. But we still need more information, like how her patient population’s demographics compare to the population in general, which she only hints at, telling us the age of her oldest patient but not providing a median age or other demographics factors or data on comorbidities or high-risk conditions. Depending on their risk factors and their ages, zero deaths out of 350 might be exactly what we would expect. Even if Dr. Immanuel’s population perfectly represented thegeneralpopulation (and we have good reasons to suspect this is not the case, as we will discuss below), where we believe the infection fatality rate is somewhere in the still-very dangerous- range of 0.4% to 1.3%, this would only be 1-4 fewer deaths than expected; wonderful, well worth celebrating, but not miraculous, and certainly not proof of a cure. But aside from the simple numbers, there are bigger issues we need to be honest about here.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (06:12) For the past few months, after taking care of over 350 patients, we’ve not lost one. Not a diabetic, not a somebody with high blood pressure, not somebody who asthma, not an old person. We’ve not lost one patient.
As I’ve done for every doctor making claims of perfect efficacy for unproven medications over the past few months, I’d like to look at Dr. Immanuel’s claims in the context of her treatment setting; namely, outpatient Family Medicine in Houston, Texas. Here is the graph of positive cases in Houston.
If this looks familiar to my fellow Wacoans, maybe it’s because it looks almost identical to the trend in cases in Waco, and really in most places around Texas. Here is our trend from April to July from the health department’s tracker at covidwaco.com (based on positive test results).
You’ll note these charts are not to the same scale; Waco does not (yet) have a population of 2.3 million people. But there are only so many patients a doctor can see in a day, and both Waco and Houston have had plenty of COVID-19 cases, and people being evaluated for possible cases, to keep more than one doctor very busy, and it’s pretty hard for me to imagine that Dr. Immanuel has seen many more patients for evaluation of COVID-19 symptoms than I have over the past couple of months. But if we look at these trends it strongly implies that the vast majority of her patients who actually had COVID-19 would have been in the past 6 weeks, just like mine have been; before that the infection rates in Houston and in Waco were too low for either of us to have extensive experience with patients who actually had the virus, regardless of how many people we were evaluating and testing (important work still, since none of us knew when our surge would start). She doesn’t tell us how many of her 350+ patients were in March, April, and May and how many have been since mid-June, just that she has treated that many patients with hydroxychloroquine over the past several months. If we assume that the majority of these patients have been in the last 42 (great number) days since cases began to climb in Houston, it means that a lot of her patients are not out of the woods yet. There is a lag time from the development of early symptoms of COVID-19 to the development of severe complications, and a further lag time from this to death, while patients fight for their lives in the hospital and doctors and nurses do everything in their power to help them. Finding an exact number is difficult because there are so many factors and so many different ways that people are affected by the virus; but the total lag from onset of symptoms to death seems to be around 18 days. Even this is likely an underestimate, however, since any such data would exclude people experiencing a prolonged battle with the virus who are still fighting it at the time the data is collected, but ultimately pass away from it later. This gives us a mere 24 days during which we can say Dr. Immanuel has had time to see a significant number of patients with COVID-19 and feel confident in saying that those patients have fully recovered and are no longer in danger.
I am playing a bit fast and loose with these numbers here, because I don’t actually think Dr. Immanuel means that the majority of her 350 “COVID patients” have been within the past 6 weeks. The point is this; when doctors claim to have been treating COVID-19 a certain way for months, you need to look and see how many months there have actually been COVID patients in their area. Because if the length of time they have been ‘treating COVID’ successfully and the length of time that SARS-CoV-2 has been endemic in their region don’t line up, we have to ask an important question that runs deeper even than the demographics and risk factors of their patients; did the patients they treated even have COVID-19 at all?
You see, over and over when we have heard from physicians like Dr. Irene Lozano and Dr. Brian Procter that they have a 100% cure rate with hydroxychloroquine or another regimen, it turns out that their definition of ‘having COVID-19’ is extremely liberal. One admits to treating patients with minimal symptoms and questionable exposures; the other says he doesn’t even believe in testing for COVID-19. This is the most basic concept of epidemiology imaginable, but you can’t die from a disease you don’t have. If a doctor says they have successfully treated a condition x number of times, but their diagnosis of the condition doesn’t conform to accepted standards of certainty or rely on any evidence other than a hunch or their desire or ideological commitment to ‘diagnose’ and treat the condition, their results are less than useless; they don’t even count as anecdotal evidence.
I don’t know if this is the case for Dr. Immanuel; she doesn’t say that she doesn’t believe in testing, she doesn’t tell us what test her clinic uses or its sensitivity and specificity, or how many of her hydroxychloroquine patients were treated during Houston’s pre-surge months, or if she uses the accepted clinical diagnostic criteria in lieu of a positive test. I cannot say definitively that Dr. Immanuel has done what so many doctors in these videos have done and artificially inflated her COVID-19 patient series by treating people who did not meet any accepted diagnostic criteria but were merely worried they might have the virus. But this is absolutely key to understanding the significance of her success rates, and I do think she gives us a few important clues in that direction.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: And on top of that, I’ve put myself, my staff, and many doctors that I know on hydroxychloroquine for prevention, because by the very mechanism of action, it works early and as a prophylaxis. We see patients, 10 to 15 COVID patients, everyday. We give them breathing treatments. We only wear surgical mask. None of us has gotten sick. It works.
This is clue number one, and it’s a big one. I sometimes use a phrase I’m pretty sure I’ve coined; “we aren’t keeping the secret medicines for doctorshidden in the back.” I say this, when I think it’s appropriate to the patient, to help dispel the idea that I am holding out some sort of secret treatment that I only prescribe to other doctors and their families, which is something that my patients sometimes believe (and that some of them have very good historical reasons for believing). A compassionate, conscientious physician is going to treat your condition the same whether you have an MD or PhD or have very little education, whether you are rich or poor, and even whether or not they like you or you are mean to them; we don’t keep secret medicines in the back that you don’t unless you are ‘in the club.’ And because I believe that Dr. Immanuel is a compassionate physician, I don’t believe that she would be willing to give herself, her staff, and other doctors and medical personnel hydroxychloroquine as prophylaxis if she were unwilling to do the same for others. If she really believes it works in this clinical setting, it would be consistent of her to offer hydroxychloroquine for patients who have been around others with COVID-19, or thought they might have been, or who work in other high risk environments like nursing homes, food service, and grocery stores. And because she has more extensive experience with hydroxychloroquine for malaria treatment and prophylaxis than most US trained physicians, it would be reasonable to expect her to be somewhat more liberal in prescribing it for this purpose without the same degree of anxiety a doctor might feel who has only used it for lupus.
In claiming that she has successfully treated over 350 patients with COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, is Dr. Immanuel including the patients she has treated merely for prophylaxis, who have not been diagnosed with an infection at all? I don’t know, but considering the national stage and the passion she feels on this issue, I would feel a great degree of temptation to include those patients and bolster my treatment numbers, and if I wasn’t including them I would want to be explicit on that point.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (06:46) So right now, I came here to Washington DC to say, America, nobody needs to die. The study that made me start using hydroxychloroquine was a study that they did under the NIH in 2005 that say it works. Recently, I was doing some research about a patient that had hiccups and I found out that they even did a recent study in the NIH, which is our National Institute … that is the National … NIH, what? National Institute of Health. They actually had a study and go look it up. Type hiccups and COVID, you will see it. They treated a patient that had hiccups with hydroxychloroquine and it proved that hiccups is a symptom of COVID. So if the NIH knows that treating the patient would hydroxychloroquine proves that hiccup is a symptom of COVID, then they definitely know the hydroxychloroquine works.
Dr. Immanuel is referring to a case report from April of one patient, a 62 year old man who presented to the ER with hiccups; he was found to have diffuse groundglass opacities on CT scan of his lungs and tested positive for COVID-19. The case study mentions that he was treated with hydroxychloroquine exactly once (twice if you count the abstract); it was standard treatment at the time this man was admitted, as it was in most places around the country before more evidence emergedthat it wasn’t efficacious. The study draws absolutely no conclusions that his COVID-19 was cured by hydroxychloroquine, but rather was published to emphasize that “physicians should keep COVID-19 infection on their differential as more cases are discovered through atypical presentations.” The idea that this case study somehow proves that the NIH “knows the hydroxychloroquine works” is a complete non-sequitur and betrays either intentional or accidental misunderstanding of the case study. Also, I love it when people google things and then post viral videos telling other people to google those things; it creates fascinating Google Trends graphs:
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (07:42) I’m upset. Why I’m upset is that I see people that cannot breathe. I see parents walk in, I see diabetic sit in my office knowing that this is a death sentence and they can’t breathe. And I hug them and I tell them, “It’s going to be okay. You’re going to live.” And we treat them and they leave. None has died.
This is clue number two. You see, Dr. Immanuel has fallen into the trap that so many other doctors whose claims we have looked at on this site have fallen into; they are actually treating the virus as though it were even more dangerous than it already is. Most doctors I know would accept a death rate for COVID-19 somewhere between 0.4 and 1.3% based on the best data we currently have available; incredibly dangerous, but not a death sentence. The diabetic patient with COVID-19 is most likely to recover without treatment, but if unchecked the virus could easily kills hundreds of thousands or even millions. That’s what happens in most dangerous, contagious illnesses; if unmitigated, it will kill far too many people, but any particular person is still statistically unlikely to die. In fact, I spend a lot of my time saying to my patients I am testing for COVID-19 almost what Dr. Immanuel is saying. I don’t hug them, but I do offer a therapeutic hand on the arm and say, “I think you’re going to be ok. Most people recover from this and never have to be in the hospital. Let’s talk about what to watch out for and how you can feel a little better while your body fights this.” By believing that this virus is almost universally deadly for certain people, she is ensuring that her evaluation of her treatment numbers is biased, because she then cannot objectively compare her survival rates to the real death rates. Each case proves the drug was the key, miraculous cure, because she’s convinced that each patient she treats would have died without it.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: So if some fake science, some person sponsored by all these fake pharma companies comes out say, “We’ve done studies and they found out that it doesn’t work.” I can tell you categorically it’s fixed science. I want to know who is sponsoring that study. I want to know who is behind it because there is no way I can treat 350 patients and counting and nobody is dead and they all did better.
Two things on this. Most of the COVID-19 and hydroxychloroquine studies that have come out have not been sponsored by any pharmaceutical company (I can’t think of any that have off the top of my head), and this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone accuse drug companies of fixing data to prove that there was no specific drug therapy available. (yes, yes, I know; they are just setting us all up for a vaccine).
But more importantly, there absolutely is a way that she could treat 350 patientswith no deaths and it not be due to hydroxychloroquine, because many doctors around the country have exactly these same types of numbers withoutusing it. In fact, this is almost exactly what my numbers look like. I don’t feel at liberty to disclose the numbers or any details from my clinic without authorization from those patients; but I have been treating at least 20-30 patients for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure daily for weeks, and evaluating a significant number for the symptoms of COVID-19 in the months leading up to the beginning of our surge 6-7 weeks ago. I have treated well over 350 patients for suspected COVID-19, and many have been positive for the virus. None of them have died, praise God.Would I be justified in attributing this to something I am doing? Is it my particular form of counseling and reassurance? Is one of the symptomatic/supportive treatments I am recommending, like tylenol for body aches or hot tea with honey for sore throat, secretly an anti-COVID-19 miracle drug? Does mybreath inhibit COVID-19? Of course not. The difference is that none of these have a theoretical mechanism of action against COVID-19 (although my breath may encourage social distancing), and many medications like hydroxychloroquine and budesonide do. I am extremely hopeful that studies will prove some clinical setting or scenario where these really are useful for COVID-19; but using before then because of unreliable anecdotal evidence is irresponsible.
We would be better served looking at my patients, if we could. Some were only recently diagnosed and, as we’ve already stated, aren’t out of the woods yet. If you don’t think I’m deeply concerned about some of these patients getting sick in the next week or two, you haven’t been reading my blog. Many were exposed but did not develop the virus. Many had only a mild clinical course and few risk factors, including age. Many had symptoms that meant they would screen positive for further evaluation for COVID-19, but were actually ultimately due to something else; a bacterial pneumonia, a COVID-19 unrelated COPD exacerbation, migraine headaches, pregnancy. Do I get to count all of them in my ‘COVID-19 treatment’ numbers since I saw them for suspected COVID-19 based on their presenting symptoms? More importantly, these patients self-selected to my clinic by not being ill enough to need to call 911 or present straight to the ER, or by not being elderly enough or having enough medical complications to already live in certain very high-risk settings, like a long term skilled nursing facility, where they would be evaluated by another doctor entirely. If I had placed all of these hundreds of patients on hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and azithromycin, (and if none had adverse events or serious reactions to these medications), their outcomes would have been exactly the same. The only difference would be that they would have purchased and taken unnecessary medications and I would be convinced that I have locked-on to the miracle cure. After that, if any of my patients did die from COVID-19, I would probably be convinced I was still beating the odds.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (08:21) I know you’re going to tell me that you treated 20 people, 40 people, and it didn’t work. I’m a true testimony. So I came here to Washington DC to tell America nobody needs to get sick. This virus has a cure. It is called hydroxychloroquine, zinc, and Zithromax. I know you people want to talk about a mask. Hello? You don’t need mask. There is a cure. I know they don’t want to open schools. No, you don’t need people to be locked down. There is prevention and there is a cure.
Do not trust anybody with your medical care who tells you don’t need prevention because you can just do treatment. Please wear a mask.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (08:48) And let me tell you something, all you fake doctors out there that tell me, “Yeah. I want a double blinded study.” I just tell you, quit sounding like a computer, double blinded, double blinded. I don’t know whether your chips are malfunctioning, but I’m a real doctor. I have radiologists, we have plastic surgeons, we have neurosurgeons, like Sanjay Gupta saying, “Yeah, it doesn’t work and it causes heart disease.”
I’m a real doctor too and I believe in evidence based medicine. Also, take that all of you radiologists, would-be-plastic-surgeons, and neurosurgeons who did better than me on your boards (you know who you are. Miss you guys); I’m a real doctor!
Dr. Stella Immanuel: Let me ask you Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Hear me. Have you ever seen a COVID patient? Have you ever treated anybody with hydroxychloroquine and they died from heart disease? When you do, come and talk to me because I sit down in my clinic every day and I see these patients walk in everyday scared to death. I see people driving two, three hours to my clinic because some ER doctor is scared of the Texas board or they’re scared of something, and they will not prescribe medication to these people.
This is clue number three. Just like Dr. Lozano and Dr. Procter, Dr. Immanuel has patients driving across the state to see her because they know she will prescribe these hot-button medications for them even when other doctors wouldn’t. If you don’t understand why this is problematic or how this distorts her treatment numbers, please see my prior posts on those doctors’ claims.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (09:35) I tell all of you doctors that are sitting down and watching Americans die. You’re like the good Nazi … the good one, the good Germans that watched Jews get killed and you did not speak up. If they come after me, they threaten me. They’ve threatened to … I mean, I’ve gotten all kinds of threats. Or they’re going to report me to the bots. I say, you know what? I don’t care. I’m not going to let Americans die. And if this is the hill where I get nailed on, I will get nailed on it. I don’t care. You can report me to the bots, you can kill me, you can do whatever, but I’m not going to let Americans die.
I’m choosing to leave this one alone for the most part. Dr. Immanuel has been widely lambasted on social media for holding a number of medical and non-medical beliefs far outside of the norm, some of which are heterodox religious ideas, some of which are conspiracy theories, and some of which are just plain strange. I think her comparison of doctors like myself to Nazi scientists and doctors because we aren’t willing to use unproven medicines and some of the other references in this paragraph hint at that. While I do think that this line of conversation sadly does have some value- it is important to understand if the people we choose to give credence to are reliable sources of truth- I feel that my calling here is to speak to Dr. Immanuel’s arguments, statistics, and scientific interpretations alone.
Dr. Stella Immanuel: (10:09) And today I’m here to say it, that America, there is a cure for COVID. All this foolishness does not need to happen. There is a cure for COVID. There is a cure for COVID is called hydroxychloroquine. It’s called zinc. It’s called Zithromax. And it is time for the grassroots to wake up and say, “No, we’re not going to take this any longer. We’re not going to die.” Because let me tell you something, when somebody is dead, they are dead. They’re not coming back tomorrow to have an argument. They are not come back tomorrow to discuss the double blinded study and the data. All of you doctors that are waiting for data, if six months down the line you actually found out that this data shows that this medication works, how about your patients that have died? You want a double blinded study where people are dying? It’s unethical. So guys, we don’t need to die. There is a cure for COVID.
This is painful, because she’s absolutely right; dead is dead (although some of us believe that’s not true at all). And if in 6 months I have lost COVID-19 patients and a large, well-controlled, double-blinded placebo controlled study does overturn all the best evidence we have so far and proves that hydroxychloroquine would have saved those patients if I had just given it to everybody who thought they might have the virus or who had certain risk factors or a certain constellation of symptoms, I will be sad that I didn’t use it. I’ll write about it on this blog, and my agony over it will probably come through pretty clearly because I’m not great at hiding that kind of thing. But what I won’t be able to say is “it turns out Dr. Immanuel was right” or “it turns out Dr. Procter was right.” Because recommending a medication that later turns out to be useful based on bad data, misunderstanding statistics, shifting the goalposts of what it means to diagnosis an infection or what constitutes valid evidence, and indiscriminate prescribing designed to bolster my own confirmation bias is still wrong. What’s that saying, something about a blind squirrel is still right twice a day, and we shouldn’t… be blind squirrels… leading the blind? Being right for the wrong reasons is called being lucky (or in the absolute best case scenario, deeply intuitive), and it’s great for you and your patients; it isn’t something anyone can reasonably or ethically follow you in.
How many medications do you take? There are over 20,000 prescription drugs approved by the FDA; unless you take that many, there are probably some out there that might help a symptom or a condition you have; maybe even some that might save your life. We could put you on chemotherapy because you might have cancer. We could put you on daily antibiotics because it might prevent your next urinary tract infection. More to the point, we could treat you with chronic opioids because they have a mechanism for helping your pain, even if your pain is unlikely to have any long-term improvement from them and you run the risk of opioid dependence, a condition I treat every day and have seen ruin lives in ways you wouldn’t believe. We could treat every child who might have an ear infection with antibiotics, regardless of diagnostic standards and the very real risks of antibiotic resistant bacteria (not to mention diarrhea diapers). We could put every flu patient on tamiflu even though it can be a harsh medication and has only limited efficacy in limited clinical scenarios.
No Dr. Immanuel, it is notunethical to refrain from using a medication in a clinical scenario where it has no proven efficacy. This is the philosophy that led to the opioid epidemic and every day leads to polypharmacy, another very real killer of the elderly. We took oaths to first do no harm, and sometimes that means sitting in the tension and anxiety of an unknown future with our patients and admitting, regardless of our own hubris, that we don’t have anything special or prescribable to offer other than our sound advice, sincere compassion, and reliable information. In fact, this is actually a pretty big part of our jobs already.
If 6 months from now (or hopefully sooner) some reliable evidence shows that hydroxychloroquine has a use in specific scenario to treat COVID-19, I will be the first one to prescribe it. Until then, the anecdotal evidence isn’t strong enough, the mechanism of action not surefire enough, and the scientific evidence not promising enough to justify the type of widespread everyone-gets-a-dose treatment these doctors are espousing; and unfortunately, despite her passion and her compassion for her patients, Dr. Immanuel’s clinical evidence, at least as she has shared it here, adds to that data not even at all.
From this point the press conference continued for another half hour. America’s Frontline Doctors is prolific; since this video they have also released additional hour and even three hour long videos. Although I think there are many points from the remainder of the video that could be analyzed, including quite a few I agree with, some that need clarification or explanation, and some that deserve to be debunked, I have to accept my limitations and accept that at this point analyzing the remaining claims is not the most pressing use of my time.
My apologies to anyone who might have been waiting for me to address a specific point in the remainder of the press conference; please do not hesitate toget in contactwith me with specific questions, which I may be able to integrate into future posts.
I have deleted the remainder of the transcript since I do not have plans to address the remaining points, but it can be found here and the video can still be found in various places across the internet.
At some point in this sort of voluntary, part-time work, you have to face the fact that people can produce misinformation, honest misunderstandings, and conspiracy theories far more rapidly than you can write about them, and that it is literally, physically impossible to keep up. For me, this realization came around the first week of April. At times like that I am thankful for people like Dr. Mikhail Varshavski (“Dr. Mike”) and Dr. Zubin Damania (“ZDoggMD”) who are doing this work consistently on Youtube and their own websites, and for people like Dr. Emily Smith, Your Friendly Neighborhood Epidemiologist, and the anonymous Your Local Epidemiologist, who for all I know might also be Dr. Emily Smith (I’m just saying, have you ever seen them together in the same room at the same time? Probably not. Because quarantine). If you have a question about a piece of misinformation or something that’s unclear about COVID-19 that I haven’t addressed on this blog, or (as seems more likely) that I’ve addressed in such a wordy and convoluted way that you are actually worse off than you were before my ‘explanation’, chances are one of these folks has got your back. There must be many people out there doing this type work that I am missing; please feel free to link to their sites in the comments.
With so many pieces of misinformation floating around out there and so little time to write 3,000-5,000 word blog posts, today’s post is just an attempt to debulk the malignant tumor of COVID-19 misinformation. The rules are simple:
Each meme gets one paragraph only (paragraph length unspecified)(and it still counts as one paragraph if it is interrupted by pictures or videos).
The crazier or less sincere the meme, the snarkier the response.
COVID-19 Medical Information.
We’ll start out with a light one. I’ve seen this posted with the comment “Coronavirus is a cold.” It’s hard to derive any sort of conclusions from just that. Does the meme intend to convey that the entire worldwide pandemic is a hoax? Are they are trying to say that literally all of the deaths and suffering have somehow been fabricated? If I posted this meme with the comment “wow, look how much we’ve learned about Coronaviruses in the last 3 decades,” it would completely change the meaning; but the meme as written is clearly designed to imply that the pandemic has been faked because coronaviruses only cause colds. I think there’s at least three legitimate ways we could debunk this idea, and I can’t really decide between them, so we’ll do all three. First, we could do some basic education on medical history. ARDS, Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, was first described in 1967, just one year before Coronaviruses were classified; but the first Coronavirus that was known to cause ARDS was SARS in 2003. Obviously it wouldn’t have been known in 1989 that Coronaviruses would emerge that caused such severe respiratory complications, and thinking of them as a virus that typically only causes a common cold was perfectly reasonable. If you want a thorough explanation of the history of coronaviruses and ARDS, I recommend this article, which could have been written as debunking of this meme: A Brief History of Human Coronaviruses by Shawna Williams. It contains an excellent visual timeline, which I’ve included only a fragment of here.
The second approach I think is valid is to point out how silly it would be to fake a pandemic using a virus that is known to cause only a common cold. It seems like faking infections, hospitalizations, chronic complications, and deaths in every single country in the world and having doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, researchers, and millions of non-medical people pretending to be patients, would take an awful lot of effort; maybe it would have been worth devoting some of that untold energy and seemingly infinite resources to attributing your fake pandemic to a pathogen that couldn’t be disproved by by pulling up any old text book from before 2003. This is what makes me think that the meme was knowingly deceptive on the part of the original creator, because it’s so hard to believe that somebody actually found this in a 30 year old text book and said to themselves“aha! got ’em!” The third and final point we could make is to just point back at the meme itself, just eight lines up:
This textbook page doesn’t list cervical cancer as a disease linked to the Papovaviruses family, which under the classification scheme used at that time included human papillomavirus; HPV. Maybe it’s a good thing that medical knowledge and research has continued to progress since 1989?
This is one of my favorites, and was actually shared to my Facebook wall by my mom (I should clarify; she shared it because she also thought it was ridiculous and knew I would enjoy it). Something like this almost has to be written facetiously, right? But for the sake of thoroughness, let’s clarify a few points here. First of all, the reason the collection is done in the nasopharynx really isn’t that complicated; that’s where the virus is more densely populated, compared to other locations that could be swabbed, and going deeper in increases the chances of picking up the virus on the swab. I know it’s uncomfortable; I’ve had it done three times now, and the second time was especially awful. Despite what people may think, doctors and nurses don’t like causing pain, and we wouldn’t use it if we felt like there were other reliable options. But so far studies comparing the sensitivity and specificity of Nasopharyngeal swabbing to other swab techniques and locations have been mixed in terms of how determining how necessary the Nasopharyngeal swab actually is. Some have shown that it clearly gives us the most reliable way to tell if you have the virus or not, and others have shown that other swab locations might be just as good. But until something like a definitive answer emerges, doesn’t it make sense for your doctor’s office to use the technique that everyone agrees is as accurate as possible? This is all pretty obvious, but doesn’t answer the question of ‘if the virus is so contagious, why wouldn’t a less invasive test work?’ The other part of this meme seems to call into question that the virus is contagious if we have to do such an uncomfortable test to detect it, and the answer here is simple too; when we test for the virus, unlike when you get infected with the virus, we don’t have the virus’s help. You see, your body is a good breeding ground for certain viruses, who use your own cellular machinery to reproduce and, when they reach a certain point (viral load), begin to cause disease. This takes time; the incubation period (how long it takes the virus to reproduce enough to cause illness) of COVID-19 is 2 to 14 days; the COVID-19 test we use in our clinic comes back in 15 minutes. That’s because the tests we use aren’t trying to let the virus go through multiple reproduction cycles until it has proliferated enough to be detected; this is a good way of testing for pathogens called a culture, but it takes longer. The rapid tests rely on detecting some part of the virus, such as its DNA or specific proteins, and the more of the virus that is collected for the test, the more likely it is for the test to be accurate. In other words, the test may require more of the virus to be reliably accurate than the virus requires of itself to make you sick. Finally, the part about the microchip is really, really silly, and if you believe it there probably isn’t much I could say to change your mind; but if it helps here are two videos; the first showing exactly what our swabs look like, and the second showing me getting the Nasopharyngeal swab done at one of our clinics.
Two signs that your meme is bad:
Your main point can be summed up as, “people with certain medical conditions deserve to die.”
You add a picture of Morgan Freeman and I still don’t read it in his voice.
There’s not much to do with this one. Sometimes high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity are significantly attributable to personal decisions, and sometimes not. It’s always, and I mean always, much more complicated than people know from the outside, and managing these conditions both as a doctor and as a patient is hard, frustrating, and often feels like an uphill battle. Sometimes people can exercise, and sometimes they can’t. Yes, smoking is bad for you, and I spend a lot of time trying to help people quit (by the way, one of the most effective and least utilized methods for quitting is getting a smoking cessation coach. You can get one for free at https://www.yesquit.org, and they can even help set you up with free nicotine patches or other medications), and you should quit, but we know it isn’t easy. The idea that anybody should be shamed or punished for a medical condition, let-alone medical conditions that are only partly modifiable with behavioral changes, is obscene. Shame on you to whoever made this meme and to anyone who shared it, and on Morgan Freeman for endorsing it.
Before I get angry e-mails, that last part was a joke; I realize that Morgan Freeman has no idea this meme exists. But isn’t there something disturbing about both this and the next meme exploiting the images of Black men- one for his gravitas, acting talent and air of wisdom, and the other for his strength, hard work and physical prowess- to minimize a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black and minority men and women?
I’m going to just admit now, figuring out the origin of this picture took me longer to research than almost any medical question I’ve addressed on the blog so far. At first glance I had no idea what was going on here, but I braved the internet so that you don’t have to, and here’s what I came up with. According to my research, the image depicts champion body builder Blessing Awodibu, known both for his multiple body building titles and his various comedic Youtube videos, flexing next to “Daddy Long Neck”, a social media personality and musician who has Marfan Syndrome, a connective tissue disease. The two did a sketch together on Youtube back in December of 2018 where they arm wrestle, and this image appears to have been taken at the same time. We’ve already addressed this idea that by taking precautions to avoid COVID-19 you are somehow coddling you immune system into a state of weakness back when we compared your immune system to a Death Star, and on a few other occasions early on in the blog, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice to say that while exercising is of course a healthy habit, none of the things listed by Awodibu are going to protect someone from COVID-19, and I’m fairly grossed out by the fact that whoever made this doesn’t wash their hands before eating.
There’s also a good bit of irony here, since in the original Youtube sketch Daddy Long Neck actually won the arm-wrestling match, prompting Blessing Awodibu to ask “which protein do you use?” This would imply that the immune system in the meme that is wearing a mask, using hand sanitizer, and doing curbside pickup for groceries is less likely to get sick from COVID-19, so I guess I do agree with this meme after all.
COVID-19 Statistics (Yay!)
I’ve included a few statistics memes that were sent to me recently, and this first one is the most straightforward of the bunch. Unlike the others, which make a few important intentional or accidental statistics errors, this one is clearly written by someone who has no grasp of statistics at all. Let’s look at the three statistics it gives:
0.94% of Americans have contracted the virus. This is actually a really terrifying statistic, because if it were true, it would mean that the now 143,000 deaths (up over 10,000 since this meme was made last week) are just the tip of the iceberg; that we’ve had that many people die and over 99% of the population hasn’t even had the virus yet. Fortunately, this meme is only accounting for confirmed cases, and does not take into account any of the antibody testing and studies that have helped us get a better estimate of the number of asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 without realizing it. Even in areas that have already survived a surge of cases, these numbers have not been anywhere near high enough to confer herd immunity, and we definitely aren’t out of the woods yet; but if only 0.06% of people have even had COVID-19 at this point, we would be on track to blow even the most dire models from March or April completely out of the water.
The survival rate is 95.72%. We talked about this a lot back in the posts about the Dr. Erickson/Bakersfield Urgent Care Doctors video. The easiest way to make a really alarming statistic seem mild is to just present the inverse. A “95.72% survival rate” sounds like a good thing, because survival is good and 95% is a ‘high’ number; “see, the good thing has a high number! It’s not that bad!” But this is exactly the same as saying that COVID-19 has amortality rate of 4.3%, instead of the still scary but much less catastrophic 0.5% to 1.3% most doctors I know would be willing to accept. A mortality rate of 4.3% is terrifying for a virus that is this contagious, and flipping it to “95.7 survival” makes it exactly 0% better.
So the first two statistics by themselves actually constitute a form of misinformation about the virus we’ve seen only rarely, in that it makes this already terrible pandemic seem even more dangerous than it actually is. Which is what makes the final statistic so baffling.
Only 0.04% of Americans have died, so the survival rate is 99.96%. This is why you don’t make memes as a group project; it’s obvious that the person who wrote the last part hadn’t looked at the rest of the presentation, since the line immediately before this claimed a survival rate of 95.72%. What they’ve done here is divided the number of deaths by the entire population whether they’ve had the virus or not, very similar to what Dr. Erickson did in his video when looking at deaths early in the pandemic (“millions of cases, very little death”). But that’s not what a “survival rate” is at all, because you are basically making the claim that hundreds of millions of people have ‘survived’ something they haven’t been exposed to yet. I can think of exactly one type of scenario where it would be helpful to calculate a “survival rate” based on the entire population instead of just the people actually effected (i.e. the people who have survived), and that would be after an extreme mass casualty event. For example, in the 1997 movie The Lost World: Jurassic Park, a T-Rex makes it from Isla Sorna to San Diego to rescue his baby by… Swimming? Stowing away on a boat? That movie was so crazy I can’t remember. He weaves a path of destruction across the city until… something happens to stop him, I think. Anyway, in a situation like that, it would be reasonable to calculate a survival rate for the entire city once the dust settles; but using the current number of deaths compared to the US population to calculate what percentage of Americans have “survived” COVID-19 right now is like calculating the T-Rex survival rate for San Diego while it’s still running behind you on Harbor Drive.
I like this meme for three reasons: 1. It starts and ends reasonably, 2. It comes from my home state, and 3. It is the best statistics example I’ve seen yet of comparing apples to oranges, only in this case somebody has painted an orange red and glued a stem to the top to try to pass it off as an apple. Let’s break it down a bit: “Here are some numbers that are confusing to me.” This is a great start, and honestly if all misinformation could start out this way instead of “READ THIS BEFORE FACEBOOK DELETES IT” we would be a lot better off. Covid-19: 3,399 deaths/88,691 cases = 4% of the people with cases have died.“ This is actually a great way to phrase this, because it emphasizes a few points that we can’t be too precise about. Louisiana has had 88,691 confirmed cases (now 95,002), but we can’t be sure how many people have had the virus without getting sick and getting tested, so saying that 3,399 of the people with confirmed cases have died, to get a case fatality rate of 4% is precisely correct. It also uses the present perfect tense instead of the past tense, a nod of recognition that this pandemic is not over. For people in Louisiana with confirmed cases of COVID-19, 4% have died up to this point; many are still fighting for their lives, many are recovering, and many more are being diagnosed as we speak; this number is dynamic.
Flu: 1,400 deaths/14,000 cases = 10% of the people with cases died. Notice the past tense? Because the 2018-2019 flu season is over now? Masterful. But unfortunately, here’s where it all goes off the rails, because Louisiana did not have 14,000 cases of flu last year; it had 14,000 hospitalizations for flu. And that completely changes the meaning of the statistic, because now you are comparing the very sickest flu patients with the most dangerous risk factors to all confirmed COVID-19 cases and getting a number on the same order of magnitude. That makes COVID-19 insanely scary. And we don’t yet know how many hospitalizations for COVID-19 this pandemic is going to have, or how many deaths, because we are still in the middle of the pandemic. We’ve talked about the problems inherent in comparing flu and COVID-19 before, and we’ll cover some of them again below; but if we want to compare something at least in the same fruit family, there are studies that have looked at the number of deaths compared to hospitalizations in Louisiana hospitals from COVID-19, just as this meme does for the flu. One study from the New England Journal of Medicine, which also looks at the increased burden of COVID-19 on African Americans due to chronic health disparities, found a hospital death rate of 24%,compared to the 10% for the flu in the meme above.
So, I don’t understand why we haven’t been wearing masks already? This meme is so precise in every other respect, and the mistake between 2017-2018 flu cases and flu hospitalizations is so glaring, that I can’t help but believe it was intentional. I find that really disappointing, because otherwise I really like this one, and I definitely agree with the final point. Why haven’t we been wearing masks before now? 15,000 to 60,000 deaths from flu each season may not be COVID-19 pandemic levels, but it still represents a lot of human pain, suffering, and grief, and wearing masks during flu season would cut down flu transmission a lot. Here’s hoping that our experience with COVID-19 will teach us some useful transmission control skills as a society going forward, just as SARS did for Taiwan in 2003.
We can move due West to my new home state, Texas, to see another meme explaining to us, contrary to what every doctor and epidemiologist has been saying for months, why COVID-19 just isn’t very dangerous compared to the flu. In a perfect world, it would be enough to explain that this is a fake, and move on with our lives. This is not a table published or endorsed by the Texas Department of Health and Human Services. There are a few ways to tell. First, it looks fake.
And second, DSHS said it wasn’t from them.
And really, do we need to say anything else about it? If the meme is a lie in the first place, do we need to spend the energy picking through the data? I will never understand the mentality that says, “sure, it was a lie, but I still think it makes some good points!” When you have discovered that something (or someone) is not a truth telling thing, stop going to it for truth.
Flu Rates, 2017-2018, 2018-2019 We can ignore the negativity and positivity rates, because they really don’t matter for this discussion. The rest of these took me a minute, because I’ve never seen these numbers before, and they didn’t really make sense. You see, the commonly acceptedcase fatality rate of the flu is 0.1%, and I couldn’t figure out either how or why a meme trying to show that the flu was more dangerous than COVID-19 would cut the death rate of flu by more than half. It took a few minutes (honestly, as many times as I’ve seen this dumb trick played since I started this blog, I’m embarrassed it took that long), but then it hit me; they are dividing the numbers from the top the rows by the population of Texas to get the numbers in the bottom 5 rows. It’s the same nonsensical math they did in the first stats meme we look at in this blog post! Look at the “Seasonal 2018”:
They calculate the “infection rate” by dividing the number of positive tests by the population of Texas. 35,339/29,677,668×100=0.11908%. The problem is, that isn’t the number of flu cases, it’s just the number of positive flu tests. I saw scores of flu patients in both of these years, in the state of Texas, but most of them aren’t represented by this data because most didn’t get a flu test. Why? Because it’s primarily a clinical diagnosis and the flu test has a sensitivity of 50-70%. Unless it’s a clinical scenario where having a specific test result is going to change the patient’s treatment, the flu test isn’t useful to me. I often offer it to people who ‘just want to know’, but if they have flu-like symptoms and flu exposure in the middle of flu season, I’ll explain that ‘if this flu test is negative, I’m not going to believe it because you definitely have the flu.’ So that infection rate isan extremely inaccurate, way too low estimate of how many Texas had the flu during the 2017-2018 flu season. Why does that matter? It doesn’t really, for this discussion, except as a hint at the fuzzy math strategy they are going to take with the more vital numbers.
They calculate the “death rate” by diving the number of deaths by the population of Texas. 11,917/29,677,668×100=.04015%. Again, that’s not anything. You could compare the death impact of flu to other diseases by comparing the deaths per 100,000 people, or you could compare the case fatality rate by dividing the deaths by the total number of cases; but just diving the number of deaths by the total population conflates these two important numbers and gives us nothing useful at all. But it gets worse.
They calculate the “recovery rate” by subtracting the number of deaths from the population and then dividing by the population. (29,677,668-11,917)/29,677,668 x100=99.95985%. So by their own math they are saying that 29,665,751 people in Texas recovered from the flu, including 29,642,329 people that never had it.This is by far the strangest use of the word “recovery” I’ve ever heard. Please, tell a friend that you’ve recovered from measles and when they ask, “when did you have measles?” tell them, “I didn’t; that’s why I said I’ve recovered from it. Duh.” See if you don’t get punched.
So what do they do with the COVID-19 data? Well, pretty much all the same nonsense; claim that tens of millions of people have ‘recovered’ from COVID-19 who haven’t even had it yet, divide the deaths by population instead of by confirmed cases to get a “death rate” of 3,112/29,677,668×100=0.01049% instead of 3,112/250,462×100=1.3%, and produce an infection rate that is utterly meaningless. But the two worse misinformation sins are these: first, they have gravely misunderstood the differences in our testing strategies for flu and COVID-19. In flu we test the sickest patients or the patients for whom a certain test results really guides our clinical judgement, which means we test a relative few of our actual flu patients. In COVID-19, we are testing many patients including people we don’t think have the virus because it is important for contact tracing and other epidemiology measures (and of course because we want to implant as many of those microchips as possible). This means that positive tests vs. deaths is not a useful statistic unless you really understand the testing strategy, because the COVID-19 strategy is going to catch a far higher percentage of the mildly symptomatic COVID-19 cases than we ever would for flu. But the point of this meme, I honestly believe, is to draw your eyes to the four cells right here, to try to trick you into thinking that COVID-19 is orders of magnitude less dangerous than the flu, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
But the second misinformation sin is also the most important, practically speaking, and it’s this; that they made this meme in the middle of the pandemic, and COVID-19 is still killing Texans. Since this meme appeared a week ago, we’ve gone from 250k cases to 332k, and from 3,112 deaths to 4,111. 1,000 lives in less than 10 days. The meme calls flu season a whole year (“10/17-10/18”) and tries to stretch the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas to as long as possible to make them seem comparable; “1/20-7/20”. But in January and February we had zero deaths. By the end of March we had 42, and by the end of April, 782. This has been a Summer pandemic for Texas, and the people who will increase that total by next week are fighting for their lives today. In real life, in a hospital; not on a spreadsheet. I don’t know if COVID-19 will cause more than 10,000 deaths in Texas. I hope it won’t, but it probably will; I can’t see a way around it. The people who are sharing this meme have apparently already determined, right now, that those deaths will not impact their beliefs about this pandemic. Those lives won’t count. Whether it’s because they are nameless and faceless to them, or because they were ‘faked’ by the doctors, or because they heard that somebody who was in a car accident ‘got counted as a COVID death’, they’ve decided that no matter how many human lives are lost in our state, country, or world, it can all be waved away as long as you can find some way to arrange the numbers that makes those lives seem insignificant. Until it affects them personally, which is the very thing the rest of us are all working so hard to keep it from doing.
Political Stuff (Boo!)
I don’t know about international politics, and it’s too late to look it up, but I’m assuming this is wrong; surely somebody somewhere is trying to unseat a president this year. So, ha, got you on a technicality. I wrote last week about the idea that COVID-19 was a big conspiracy to somehow hurt the president, and how that depended not only on not having any knowledge about the pandemic, but also on not knowing much about doctors, because of whom I’ve been subjected to more doctor’s lounge Fox News broadcasts in the last decade than I ever wanted to watch in my lifetime. That’s about as political as I get on this blog, except to say this; dispelling this meme, and the beliefs behind it, should not be my job. It’s the job of our national leaders, and especially the presidential administration, to challenge these lies that are so incredibly dangerous to Americans, instead of tacitly endorsing and even actively promoting them. Every time they refuse, people die as the result.
Before I started blogging about medical misinformation, my last blog (which lasted for exactly one post) was called “Mad Virtues.” It was based on this quote from G.K. Chesterton:
“When a religious scheme is shattered it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
While my intention was never to deny the existence either of real nefarious intentions in the world or of original sin, my thesis was that most disagreements, and especially the most deeply felt and violent disagreements, were actually due to a clash of deeply but disproportionately held virtues; virtues that had gone mad, and caused terrible damage, because they had been isolated from the other virtues and truths meant to keep them in check.
In general, I believe this is true today, and I believe it applies to the content of this blog. I think that people like Dr. Richard Bartlett or Dr. Ivette Lozano really believe they are doing the right thing by treating all of their patients with budesonide or hydroxychloroquine, and encouraging people around the country to seek out these unproven therapies for mild COVID-19 cases. I think Dr. Dan Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi really convinced themselves that their erroneous statistics were valid, which allowed them to view the harm that the shutdown was causing to their own business and the economy around them as a greater threat than the virus. I even believe that Dr. Judy Mikovits, with 20 years of fighting the medical field and presumably becoming increasingly entrenched in narratives of far-reaching conspiracies among doctors and scientists, earnestly believes that her Plandemic interview was an opportunity to expose the “truth” about the virus.
In each of my responses to each of these viral misinformation videos, I have tried to assume the best; that the intentions of those making the videos, like those sharing them, were sadly misguided, misinformed, and erroneous, but ultimately sincere. I hope that if I ever fall into unintentional but very public professional error and embarrassment, the same grace would be shown to me. But today I’d like to try something a little different; instead of assuming the best, I’d like to assume the worst; I want to ask what the game plan would be if a doctor were in fact knowingly lying about the virus; what they would stand to gain from such an immoral act.
Are most doctors lying, or just a few?
As soon as we abandon the idea that deeply held differing opinions dramatically shape our perception of events and even our understanding of statistics (in other words, that most of the doctors who are deceiving others are only doing so because they have already deceived themselves first), we are left with only one alternative conclusion; someone is deliberately lying. So who is it? According to a recent tweet that was retweeted by the president, it’s most doctors.
If we follow this theory, we are going to arrive at some uncomfortable but fairly inevitable conclusions. First, it means that I am lying, because on this blog and in my conversations with patients, family, and friends, I’ve consistently been repeating the ‘party line’ that COVID-19 is very dangerous and encouraging people to exercise caution and take it seriously. It means that when I told you in my last blog post that I was worried about a lot of my patients who have pre-existing heart and lung disease, I actually just wrote that because it made me sound like a compassionate doctor. It means when I said at the end of June that I was seeing a steep rise in the number of positive tests at my clinic, I was making that up and just banking on none of the nurses or lab techs I work with reading that and calling me out on it (I don’t have to worry about the other doctors; they are all in on it too). It means that the long nights and early mornings and sacrificed Saturday afternoons it has taken to write this blog on the side of my full-time clinic job has been motivated not by the stated desire to provide clear (if a bit long-winded) refutations and explanations to dangerous medical misinformation, but by a desire to run a convoluted and ineffective interference to people like Love Connection up there tweeting the truth about the virus. And all I can say is, hey, I’m just as shocked as you are. My wife is going to be very upset when she reads Mr. Woolery’s tweet and realizes that the reason I’ve failed to build her that Ana White potting bench for the past month is because I was busy deceiving some very, very small segment of the American public.
It also means my friends from medical school and residency have been lying, not just to the public but also to each other. Since late March I’ve reconnected more frequently and with a wider range of former classmates and co-residents than I have in years as we’ve checked in on one another and provided updates and insights from our own experiences with the virus. I’ve talked with friends working in the ED in New York during their worst weeks of crisis, and with friends working in rural hospitals that have seen hardly any COVID-19 at all. You could fill libraries with the texts, e-mails, and facebook messages that have taken place between doctors in the past 4 months, and not a one of those has been to clarify the latest lies the WHO, CDC, Bill Gates, and Dr. Fauci want us to push this week (not exactly true; that has been said a lot and is actually a pretty tired joke by now. At least, all of my friends are tired of me making it). If those texts and e-mails are ever subpoenaed, the American public is going to learn a lot; but not about any conspiracy.
And by the way, not all of those conversations are private, although more are now because of social distancing. Even though we aren’t sitting at coffee shops having these discussions, many take place on very public Facebook comment threads instead of private messaging, and a pediatrician friend and I have had more than one of our Google Hangout Dungeons & Dragons sessions derailed by comparing notes about the virus while the rest of our party waited patiently for us to get back to the quest at hand. If you believe that most doctors are lying about the virus, you have to believe that these types of conversations are actually planned and carried out to deceive friends and loved ones who are not doctors. There’s a joke about ‘rolling a deception check’ in there somewhere, but I don’t have the emotional energy to think of it. Every time you see two or more doctors talking about the virus, how dangerous it is, or what they’re doing to fight or prevent it, that’s a staged performance for the benefit of the public.
So why all of this lying? We have consistently been given two explanations; because we want to hurt the economy (in order to hurt Donald Trump’s chances of re-election), and because we want to make money. You might notice right away that these two motivations almost but not exactly completely contradict each other. I’m sure it is possible to both want to hurt the economy overall and stand to make money yourself (and here I’ll be called naive by friends who believe that this is essentially the go-to strategy of the ultra rich), but for someone earning a wage like a physician it must be somewhat rare; we would really have to spend some time with a fresh cup of coffee and some excel spreadsheets to make sure that the ‘extra money’ we were making would be enough to offset the hit to our 401k’s and Roth IRA’s, not to mention the doctors who actually own stocks. Honestly, I’m surprised the White Coat Investor hasn’t done an article on “5 financial reasons you should trick people into believing in COVID-19 (and 5 reasons you should blow the whistle on this global conspiracy of doctors and scientists now!).”
If we look at them separately, the first one feels like the type of thing that makes sense only if you forget that you actually know some doctors, and makes even less sense the more doctors you know. For me it’s easy to intuitively disbelieve that doctors as a group are out to get Donald Trump because for the past 13 years I’ve had to endure an almost endless stream of Fox News in every doctor’s lounge I’ve been in from here to Denver. But if you only know one doctor and they happen to vote the same way you do, you might think your doctor is ‘one of the few telling the truth.’ If they do think the virus is a pretty big deal, you might think they have nuanced and complex views on the pandemic, which is probably true, or that they are essentially honest but have been ‘tricked’ by the CDC or other doctors or whomever. But if you knew hundreds of doctors, like I do, you would have to face the reality that while there are many you like and trust and a few you don’t, and while they fall all over the political spectrum, you would be hard pressed to pick even a handful that would be willing to participate in anything like a conspiracy, and that as a group they would be even less likely to be duped by a medical conspiracy if there was one.
Doctors are not a monolith, and we don’t vote as one. In fact, some of the medical specialties that have been most negatively impacted by the pandemic financially, like Surgery and Otolaryngology, and some that have been most intimately involved in COVID-19 treatment, like Pulmonology, Anesthesiology, and Emergency Medicine, are the exact fields that vote Republican at higher than average rates. There’s only so far you can take this information, and it’s probably true that Donald Trump has lost some physicians from his constituency since this data was collected just before the 2016 election; but at the very least it shows that that if COVID-19 were really a conspiracy to hurt the president, there would be thousands of Republican critical care physicians coming forward to reveal this, instead of a handful of urgent care and concierge medicine doctors. I personally know several doctors who are fighting the virus on the frontlines and still plan to vote for Donald Trump in 2020 despite being frustrated with his administration’s response to the pandemic; for them, a virus is not a political issue, even if it is being used as one.
But the second one is actually even more ridiculous. I’ll start with myself again. Of course it doesn’t matter since we’ve already established that I’m lying about everything, but I can tell you that I’ve made exactly zero extra dollars from COVID-19. I am thankful to work in a clinic system where my personal income isn’t determined by the number of patients I see or what type of insurance they have (our work volume is instead driven by the extensive primary care needs of the population we serve), and unless somebody votes to give frontline doctors hazard pay or student loan forgiveness, this pandemic seems extremely unlikely to be some sort of lucrative opportunity for me (I’ve got a pretty good life insurance policy, though, and my med school loans are non-transferrable, so it could end up being fairly profitable for Katie by the end)(grab a screenshot now, because she’s going to make me delete that one as soon as she reads it). I have put in dozens of hours of overtime, mostly back in March and April helping our clinic get ready for whenever the virus finally surged in our area, but this was all gladly done and entirely unpaid, and I certainly wasn’t alone in this. Since then I’ve spent many hours writing this blog, but it would be hard to argue that this is financially motivated either since so far the net earnings of tjwebbmd.com is negative whatever the cost of WordPress Premium is.
But not every doctor has the same type of employment contract that I have, and when we look at other types of business models we discover that my not especially profitable is the very best case scenario for most doctors during COVID-19. Remember that social distancing measures meant thousands of primary clinics cancelled any appointments they felt their patients could safely postpone as soon as COVID-19 cases began to rise in the US; despite the fact that many of them could ill afford to do so. Some of these clinics closed for good, and this unfortunate side effect of the virus, which is going to affect the health of many people for years to come, was actually put forward by COVID-19 conspiracy theorists alongside the idea that most doctors were lying about the pandemic, without any apparent irony. I know doctors that work for larger healthcare systems who were laid-off during the pre-surge months of the pandemic here in central Texas, not to mention surgeons cancelling elective cases and many hospitalists and ER docs working fewer shifts because hospitals volumes were so low (this is outside the scope of the discussion, but we talked about this phenomenon most recently in my response to Dr. Simone Gold and her A Doctor a Day campaign). For most doctors, COVID-19 has been either financially neutral or a financial hardship.
But what about that big $39,000 paycheck hospitals are presumably getting for putting a patient on a ventilator? We’ve dealt with this conspiracy theory before, and you can read all about it on Snopes.com, or you can wait until this weekend when we try to tackle this meme and a whole bunch of others on the blog. But even if you believed this crazy theory that doctors are intubating people who didn’t need it in order to get their hospital a big pay check (instead of, say, actively working to push the limits of non-invasive ventilation for every possible patient, which is what they are actually doing), consider what else you would have to believe to think this somehow explains “most doctors” lying about the virus: 1. The doctors are getting the money instead of the hospital (yeah, right), 2. the other doctors and nurses and healthcare professionals that know the patient’s case are complicit and staying silent in massive numbers, 3. ER docs are admitting patients who don’t need to be in the hospital just so that their critical care counterparts can get put them on ventilators and get those payments (“set ’em up, knock ’em down”), 4. other doctors who are not involved in the hospital care at all and cannot possibly get a cut of that money are lying about the pandemic and letting their practices get closed so that another doctor in town can make money intubating patients unnecessarily, and 5. they aredoing all of this despite their Oaths to do no harm, years of devotion to caring for people, a very real chance of getting caught, and, for about half, the fact that the whole conspiracy is designed to hurt a president they voted for in the first place.
That’s a lot. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but $39,000 seems like a pretty low-ball figure to betray all of the ideals we hold most dear and participate in some grand plot at the expense of the American people. Maybe come back when you can afford to pay us whatever the insurance companies pay their doctors to deny prior-authorizations all day.
You want a cure?
But what if it’s the other doctors who are lying? What if it’s not doctor after doctor I see on Facebook and Twitter saying ‘stay safe, please wear a mask, please do physical and social distancing in order to keep you and your families safe from the virus’ that are trying to deceive you with this advice because it somehow makes them money (Step 3: ???… Step 4: Profit!), but the handful of doctors writing things like this:
The social media post is about 2 weeks old by now, which I realize is ancient in internet misinformation time. One of the struggles of doing this as a hobby on the side of a full-time job. Regular readers will notice I’ve done something unusual for this blog: I’ve omitted the name of the author I am responding to. This is a fellow Texas physician a few hours north of here (whom I’ve never met), and his name isn’t hard to find; I’ve even mentioned him when referencing this post in prior essays and his post has been viral on social media. But I’ve omitted his name here because, unlike in those other essays, I plan to treat this post as cynically as possible. I’d like to work through this post and ask what we can conclude about this doctor’s practice style, COVID-19 testing and treatment policies, and overall goals in writing this post, and while I believe my worst-case-scenario conclusions are a valid interpretation, I sincerely hope that the real, living and breathing, created in the Image of God person who wrote this is better than he will get credit for in those post. He probably is, and so I’ve erased his name from his post and plan instead to treat the author as a fictitious person.
Dr. Lozano is the doctor who spoke about Hydroxychloroquine at the Set Texas Free Rally way back in mid-May. I wrote a response to her speech at the time and tried to address her use of Hydroxychloroquine in the outpatient setting for minimally symptomatic and even asymptomatic patients. Since the doctor in this post is using it much the same way, I won’t spend as much time on this and will to some degree take it as a given that we agree this is an improper use of the medicine, or at least that you have heard my side of the argument already.
I think this is a really fascinating set of claims, for a couple of reasons. First, as I said in the post responding to Dr. Lozano, numbers matter. This doctor claims at the end of June to have been treating people in the ‘outpatient trenches’ for 2 months, but like the rest of Texas, McKinney began to hit a surge in cases just about a week prior to his post; by the time of the post there had been less than 500 in the entire city, and fully half of those were in June; at the end of May the total confirmed cases in McKinney was 251. He goes on to say that he has treated ‘over 50’, (which, since we are being cynical today, means 51 or 52) patients relatively early in their disease course, trying to catch them 3-6 weeks before they would need the hospital; but with so few cases in April and May, how many of those 50 could possibly have made it to his 6 weeks post treatment yet to ensure they were out of the woods? The time course he lays out for concluding his treatment works and the time course he would have had to observe his patients’ response to his treatment just don’t line up.
But the saving grace for this post’s author on that point is that he could still get credit for most of the patients he treated this way up until about mid June, because the time course from first symptom onset to the rapid deterioration from Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome in severe cases of COVID-19 is typically between 8 to 12 days. His time course of “starting treatment 3-6 weeks earlier” doesn’t make any sense, because the incubation period of the virus is 2-14 days and the time from symptom onset to clinical deterioration is typically 8-12 days or less; at the very most, a patient with a severe course of COVID-19 may have about 3.5 weeks from the time of their exposure to the point of requiring hospitalization, and that would be an extremely rare occurrence; most commonly it would be about 10 days to 2 weeks.
His citing a time frame of treating people 3-6 weeks before they would need hospitalization suggests one of two things. First, he could be comparing the start of symptoms to the time of death in patients that spent a number of weeks on the ventilator, claiming that hydroxychloroquine might have saved these individuals if they had been started on it 3-6 weeks sooner because he isn’tactuallyfamiliar with the hospital-based treatment protocols or clinical trials that used hydroxychloroquine, which certainly did not start the medication in the final days prior to the patient’s death, after they had already spent a couple of weeks in the ICU. Or second, he could be building a narrative that says COVID-19 really presents much earlier and can be detected by someone with special expertise or insight into the virus, which he happens to possess. The problem with this later one is that the incubation period means he reaches a firm time cap, the date of first exposure to the virus, long before he gets to his 3-6 weeks early; by claiming he is treating people 3-6 weeks before they would have been sick enough to need the hospital, he is essentially saying that he’s treating some people before they’ve even been exposed to the virus. If you just now thought, “wait, isn’t ‘treating people before they’ve even been exposed’ the same thing as treating people who are healthy and might not ever be exposed?”… Yes, yes it is.
“Fine, he has his time course a bit off; but his overall point is still valid, that maybe the medicine would work if it was started before the patient needed the hospital.” I think this is a common and very understandable stance, and there are so many different ways to approach it it’s hard to know where to start. We could point to the fact that notall hospital patients with COVID-19 who were treated with hydroxychloroquine had the same disease severity when they started the medication; if it were most useful early in the disease course, wouldn’t we have seen the less severe patients and those who were hospitalized earlier in their disease course derive greater benefit from it in all of the studies and the widespread clinical use it had a couple of months ago? Yet no such trends emerged to point us towards even earlier use of the medication. We could point out that it was doctors who started using hydroxychloroquine broadly in thefirst place based on some early anecdotal evidence and only stopped once more and better data was collected which unfortunately showed it wasn’t beneficial, which is exactly how science is supposed to work, and that both the idea of the president coming up with the treatment from his own research and the medical field abandoning it as soon as he endorsed it just to spite him are complete political fabrications. Here’s me and my friends texting again, this time on the same day President Trump mentioned hydroxychloroquine for the very first time.
We could also point to studies that have been done in exactly the clinical scenario in which this doctor is using his treatment plan- self-reported exposure to the virus- using hydroxychloroquine as post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent symptoms, which ultimately showed no benefit: as many patients became symptomatic and were hospitalized in the group taking the medication as in the group taking placebo. But as Dr. Myron S. Cohen, M.D. points out in an editorial about this study, medical research is not entirely free from popular opinion, and there are a great many ongoing trials still being conducted with hydroxychloroquine right now, many of which are focused on treatment very early in the disease course. (Edit: One was published in Annals of Internal Medicine the same day I published this article. It found that “Hydroxychloroquine did not substantially reduce symptom severity in outpatients with early, mild COVID-19“).If there is a use for it against COVID-19 at any point in the course of illness, we will hopefully know about it soon. But the doctor who wrote this post had no reliable data to suggest that his treatment would be effective; after looking at his own numbers, it’s pretty clear we still have no reliable data.
We talked about this last week when another Texas doctor claimed that inhaled Budesonide was a “silver bullet” against COVID-19 based on only a dozen patients. Right now we think the fatality rate of the virus is somewhere between 0.5% and 1.3%; still 5 to 13 times higher than a very deadly virus called Influenza, but not anywhere near the civilization ending numbers we had to work with before more widespread testing was available (I talk about these numbers more in this post). This means that if you took a random sample of 50 patients with confirmed COVID-19 and actually did absolutely nothing for them (which is not the same as offering anticipatory guidance, providing symptomatic support, carefully discussing emergency room precautions and red flag signs and symptoms, and talking through and arranging follow-up care) and 50 of them were alive a few weeks later, you would be thankful but you certainly wouldn’t be shocked. If you had 100 patients with the virus and they all lived and none ended up intubated in the ICU, you might call that God’s grace or good luck (or both, depending on your theological leanings), and you’d probably look at the demographics and risk factors of the patients, but you wouldn’t assume that the doctor had done anything extraordinary. Looking at this doctor’s sample of 50 or so patients, the one thing we can definitively say is that these statistics are not amazing. Any number of doctors around the country treating COVID-19 appropriately without unproven medications dosed with a heavy mix of conspiracy theories could give you a similar case series and claim that their particular brand of talking with patients had a “100% success rate.”
It is a little interesting, though hardly amazing, that none of his patients required hospital level care at all, and is enough to want to know more about his subset of patients. But it is exactly here that this doctor first tips his hand a little bit, by giving the details of just one of his patients. He states that he treated a patient who had been discharged from the hospital after 4 days of treatment but still ‘felt terrible’ (as people tend to do when they are ill, and also when they’ve just spent 4 days in the hospital. Heck, I feel awful after 4 days in the hospital as a doctor, much less as a patient). He treated this patient with his unproven drug regimen as well, and includes them as an example of just how effective it is. But please bear in mind that this patient had not been refused admission or callously sent home to die; they had already been treated in the hospital during the worst period of their illness, and deemed healthy enough to continue to recover at home by their hospital doctors. To include this patient not just in your data set but as an example of how effective your therapy is at preventing the illness from worsening is proof in itself that your understanding of how this virus operates is not based on reality and the experiences and insights of your peers who have more experience with it, but on narratives that you have built for yourself because you happen to find them useful. We already suspected this doctor was treating patients before they were exposed to the virus; now we know he is treating them after they were already far along in their recovery as well.
The doctor doesn’t stop there, but he goes on to give a list of other measures he doesn’t agree with, and we need to spend some time here, because this is where we really come to understand his treatment philosophy.
He states that he doesn’t believe in contact tracing, calling it ‘communism’ and stating that he ‘cannot even get the Public Health Dept. on the phone’. This is a bit like saying ‘you can’t fire me, I quite!’ and then asking about your severance package; if he really believes contact tracing is communism, one would wonder why he was calling the Public Health Dept. about contact tracing in the first place. I also don’t understand how contact tracing could possibly be communism, but clearly this is a secondary issue at best.
He also doesn’t believe in quarantine, which while undoubtedly difficult on a broad-scale (other countries have found ways to help their effected citizens deal with quarantine and isolation with adequate social and emotional support measures) is also common sense epidemiology, and in wearing masks, which have plenty of solid evidence (which has only increased since I wrote that blog post). He doesn’t believe in social distancing (I don’t understand what he’s talking about in the parenthesis, but I think it’s about the economy), and he even says he doesn’t believe in testing, citing an insanely inaccurate false negative rate that is only possible, even for the veryworst tests, once COVID-19 is at 55%-65% prevalence in the population you are testing; a number we have not seen anywhere in the world at any point during this pandemic. For reference, the highest his county has reached at any point has been a test positivity rate of 16.89%, just 2 days ago. This would give the two tests I use a false negative rateof 4% and 1.3% respectively.
This is really a whole separate set of claims. He is claiming that the methods used by every single country that has seen success in protecting their citizens from the virus don’t work, while an unproven and incredibly politicized medication regimen used by him and one other doctor in a nearby city is the miracle cure. One might advise a more humble approach, claiming that while these strategies might work (as the evidence clearly demonstrates they do), they would be rendered unnecessary by his treatment strategy; but he boldly claims both, even to the point of saying that other doctors not using his treatment regimen has lead to 100,000 deaths. If he is wrong about the latter and is widely believed, the virus will spread more quickly; if he is wrong about the former, those who are exposed as a result will be without the miracle cure they were promised.
What if he were lying?
Here’s the cynical part, and the part I find hardest; what if this misinformation, rather than the honest misunderstanding of a doctor with very limited experience with the virus, were a deliberate and calculated deception in order to make money, as so many other doctors have been accused of? Would this, unlike advising social distancing at the expensive of your own clinic’s bottom line or cancelling lucrative elective surgical cases, be an effective financial strategy?
Let’s review. In this post, this doctor:
Advises against wearing masks, social distancing, and quarantine. If he’s lying, this would increase the number of COVID-19 cases during a time of otherwise decreased medical visits, thus creating more sickness and more patient visits in general.
States he doesn’t believe in testing. This eliminates a natural barrier to receiving ‘targeted’ treatment, because it places the diagnostic decision making entirely in the subjective realm, all based on phony statistics about the COVID-19 tests. This means that a number of his patients will receive treatment without even having the virus in the first place, which will inflate his “amazing” treatment statistics. This is great, because he also states that he…
Claims he is treating 3-6 weeks earlier than other doctors. This means he is relying on some unique way of diagnosing the illness that is entirely original to him, that would lead to a diagnosis weeks before a patient would end up in the hospital; in other words, it won’t even matter if you have recognized symptoms of or exposures to COVID-19, he is able to diagnose you well ahead of any normal doctor. Combined with a promise that he won’t rely on test results for the virus, this is tantamount to a promise of specific medications for treatment ahead of time, which is an advertising tactic, not conscientious evidence-based medical practice. It would be like promising antibiotics for your child’s ear infection whether they need it or not, and then claiming that your child would have had an ear infection and that most doctors don’t treat as early as he does because they just don’t know the very early signs, like being fussy, tugging at their ears, and wanting to watch Moana over and over again (hey wait! My toddler does have all of those symptoms!).
Promises “completely safe and incredibly effective” treatment without any credible scientific evidence of its effectiveness. This reinforces his criticism of masks, social distancing, and quarantine for his patients specifically (who wouldn’t need them anyway, since they are now ‘healed’), which increases subsequent cases in their families and friends; the very people his patients are likely to refer to him by word of mouth.
Shares his post on social media. This spreads the word, especially once it goes viral, and not only increases cases as people believe it and use it to justify forgoing mitigation and transmission control measures, but also drives people to his clinic from all over the state and region because he…
Shares his name and says to contact him. Having now promised treatment for a virus that his post is likely to cause more cases of, he now ensures that he will have a higher percentage of the market share of both these new COVID-19 cases and people who don’t have COVID-19 but are seeking pharmaceutical treatment out of fear due to the increasing surge; a surge his post is at the very least contributing to.
In summation, this post is saying don’t do any of the these inconvenient things doctors around the world say will help keep you and your family safe from the virus; just come see me in my clinic and I will diagnose you with COVID-19 whether you have classic symptoms or not, whether you test positive for it or not, and without fail prescribe you these medications that you can’t get from most other doctors.
You don’t need five years of medical school to understand why this should make you cautious.
I have to admit, that felt really dirty. I’ll say it one last time; I actually think this doctor, like so many of those I’ve argued with from a distance on this blog, really believes his post. He has gotten his stats wrong, relied on old and incomplete data on masks, misunderstood what other countries have done to fight the virus, confused contact tracing with communism (ok that one is new), leaned on anecdotal evidence, and I believe in general approached the subject with enough bias and preconceived ideas and little enough actual exposure to the virus that he never had a chance of reaching a different conclusion. In fact, his very limited clinical experiences with ‘treating’ the virus are almost perfectly calculated to provide him the confirmation bias he needs to firmly cement the truth of all of his claims in his mind, and that will only get worse as more patients come to him “early” in their disease course and experience a full recovery, whether they ever had the virus in the first place or not.
I do think this doctor can be wrong, and yes, do damage, without it being nefarious. But it’s clear from social media that there are some people, perhaps many people, who are not comfortable with the majority of physicians drawing one conclusion while a small minority draw the opposite conclusion unless one of those groups is lying. If that’s you, please consider which doctors have the greater financial motivation to build a false narrative- and stand to actually gain from the narrative they are building- and which are willing to tell the truth to keep you safe even if it potentially hurts them financially. That’s already one of the most obvious ethical principals we nevertheless have reinforced for us repeatedly throughout medical school and residency and a decision that a great many of us got used to making years ago anyway, and the idea of a doctor telling his patients “please stay home and stay safe” as he wonders how he’s going to pay the rent on his clinic building is far easier for me to imagine than any of the critical care doctors I’ve met in the last 13 years intubating a patient that they thought didn’t really need to be on a ventilator, much less because it was going to make them some extra money.
Last week I saw about 80 patients who had screened positive for either exposure to COVID-19 or possible respiratory viral symptoms; this week more of my time is devoted to working in outdoor COVID-19 testing clinics, so it will probably be well over 100. Some of those patients had been ‘caught’ by our screening questions but really had no COVID-19 exposure or symptoms; the lady with a chronic cough who was really just coming for her high blood pressure, the gentleman with a fever that was caused by an abscess under his axilla (we call it ‘axilla’ because ‘armpit’ sounds so un-doctory). I treated them too, of course. But for the most part people were seen in our COVID-19 focused clinic specifically for COVID-19 related concerns. I don’t have exact numbers in front of me, but of the 70 or so I tested for the virus, about 20 came back positive (Epidemiology note: this is too small of a sample to calculate anything like a test positivity rate or prevalence from), and there were at least a couple that, due to certain combinations of exposures and symptoms, I’m convinced had the virus despite a negative test (way, way too small of a sample to make any calculations from; please don’t go and quote me as saying that based on my sample of 2 out of 50 negative tests I think there is a false negative rate of 4% or something crazy like that)(although now that I look at prevalence estimates and test sensitivity, 4% is actually about right. Hmm…).
I called each patient who tested positive personally to give them the news and answer their questions. Amid the many questions I was asked (‘Should I go to the hospital’?; not now, but let’s talk again about red flag symptoms and emergency precautions. ‘Should I isolate from my children?’; that’s really complicated, and it depends on the age of your children, your support structure, and their specific developmental, physical, and emotional needs), one question that came up over and over again is one I sincerely wish I had a better answer to; ‘what medicine can I take to make sure this gets better?’
This is a big and important question. Doctors kind of like medicine; kind of a lot. After all, prescribing them is a big part of our job, and even though adding a medication is not always the right answer (more on this later), it is incredibly satisfying to prescribe the right medication or therapy for the right diagnosis and then see your patient get better. It can also be fairly stressful at times, because no medication (except prenatal vitamins) is perfectly safe; giving someone a medicine, especially one that wasn’t actually necessary, and then seeing them suffer because of drug interactions or unexpected side effects is devastating to a physician. We have taken an oath to ‘first do no harm,’ and we take it seriously. This is why I’ll spend 10 minutes carefully explaining to a parent about how viruses and bacteria infect the body differently and how antibiotics work rather than spend 2 minutes prescribing their child an unnecessary antibiotic for a viral illness, which would surely feel more satisfying for both of us. It is also why, as certain as I am that some of the patients I have shared the news of a positive COVID-19 test result with will end up getting sicker, and as nervous as that makes me on their behalf, I have not been prescribing unproven, untested medications out of desperation, but have instead focused on teaching those patients how to keep themselves and others safe and how to recognize the early signs of a severe infection.
It’s also why I check for new or updated studies or professional recommendations, and review information being shared between doctors and other clinicians on COVID-19 social media groups every every single. The moment that there is a proven, safe early therapy to prevent COVID-19 infections from becoming severe, I will be the first to start using it.
Dr. Richard Bartlett discovers silver bullet for COVID-19.
Last night I came across a viral video, which has since been sent to me multiple times, which seemed to promise exactly this. A doctor here in Texas went on a morning news show to discuss the 100% effective, perfectly safe COVID-19 treatment he is using to prevent severe illness in his patients. If you have any degree of medical training or even personal experience with medical issues, you are probably just as skeptical as I am about both the ‘perfectly safe’ and the ‘100% effective’ claims; few medicines are ever either. We will go through Dr. Bartlett’s interview in detail below and try to evaluate the quality of data he is relying to make these claims, and answer two questions; should you call and ask your doctor for this ‘new’ treatment, and should I call back all of my patients and tell them, much to my satisfaction, that we do have a medication I can put them on after all?
One quick note: the video is about 30 minutes long and trails off a lot into conspiracy territory concerning mandating vaccines, instituting lockdowns to destroy the economy in order to hurt President Trump’s reelection chances, and quite a few other areas. We’ve covered a lot of that before, and frankly a lot of it falls outside the realm of medical misinformation. We will try to cover the most important parts of Dr. Bartlett’s interview regarding his new COVID-19 therapy, but I won’t try to write the 10,000 words it would take for a rebuttal to all of these ideas.
Here is the video:
00:16: Midland Texas is located in Midland County, about 6 hours West of Waco (golly, Texas really is huge). With a population of 138,000, it is almost exactly the size of Waco. Just like for us and the rest of Texas, they began to see a significant increase in COVID-19 infections about 3 weeks ago. Before this, they had seen very few cases total, like most pre-surge areas. You can review their data here.
00:33: The article is here; it provides some additional details and we will reference it later.
At 02:04 Dr. Bartlett begins his discussion on COVID-19 treatment in earnest by discussing the context for the pandemic in America, namely a comparison to both nations that have fought the pandemic successfully and those who have struggled more with a higher number of infections and deaths. He begins with Taiwan.
02:07 “In the country of Taiwan there’s over 25 million people, they’re stacked on top of each other, if they did social distancing they’d be out in the ocean floating around.”
He goes on to say that there isn’t enough room to social distance, and yet the country has seen only 7 COVID-19 deaths, “as many people as you could stack in a minivan.”
The problem here, besides Dr. Bartlett’s strange obsession with stacking people, is that Taiwan has done social distancing. Dr. Bartlett goes on in the video to assert that Taiwan has foregone both social distancing measures and widespread face mask use (which he associates with Communist China). Do any reading on Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 and you will find widespread wearing of face masks and aggressive physical/social distancing measures since the earliest days of the pandemic, in addition to other mitigation strategies such as providing social support for quarantined patients to help them maintain a high level of isolation, and using mobile phone technology to perform extremely precise contact tracing. This is all in the context of a strongly collectivist culture willing to engage in such measures for the good of their neighbors regardless of official mandates, with a history of understanding the stakes in such a pandemic because of their experience with SARS in 2003.
So as Dr. Bartlett moves forward talking about Taiwan later in this video, you need to understand that, perhaps entirely unintentionally, almost everything he has said about their success in fighting COVID-19 so far is the opposite of what they have actually done.
02:41 At this point Dr. Bartlett also mentions Iceland, Singapore, and Japan, who all engaged in some combination of extensive masking and social distancing except Iceland, who used aggressive contact tracing and quarantine measures. Dr. Bartlett’s assertion that they have been successful because they have used similar treatment plans to what he uses for his patients seems entirely unfounded.
02:59 “That’s not possible according to what we’re being told in the mainstream media.”
Literally nobody is hiding this data. If you google “Taiwan COVID” you get this:
“You can even look it up in the Johns Hopkins COVID website and you’ll see those numbers. They’re hidden in there, but I’m pointing them out.”
I’m concerned that what Dr. Bartlett is doing here is contributing to a false narrative that the powers that be, especially the CDC, the WHO, and the medical establishment (i.e. he and I), doesn’t want people to have access to good reliable data. Maybe this is where Dr. Bartlett’s search for reliable information to back up his COVID-19 treatment has led him; not trusting the available information because he wasn’t able to find the scientific verification he is sure must be out there for his new therapy. Maybe this is strongly ingrained in his political position (he recently ran for office) and he is interpreting the ready availability of this kind of data through a lens of suspicion, or knows that his audience on this show will affirm the idea that this information is being hidden from them and that it is harmless to reinforce that belief. But I am always a little suspicious of physicians who want to weave these tells of conspiracy theories and hidden truths about the pandemic while promoting their own unverified findings, and part of me wonders if they are certain they will face pushback from their fellow doctors and scientists, and want to head it off at the pass by encouraging the idea that those doctors and scientists don’t want you to know ‘the truth.’ I certainly hope this isn’t the case with Dr. Bartlett, but part of me thinks it must be an easy trap to fall into without realizing it.
It isn’t Hydroxychloroquine
03:32 “(In these other countries) they’re doing what I’m doing, which is not hydroxychloroquine, although that works….
Before he reveals his miracle drug, he gives a brief shout-out to Hydroxychloroquine, stating it does work but not providing further explanation as to how he knows it does or why he doesn’t use it as well. I almost wrote today about a viral post by a doctor in McKinney Texas again promoting outpatient, widespread hydroxychloroquine use in patients regardless of test results and risk factors. We covered this pretty extensively over a month ago following his colleague Dr. Lozano’s speech at the Set Texas Free Rally in Dallas. He also claims that masking, social distancing, and even testing are ineffective. I’ve chosen to write about Dr. Bartlett’s video instead, but in terms of relying on anecdotal evidence and not understanding representative sample sizes, there are a lot of similarities. If things are quiet this week I will try to write about Dr. Procter’s social media post as well and try to tackle hydrochloroquine one last time.
I want to talk hydroxychloroquine. I want to talk about these scripts that you’re writing; Put down the pen, stop prescribing. I want to talk about what I have learned, About the research you have spurned…
The Silver Bullet: Inhaled Budesonide
03:36 “So what they’re doing is an inhaled steroid. So my silver bullet is inhaled budesonide.”
Dr. Bartlett finally reveals his miracle drug, inhaled budesonide; a commonly used inhaled corticosteroid that is commonly used for patients with Asthma or COPD.
This is the first good place to stop and look at this idea in more detail. The first two questions we need to ask when someone proposes a novel use of a medication or therapy are 1. Is there a proposed mechanism by which this would work? 2. Why did nobody else think of this (has this been tried/studied before)?
Dr. Bartlett’s rationale is that since this is an inhaled respiratory anti-inflammatory, it should work for COVID-19 which is a ‘respiratory inflammatory condition.’ Part of the problem here is that this is gross oversimplification of the virus’s pathophysiology, which is still not completely understood (see below). It is supposed to make you go “wow, that’s just common sense! It causes inflammation in the lungs, so an anti-inflammatory breathed into the lungs will cure it!” But if you reflect on whatever extent of experience you have with medicine, you will realize that things are never quite that simple. If you came to me for your severe, debilitating back pain you’ve been struggling with for years and I said, “oh I’ve got it, back pain is caused by inflammation of the muscles and joints, so I’ll give you a medicine to decrease inflammation; here’s some ibuprofen,” you’d probably lose a great deal of respect for me. You’d be right to. NSAID’s (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen) may well be part of your treatment plan, but your back pain is complicated and is going to require more thorough evaluation and treatment. In medicine, you are right to beware of easy answers.
Budesonide is a common medication, as he points out repeatedly beginning in a few minutes, and I think this is actually the strongest argument against his proposed use of it in COVID-19. You read that right; I’ll explain. The usual dosing of budesonide is twice a day as a maintenance medication; by decreasing inflammation and swelling in the airways, it can eventually (it may take weeks to months) lead to less frequent asthma and COPD symptoms like cough and chest tightness, and fewer exacerbations. However, Asthma and COPD patients still have acute exacerbations despite using inhaled corticosteroids. We still see patients on budesonide in the clinic and in the hospital for acute worsening of their symptoms due to respiratory infections. Sometimes these are bacterial infections, but more often they are viral; including coronavirus species. Sometimes these patients go into respiratory distress, and sometimes die, even when the virus they have isn’t nearly as deadly as COVID-19. If budesonide was able to completely prevent viral respiratory illnesses from causing inflammatory respiratory symptoms like cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness, we would never see these patients getting sick from respiratory viruses; but we do, because the medication doesn’t really work that way. If Dr. Bartlett consulted his complex understanding and professional history of treating respiratory infections he would realize that his proposed mechanism really doesn’t make sense, especially as the 100% effective silver bullet he is promoting it to be.
Later in the video (around the 06:36 mark) Dr. Bartlett does talk about the “cytokine storm” in COVID-19 and prevention of the body’s own inflammatory response to the virus. Is it possible that the medication he is using, while not preventing all respiratory viral infections, at least treats this one? Without getting into the weeds too much here (the idea of a cytokine storm being the underlying cause of ARDS in COVID-19 is still controversial), we need to understand that you don’t just have this one thing called ‘your immune system’ causing this process called ‘inflammation’, so that if ‘inflammation’ (or in this case, ‘cytokine storm’) is the problem we can just suppress the immune system and call it a day. The immune system is incredibly complex, and any given immunomodulating medication is going to work on parts of the immune system (and not always in the ways we hope or expect) while not significantly affecting others. As an example, the primary cytokine implicated in the COVID-19 cytokine storm seems to be interleukin 6, a pro-inflammatory cytokine that budesonide, in previous studies unrelated to COVID-19, doesn’t seem to affect appreciably. Studies focused on medications that do appreciably decrease IL-6 activity are currently underway.
The second question, if the mechanism did make perfect sense, would be to ask whether anyone has tried this before. Dr. Bartlett indicates that it has been tried elsewhere; he states that this is what they are doing already in Taiwan and Singapore. I was unable to substantiate this; I cannot find any evidence that these nations have used anything like widespread protocols with inhaled steroids to treat COVID-19 early in the disease course. There are some ongoing trials with use of inhaled corticosteroids (not budesonide, at least that I could find), as Dr. Bartlett mentions, but there is not any data available from them yet; if they prove safe and beneficial for COVID-19 patients, we would start using them in all the clinical contexts where they were shown to be effective.
There are two other data sources we could look at. First, the most successful trial we have right now with use of steroids in COVID-19 is the RECOVERY Trial out of Oxford, which I wrote about recently. In this study patients were put on systemic steroids (dexamethasone) once they were already hospitalized. You might argue that this isn’t what Dr. Bartlett is talking about at all, that he wants to use budesonide before they are sick enough to go to the hospital. I understand that; but the study showed a reduction in mortality in both the groups needing oxygen and those requiring mechanical ventilation, but not in those who didn’t require oxygen. You can only extrapolate so much from this, but if Dr. Bartlett’s theory of the earlier the steroids the better panned out, you would expect the non-oxygen group to see at least as much improvement in outcomes as the patients who were already very, very sick; but that wasn’t the case. We need to remember that even though our first successful randomized drug trial for COVID-19 is indeed a steroid, the role it plays is complex and the benefits limited to certain clinical scenarios; the data still shows that immunocompromised patients, including those on medications that modulate the immune system, are at a higher risk for COVID-19 than those who aren’t.
We can also look at the two closest viruses to COVID-19 that we have experienced, SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012. These are both Coronaviruses that seemed to involve a ‘cytokine storm’ causing acute respiratory distress syndrome. During these outbreaks inhaled corticosteroids were used more widely, but results were mixed; there was no strong evidence of benefit, and some evidence of worsening of the disease, including increased risks of secondary bacterial pneumonia and prolonging the time it took for the body to clear the virus.
Edit: When discussing this issue, a colleague also pointed that this idea of ‘what about decreasing inflammation in the lungs’ is not novel, and studies have tested inhaled corticosteroids on practically every lung infection (infection is a very pro-inflammatory state) over the past 30 years, not just SARS and MERS. Results have been extremely unimpressive, but there has been consistent evidence of increased risk of certain types of lung infections, including tuberculosis, non-tuberculosis mycobacterium infections, and severe drug-resistant bacterial pneumonia.
So I’ll conclude this section where many people with much more expertise in this area than myself have, by saying that the balance of risks and benefits still doesn’t justify use of an inhaled steroid in people without asthma or COPD who are already taking one or would benefit from one anyway. There is no reason to believe that they will appreciably decrease the chances of developing the severe acute respiratory distress syndrome that makes the virus so dangerous for some people, and for the vast majority of people who will do fine with their own innate immune system fighting the virus, steroids would potentially increase both the risk of worsening infection and delayed clearance of the virus, and the risk for associated bacterial infections (in addition to a host of other potential side effects). If we were to begin using this in patients who don’t have COVID-19 as prophylaxis, we could conceivably increase their likelihood of getting the virus. The mechanism of causing these types of harm is at least as strong as the proposed mechanism of preventing worsening of the disease.
03:46 “It’s super cheap, it costs about $200 for the total treatment if you pay cash.”
I understand that he is probably intending this as a comparison to a hospitalization for COVID-19, which is disastrously expensive, as he truly believes the budesonide will prevent hospitalization. Still, all I can say is that Dr. Bartlett and I have different ideas about what constitutes super cheap medication; most of my patients could not afford a $200 medicine.
“But what does all of that matter? He said it is working for his patients.”
There are some more problematic statements in this video, including the idea that our numbers in Texas are only going up because of increased testing (17:05), revisionist statements that totally invert the sequence of events and thus cause and effect of social distancing and masking measures in the most affected countries (21:50), a troubling statement about Japanese people ‘crawling all over each other in Sushi bars’ (22:55), and strangest of all, repeated statements about how waiting to treat someone until they have symptoms is un-American, whereas early treatment is the American way (both preventative and acute care are part of every healthcare system in the world; there is nothing particularly American about throwing medications at people before you know whether or not they need them).
I hope to update this post with some rapid-fire answers to these issues later, but I want to focus here, for now, because I sincerely believe this is the part of Dr. Bartlett’s interview that people find most convincing.
“One hundred percent of my patients are alive. I’ve been treating this since March.”
I’ve written before about the dangers of anecdotal evidence. I think as physicians we are prone to fall into this trap for a couple of reasons. One is because we want so badly to help our patients, and if we hit on a medication that really feels like it is working, it’s hard to let go of that feeling. Another is because we spend so much time thinking about our patients and working for their well-being that their stories loom very large in our minds, and it’s easy for the relative importance, as data, of our personal small numbers of cases to become overinflated. With that in mind, I think it’s worth looking at Dr. Bartlett’s evidence from the outside and asking whether it really has the value he credits to it.
According to the local news article featuring Dr. Bartlett back on May 21st where he first publicly called budesonide his ‘silver bullet’ against COVID-19, at that time he had treated 12 people. Twelve. This is an incredibly small sample size, but we could hardly expect larger; Dr. Bartlett is not the only doctor in Midland, and throughout March, April, and May the entire county only had 1 or 2 new cases of COVID-19 most days; there just weren’t that many COVID-19 patients to go around. Dr. Lozano had previously gotten around this issue by saying that she wasn’t even testing, but was treating empirically based on symptoms or possible exposure, which doesn’t really make sense in a pre-surge area with incredibly low prevalence. Dr. Bartlett has stated that he believes in testing, and although his comments are mixed on whether he is treating only confirmed COVID-19 cases with budesonide, I think we could credit him with such qualms. Twelve cases over 3 months is an extremely small sample size, and it is important that we understand that this is not coming from someone who has been inundated with COVID-19 cases like our peers in New York; at the time that Dr. Bartlett decided that budesonide was a miracle drug he had practically no experience with the virus. It is certain that his numbers have come up by now, with cases rising all across Texas; but with lag time between exposure and the onset of symptoms, and a second lag between the beginning of symptoms and severe respiratory complications, it is not possible to say that all of Dr. Bartlett’s recent COVID-19 patients are out of the woods yet.
So Dr. Bartlett’s first error is over valuing the data from his sample size, but his second error is in thinking this disease is more dangerous than it actually is. I know that seems like a strange thing to type; the disease is plenty dangerous, and I have encouraged the utmost caution on this blog more times than I can count. We have looked over and over at the hundreds of thousands to millions of lives that might be lost if we do not discover effective drug therapies and if the virus continues to spread unabated because of poor adherence to mitigation strategies like face masks and physical distancing. But the virus has never been estimated as having a 20% fatality rate as Dr. Bartlett says in the video. Dr. Bartlett has no doubt been worried about COVID-19 since March, just like me. Just like me, he probably has friends and classmates working in ER’s and hospitals in New York and New Orleans and other areas that have already been hit hard, and has heard the horror stories about what this can do to both individual patients and entire healthcare systems. Like me, as soon as he started thinking about this respiratory virus he probably immediately thought of the names and faces of two dozen patients that he was particularly worried about. Due to this anxiety, surviving the virus has become, in his mind, the exception rather than the rule. We see this in his account of the woman battling cancer; he says “she should die according to what you hear from the CDC and the WHO,” even though we know that COVID-19 is not universally fatal for any group. By increasing the danger of the virus in his mind, or at least increasing the probability that any given patient will go to the hospital or die, it makes it seemingly unlikely for people to get better without some specific intervention, even though we know that is what happens most of the time; thus the interventions he has chosen (budesonide, zinc, antibiotics) receive the credit for his patients’ recovery.
Put these two biases or statistical errors together and it may be easy for a physician to believe, based on the slightest of clinical experience with this virus, that he has discovered a cure. Each patient you treat this way will confirm it for you, as long as they get better, even if they would have gotten better anyway, and particularly if they tell you they feel better right away, which is such a wonderful feeling even if it doesn’t always correlate to their eventual outcome. If you are willing to loosen your treatment criteria to include people who have had no test or negative tests, or who are fully asymptomatic as Dr. Lozano seems to have done with hydroxychloroquine, you can inflate your treatment numbers even higher. And if you top-out at something manageable for a small-town physician, say in the low 100’s, you might never see a fatality from COVID-19. Imagine that we were back in May when Dr. Bartlett had only treated 12 COVID-19 patients. He states boldly that 100% of his patients were alive, yet we think the death rate is around 1.3%. If just one of his 12 patients had died we might still find this convincing because we are so easily swayed by anecdotal evidence, but that would have been a fatality rate of 8.3% in his budesonide patients. We would have fallen into the same trap as Dr. Bartlett, of picturing those 12 patients heading toward certain demise and all but one rescued by his treatment plan, without which they would have died, when in reality there is no evidence to suggest that they would have been any worse off without the treatment. Dr. Bartlett’s experiences with the virus so far are exactly what we would expect without budesonide and antibiotics.
“Look, he says it is helping his patients and you don’t have to use it for yours, so why does it matter to you?”
Great question, hypothetical person who keeps arguing with me on the internet. Any time we begin talking about someone’s personal experiences, the temptation is to treat their narrative as incontestable; I wasn’t there, I didn’t see his patients, so I don’t have the ability to second-guess his clinical judgement. In a way this is actually sort of fair; Dr. Bartlett had just as many years of medical school and residency as I did, and has many years more clinical experience, and to some degree each physician has earned a degree of professional trust to practice in a way we see fit with accountability only to ourselves and our patients, at least in many circumstances. But we know that this professional leeway has been abused in the past, and even in the absence of abuse of that privilege, lone-wolf medicine is a real problem because by it’s very nature it is disconnected from one of the best tools we have to improve our clinical abilities and correct our errors; the honest feedback and accountability of our fellow doctors. If a physician feels that a patient’s clinical situation calls for a unique approach that is not supported by evidence, this can often still be tried as long it is accompanied by an honest and careful explanation to the patient of the reasoning behind this approach, the unproven nature of the treatment, and the risks involved. If we begin to make a habit of such practices, and particularly if we do so ignoring the voices of our peers around the world saying we’ve tried this before and it didn’t show reliable results on a larger scale, or the voice of researchers and scientists saying that doesn’t actually work the way you think it does, then we are doing so at our own, and more importantly at our patients’, peril.
In many ways I think Dr. Bartlett is actually going about this fairly well. He seems to imply that he is using the medication, which does have a theoretical mechanism of action after all, only on those who really do have COVID-19. He does not seem to be doing television interviews or talking with newspapers in order to make a name for himself and attract clientele from all over the state to help his business, as seems to be the case with some other doctors prescribing unproven treatments, but in order to ‘get the word out there’ to other doctors (as one of those other doctors, I deeply appreciate this impulse), although I am not sure why he has not utilized any of the many avenues on social media that many of use are using to get physician specific feedback and share ideas; maybe he is and we just aren’t part of the same COVID-19 doctor groups. Most importantly, he states that he has written and is submitting a paper for publication, which will provide both more details about his patients, their demographics, commodities, and clinical presentations, and allow for peer review and a higher degree of detail and scrutiny than we could possibly get through a TV interview.
But there are at least three ways (besides the tacit endorsement of several conspiracy theories) that I find Dr. Bartlett’s approach truly troubling. First, he is not presenting his treatment plan as an entirely unsubstantiated experimental approach driven by hope and a hunch, which is what it absolutely is, but as a “Silver Bullet” that is perfectly safe and cannot fail, which is certainly is not. One would hope that this is bravado or enthusiasm for the TV audience and not hubris; in other words, we have to hope that whatever confidence in his treatment regimen he shows in this interview, he is still very carefully explaining to his patients the limitations of his evidence and the potential risks they are taking on if they use it, and the red flags to look for in case it doesn’t work.
Second, he is not just promoting his unproven treatment but also discouraging mitigation measures, such as physical (social) distancing and wearing masks, that actually have been proven to save lives. It is unclear whether he believes the misinformation around these strategies not working or is just so confident in his treatment approach that he no longer thinks they are necessary, but the effect will be the same; as Dr. Bartlett’s video goes viral there will be increased pushback against wearing masks and observing distancing measures by those who find him convincing, which will ultimately lead to more cases, more hospitalizations, and more deaths. His evidence is too weak and his scientific rationale too shaky to convince a conscientious doctor to start using his treatment approach; but he speaks with enough confidence and sincerity to convince some people on the fence not to wear masks. The net effect of his interview, like any viral misinformation, is to make the pandemic more dangerous for everyone.
And third, by presenting his treatment plan as something that it isn’t and ascribing to it all of the confidence and reliability of a truly proven treatment, he is spreading misinformation that blocks out the transmission of reliable information for the public and pollutes the relationship between his listeners and their own doctors and healthcare systems. When I explain to patients that I do not have a proven medication I can in good conscience prescribe them to prevent their COVID-19 from progressing, their exposure to voices like Dr. Bartlett’s, Dr. Lozano’s, and Dr. Procter’s have already sewn the seeds of mistrust in the information I am providing, and they are less likely to believe the other recommendations I am carefully trying to give, such as isolating within their home and monitoring for red flag symptoms, and the reassurance I am trying to provide to alleviate their fear and anxiety as we discuss their individual chances of having a severe course of the virus. It may lead anxious patients to seek additional visits elsewhere and shop for a doctor that will prescribe them what Dr. Bartlett says they need, further increasing their chances of exposing others and potentially increasing the costs associated with their medical care, both to them personally and to an already strained system. It may even lead some patients, convinced by these doctors and desperate for medicines they now believe are their only hope of beating the virus, to misrepresent their symptoms in ways they think might push their doctor into prescribing them.
When lone wolf doctors promote unproven therapies and set themselves up as experts with miracle cures, without having actually done the clinical research to validate their claims, it erodes the fragile trust that we work so hard to build with our patients when we are unwilling to engage in that same type of speculative treatment. This unearned mistrust has the potential to breakdown the patient-physician relationship and affect our patients’ health for years to come. Millions of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals around the world are working as hard as we can to both care for our patients in the midst of this pandemic and stay up to date with the latest diagnostic and treatment options. Viral voices drowning out the excellent work that is being done researching potential treatments, and calling out any doctor not willing to follow their lead, should humbly re-evaluate their limited clinical experiences in the face of this global pandemic and bring forward their innovations, not with less hope or enthusiasm, but with much more care and a realistic appraisal of the strength, or lack thereof, of their evidence.
I had intended to write this weekend on a variety of topics, including herd immunity, the recent RECOVERY trial using low-dose dexamethasone in critically ill COVID-19 patients, antibody testing, and the question of whether the increase in cases is really just due to increased testing (answer: unfortunately, no). But when I woke up this morning the world seemed suddenly, vehemently, and inexplicably divided on just one subject: wearing masks.
Part of this can be accounted for, at least locally; yesterday the City of Waco issued an order requiring businesses to create and post mask policies for employees and customers. As with anything that has been unnecessarily politicized and sensationalized, I recommend you read for yourself what the order actually does and does not require. This morning I had half a dozen messages asking for my thoughts on whether or not masks are an effective strategy, and several people shared pieces of misinformation they wanted to bring to my attention.
So while I would still like to write about all of the above issues, I think this one will have to take priority today.
Are masks safe and effective?
G.K. Chesterton said that he was most convinced by evidence that is ‘miscellaneous and even scrappy.’
“A man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
So while we will look at scientific studies, journal articles, and other medical evidence, I want to include data from various kinds of research, including both laboratory conditions and real-world epidemiology, and from both prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. I also want us to apply some common sense and a good bit of our own past experiences. This can be dangerous in a field like medicine, where realities are often counter-intuitive, but if undertaken cautiously this common sense approach can serve as an anchor for the more academic information.
With that in mind, I think we can start by thinking about the advice we give to children when they are sick or have seasonal allergies (if your children are like mine, these efforts are ultimately futile, but struggling against that futility is a time honored parenting tradition). We tell children to place their hands over their mouths when they sneeze or cough. If we are particularly savvy (and can get past the occult theme; looking at you anti-Harry Potter friends), we teach them the Vampire Sneeze/Cough, where we cough into the antecubital fossa (the bend of the elbow) instead of our hands.
Why? Because respiratory viruses are spread through respiratory droplets; mucous and saliva from the respiratory track that contains the virus. In this article we will look at the filtering ability of various types of masks and whether they are actually able to catch the microscopic particles that cause illness, but you don’t need a microscope to measure the number of microns between a toddler’s fingers when she almost but not quite entirely fails to cover her mouth for a cough; it’s a lot.
Now it’s true that these etiquette maneuvers do not actually stop or absorb all of the particles; they catch some and merely redirect others into the surrounding environment. But you knew that. If you live with a sick child, the odds of yourself or another family member getting sick is high regardless of how good they are at vampire coughing. The goal isn’t to stop 100% of the droplets, but to modify the spatial distribution; to make it less likely that you will get sick from someone coughing or sneezing a few feet away or across the room. Even in science some things are intuitive; if you can feel the spray of respiratory droplets on your face when someone coughs near you, you know your chances of getting sick are higher.
This is the same principal we are talking about when it comes to masks. Nobody is saying that if someone has COVID-19 they can just wear a mask, N95 or otherwise, and cough and sneeze without getting anyone sick; studies have show that the particles still escape. But if someone coughs across the room from you, their mask or their elbow, or even better both, interrupts the momentum of the droplets (50 mph for a cough, 100 for a sneeze according to a study in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics) and decreases the chances of the droplets reaching you, giving you time to move away or at least cover your own face, blocking a few more particles. These are components of an overall risk mitigation strategy that involves things like social and physical distancing, frequent hand washing, sitting outside instead of inside, contact tracing of COVID-19 patients, and staying home if you are sick.
It’s also important to note that the studies that have shown only very modest benefits of masks, such as the study that produced the graph above, have focused on the spread of droplets through coughing and sneezing; high pressure, high velocity events that force droplets through and around barriers such as masks and sleeves. However, the City of Waco is not asking 100,000 people to wear a mask in case one of those people happens to cough in HEB. We now know that both asymptomatic and presymptomatic COVID-19 transmission do indeed occur, and the mechanism of transmission still seems to be from saliva and respiratory mucous, including respiratory droplets and aerosols, even in the absence of coughing and sneezing. Talking, forcefully exhaling, singing, yawning, spit talking; all of these are lower pressure events where a mask may actually block, rather than redirect, a higher percentage of these small, lower velocity particles. Again, you already believe this intuitively, because you cover your mouth when your breath stinks.
I also think that revisiting our actual real life experience and common sense is particularly important when dealing with medical misinformation, which is often found to be self-contradictory and manifestly illogical within only a few moments consideration and comparison to facts we already know. It rarely takes being a physician or another scientist to figure out that these wild claims on social media aren’t accurate, though I’m sure it helps.
Unmasking Mask Misinformation (sorry)
A friend sent this to me this morning; it was posted on a public forum (“public forum” sounds so much more legitimate than “Facebook comments”) as a response to our city’s new masking policy. I’ve also been sent a longer paragraph format piece that starts “I am OSHA 10&30 certified.” Since they overlap quite a bit, I won’t re-post that one in its entirety, but it’s just full of contradictions (‘surgical masks only filter on the exhale’ yet ‘become useless’ for protecting you if your breath clogs them), false claims (‘N95 masks can’t filter COVID-19’, ‘asymptomatic spread doesn’t occur’), and nonsensical statements (if you wear a mask and get exposed to COVID-19 you become a walking virus dispenser, cloth masks are worse than no barrier at all). It does make one really excellent point though; if you are relying on wearing a mask to fully protect you from getting or spreading COVID-19, that is indeed a false sense of security. We can’t say that often enough; but it just doesn’t follow that masks are worthless or make the problem worse, which is what they repeatedly claim. I’d like to go through the claims above in order, before concluding with some final arguments for masking.
Claims #1 and #2: Masks decrease oxygen intake and increase carbon dioxide retention.
This is something that has been studied extensively, and there is no evidence that simple surgical or cloth face masks will cause hypoxia or any significant decline in oxygen levels. Oxygen molecules are very small and diffuse easily both around and through these types of masks; they are nowhere near the size of viruses, or the much larger respiratory droplets that carry most of the virus that is exhaled. The same is true about Carbon Dioxide, which is only slightly larger.
But you can also consult your own experience here. Many types of people already wear masks for many hours of the day, from surgeons to certain industrial workers, and women in many cultures wear face coverings as a part of their public clothing. Yet we do not consider these persons to be at high risk for either hypoxic (low oxygen) or hypercapnic (high CO2) injury. A big part of the problem is that we have sensationalized the wearing of masks during COVID-19 and have started to treat it like it isn’t a normal part of our experience already, which it absolutely is. Whether it is the above examples, or Halloween or Comic-Con, or my 5 year old spending three weeks straight in his Spider-Man costume and refusing to wear anything else, the wearing of masks is something we all have some degree of experience with and have never really been concerned about until now, when we are suddenly being told they are extremely dangerous, generally by the same people who have been spreading various types of COVID-19 misinformation since mid-March.
But more to the point, you can study this on your own. A battery powered pulse oximeter is very accurate and costs about $12, and you can use one to do a simple experiment that will reassure you, at the very least, that your face mask is not causing your oxygen levels to drop. Check your oxygen level with your mask off, and then wear it for however long you expect to need it when you are out running errands or whatever scenario you are worried about. Then check it again. In general in a healthy adult, readings above 95% are normal and below 90% are concerning. As an example, I’ve been wearing my properly fitting N95 for the last half-hour and my O2 saturation has fallen exactly one percentage point.
There is one group of people we should mention here, and that’s people with chronic lung disease such as COPD or Asthma. For people with these conditions, the increased heat and moisture of the air within the mask, and the decreased air flow directly to the nose and mouth, really can create both real and perceived difficulty breathing (and in these conditions, these trigger each other so easily that drawing a distinction between the physiologic respiratory distress and the anxiety-provoked sensation of respiratory distress is almost a false dichotomy; not being able to breath is scary). These are also conditions that predict a higher likelihood of severe illness in COVID-19, which complicates matters. For these individuals who should already be taking every precaution possible for their own safety in the midst of this pandemic, the decision of whether and what kind of mask they should wear when they do have to go out should be a discussion between them and their doctor. For the rest of us, especially those of us who personally care about someone with Asthma or COPD, it’s important that we take every precaution we can; it should go without saying that our “what about someone with a chronic respiratory illness” should only ever be a legitimate question on their behalf, not a rhetorical ‘gotcha’ to turn off our intellectual honesty on this issue and dismiss the benefits of everyone else wearing a mask.
Claims #3 and #4: Masks shut down the immune system and reactive your own viruses.
The third claim, that masks shut down your immune system, is just a reiteration of the above two, and there is absolutely no evidence for it. As we’ve already said, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, and especially those involved in surgery, wear masks all the time without any fear of their immune systems being shut down or weakened. And while these types of people are often fearless when confronting deadly situations or illnesses in order to care for their patients, as we have seen throughout this pandemic, they tend to otherwise be fairly health conscious. I still remember being shocked during a group discussion in medical school when we were asked what it was we valued most highly. I was trying to honestly wrestle with whether I valued my faith, my wife, or my daughter most, and how it was even possible to separate those things from one another, when my friend answered “my health,” and several others nodded in agreement. I have no judgement for that person, but the whole idea was very alien to me (and maybe that shows something of my privilege in having lived overall a very healthy life, often despite my personal choices). Maybe this friend would risk the thing he valued highest on behalf of a patient (in fact I think he would); but if there was any evidence that his health was imperiled by wearing a mask, he would be leading the charge against masking (just checked facebook; he isn’t), and probably would have been doing so since medical school.
The fourth claim is one that I first came across in the Plandemic “documentary” last month, and based on the wording it seems to be taken directly from there (or they are both taken from a 3rd, unknown source, which I’ll call “Q”)(I’m now being told that “Q” is already taken). The actual claim is that wearing a mask will activate dormant retroviruses that live in your body. Retroviruses are a family of viruses that replicate by inserting viral DNA into host cells and hijacking cellular machinery, and only a few known species causes disease in humans, including HIV and Human T-Lymphotropic Virus, which can cause certain cancers. This claim is very specific and very conspiracy-theory oriented, but I suspect that this distinction between retroviruses and common viral illnesses like cold and flu is not being made by the people spreading this meme.
The long and short of it is that this just isn’t the way the immune system works. You don’t have a host of dormant viruses sitting in your lungs that, if breathed into a cloth or small space and then breathed in again, will suddenly become active and cause an infection. Do you get sick when you sit in a car? What about when you hold your breath? What if you sleep with your face too close to a pillow? Is there evidence that we see more respiratory infections in people that wear masks regularly? Of course not. In someone who has a functioning immune system, once your immune system has seen and defeated a virus, you cannot give that virus to you; you already have an effective immune response to it. There are a small number of exceptions, like getting shingles through varicella zoster reactivation, but coronaviruses aren’t one of them and there is no evidence that wearing a mask or breathing out and then breathing in the ‘same air’ has anything to do with viral reactivation; there isn’t even a physiologic mechanism that would make this possible.
Claim #5: The virus is too small to be trapped by the masks!
This is where both the misinformation and the answer get a bit more technical, and if you want all of the scientific details, the blog First10em has an amazing article on masking, viral transmission, the 6 feet apart rule (which they call the “2 meter” rule, whatever that means), and the transmission patterns and particle sizes of both droplets and aerosols. The question of whether various types of face masks besides N95’s actually do filter the COVID-19 virus itself is still an unanswered question, but the answer seems to be, to some degree, yes. Studies have shown different types of masks to have varying filtering efficacy even down to to very, very small particles in the range of 300 nanometers or less, in fact right in the range of the virus itself (the SARS-CoV-2 virus is roughly 120 nanometers; an earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the size of the measured particles in this study as 40 times smaller than the virus, which was just due to me getting my conversions wrong. Sorry; pay attention in 8th grade algebra, kids), but other studies have shown that the virus is still able to transmit through (or around) masks, at least to a few inches away and if propelled by a cough. Taken together these studies seem to reiterate what we have been saying all along; masks aren’t perfect, but they do decrease the risk, especially in short-term contact with non-cough, non-sneeze related transmissions like we would see in asymptomatic and presymptomatic cases. Indeed, this is confirmed by a Hong Kong study in 2011 that found that the protection offered against respiratory pathogens by all types of face masks decreased with higher velocities and prolonged exposure.
Regarding this piece of misinformation though, we can summarize the two main errors pretty succinctly; the virus isn’t floating through the air by itself, it’s suspended in respiratory droplets and aerosols; and the masks aren’t supposed to block 100% of the particles on the microscopic level (though that would great), just trap most of them and slow the others down. The mosquito through a chain link fence analogy is silly because mosquitos can fly around barriers volitionally, and because it uses the size of the virus instead of the size of the respiratory particles, which are much larger (1-100 microns, mostly, instead of 0.12 microns). But if you want to use the analogy, it’s more like hitting golf balls through a chain link fence; yes, the gaps are bigger than the golfballs, and some will go through if they are hit really hard; but many will be blocked outright and many others will be slowed down and redirected.
Claim #6: There is no evidence to support masks.
We have already looked at some of the various types of evidence that I believe we all find somewhat convincing. We believe as a culture that masks are least helpful in preventing infections in some situations, such as surgery, and believe they are safe when we wear them for cultural or religious reasons, as part of our jobs, or as part of costumes. We engage in barrier maneuvers (some better than others) to block large respiratory droplets when we cough and sneeze. We know the masks redirect and lessen such droplets even in these high-velocity conditions, and we’ve seen the evidence from physics and fluid dynamics studies that they can filter the smaller aerosols under low-velocity conditions. For me, the last remaining piece of the puzzle is, “does it actually work, really?”
I want to look at two more types of evidence; epidemiology evidence from before the COVID-19 pandemic, and emerging epidemiological data from right now. An Australian study in 2009, well before the COVID-19 Pandemic (but you knew that), found that the wearing of face masks did diminish the transmission of upper respiratory illnesses even among household contacts, but that there were fairly low rates of compliance with masking. If masks were worn more, they could help significantly.
“Adherence to mask use was associated with a significantly reduced risk of ILI-associated (Influenza Like Illness) infection. We concluded that household use of masks is associated with low adherence and is ineffective in controlling seasonal ILI. If adherence were greater, mask use might reduce transmission during a severe influenza pandemic.”
This study and others like it, 10 years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, should at least put to rest any ideas that wearing masks is a novel recommendation or a government ploy to control yet another aspect of our lives. Masks have been recommended, and shown to work, for preventing respiratory virus transmission for decades; any suspicion of them now likely comes more from the current hyper-politicized, conspiracy saturated climate than from anything else. But the COVID-19 virus is new and acts very differently from other respiratory viruses in so many ways, so what’s to say that masks will be effective for COVID-19?
It is too early in this pandemic to have robust and definite conclusions about which measures helped most and which showed modest or negligible benefits. We know that social distancing helps from evidence in places like Sweden and Norway, and we now seem to be living the results of relaxing our own social distancing measures without other robust mitigation strategies in place. When it comes to masks, we could compare the United States, which is (apparently) very resistant to masks becoming a social norm to places like South Korea where wearing a mask has been the norm since early in the pandemic; but this comparison is complicated by vastly different healthcare systems and populations and by a strong difference in adherence to other mitigation efforts as well, which we Americans have also been consistently defiant of.
I do agree in principal with the approach by one writer to the CDC’s journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, in comparing Taiwan to Singapore; but again this is not a perfect comparison by any means.
Update: It has been pointed out to me that there are now several recently published studies, conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic itself, that have looked at the issue of mask wearing to determine if the benefit is significant. You can find two of them here and here (with thanks to Baylor Epidemiologist Dr. Emily Smith, PhD, who has written an excellent summary of the current evidence for masks). I’m sure many more studies are ongoing. Of course none of these are going to be able to perfectly measure the effectiveness of masking under real life pandemic conditions; if you can imagine a scientific experiment that could, it would probably be unethical and immoral (and logistically impossible), such as taking members of a population and randomizing them to wearing or not wearing masks and then measuring how many become sick from each group. Those types of study designs are entirely off the table, so we analyze epidemiological data; looking at what happened in countries, regions, and cities where masks were adopted early, and what happened in other places after they were adopted later on. It isn’t possible to know how well the mask policies were followed from such data, or to perfectly tease out confounding factors like social distancing measures, the success of contact tracing, and the robustness of testing programs; it wouldn’t be possible to say masks are the most important thing if they are always or nearly always used in conjunction with other mitigation strategies, which is exactly how they should be used. But these studies do conclude that implementing mask policies (and following them!) makes a significant difference in the trajectory of this pandemic, and taken as just one important kind of the multiple kinds of evidence we have looked at, I do think they contribute to a convincing case for wearing masks.
Ultimately, once this turns the corner, we will never be able to say with certainty what the real answer was; whether it was wearing masks that helped the most or the heightened caution in other areas when cases began to climb, whether reopening resulted in a surge here in Texas or if it was our bucking of social distancing all along, whether each of our mitigation measures individually made a difference or not. What we can say for certain is that the American method so far has not been working. By denying the disease’s existence and danger, producing conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, claiming we beat it prematurely, and fighting tooth and nail against every reasonable recommendation and rule meant to protect ourselves and our neighbors, we have taken a global pandemic and made it largely into an American pandemic, with the highest number of cases and deaths in the world.
There is plenty of evidence that masks are safe, and that they stand a fair chance of helping, especially against asymptomatic and presymptomatic spread. If you are sick, get tested, stay home, and isolate; make sure you get the medical care you need. If you are well and can physically distance yourself from others, then distance yourself from others while finding ways to still care for your community and your own mental and physical health. If you cannot distance because of strong religious or moral convictions or the realities of your job, or due to strong personal preferences, then please wear a mask and wash your hands frequently.
This is just one of the ways we can do better during the rest of this pandemic; myself included.
A friend sent this video my way along with some questions from a family member. The questions were of a specific and limited scope, which I deeply appreciate, and I hope I will have answered them satisfactorily within this post. The video is of Dr. Ivette Lozano, MD, who is general surgery trained and now runs a solo general medicine practice in Dallas, an hour and a half North of where I work; I am not sure whether she also works in surgical and/or hospital settings, as this information is not available from her website and does not come up in the video. She was speaking at the Set Texas Free Rally in Dallas on May 9th. Dr. Lozano has done numerous interviews and television appearances during the COVID-19 crisis and has these collected on her practice website; though I will keep commentary focused mainly on the video that was sent to me, watching her other interviews has been helpful in understanding her experiences and position more clearly, and I will refer to those at certain points as well. I do not feel that it would be appropriate for me to link to her practice website directly from a blog post that seeks to discredit and contradict so many of her claims, but if you wish to see her other interviews they seem to be available on YouTube.
I’d like to point out two things about this video right from the start. First, unlike the personal youtube videos we have looked at so far and and the extensively produced PlanDemic documentary, Dr. Lozano is speaking in a live, outdoor forum without the option of editing or multiple takes. She speaks for 13 minutes and seems to consult her notes very infrequently, if at all. That in itself is an impressive feat. I’ve spoken at this type of gathering a few times as a professional, sometimes on very little notice, and I honestly can’t remember half the stuff I said afterwards; it’s just not the most conducive to an academic discussion. With that in mind, if Dr. Lozano does ere in some finer details or specifics, I think a measure of grace is called for; in such a setting, it would be at least as likely that such an error were due to the challenges of that context and not to design.
The second is that Dr. Lozano states multiple times (and we will examine these instances more closely as we come to them) that she is speaking from her own personal experiences. In common experience this tends to serve as a rebuff to any attempts at correction or argument. I do not mean that this is Dr. Lozano’s intent; I only mean that we need to point this out now to preempt any blanket objection to a thorough evaluation of her claims with such phrases as, “well she is sharing her own experiences, so you can’t argue against that with statistics or outside information. She is just telling her story.” In scientific pursuits, and in her role as a physician, her statement that she is relying only on her own experiences should properly be understood as her ceding that her evidence, while compelling to her personally, is in fact anecdotal; that is, based on a small sample size that has not been studied rigorously and is not likely to represent an entire population. Dr. Lozano, as a clinician and scientist, would no doubt understand this.
Anecdotal evidence is important in medicine. It serves as a jumping off point for examining trends and leading to more rigorous research, and as an anchor for contextualizing results and treatment guidelines. In absence of anything better, we rely on our own limited experiences in treating patients; but the principles of evidence based medicine also dictate that, as scientists, we rely on stronger forms of evidence when they are available. If that evidence seems to contradict what we ourselves have experienced, that is reason to both examine the evidence more carefully, and to reflect on our own clinical experiences with a greater degree of scrutiny and honesty. Most often there are factors at play that our limited experiences and volume of data simply cannot reveal, and once we account for these our own experiences really do harmonize with the evidence after all. In fact, it’s fair to say that, to a large degree, what we call high quality evidence is really just the experiences of many, many physicians and patients aggregated and then evaluated rigorously; we ignore the experiences of many in favor of our own individual narratives only at great peril to ourselves and our patients.
So, as we look at these claims, please do not fall into the trap of thinking that as personal experience her claims are exempt from contestation. That is a legitimate and important way to interact with individuals in a great many contexts, and listening to people’s stories without judgement is a vital part of what I do every day as a physician; but it is not the way either Dr. Lozano or myself have been trained to think of medical data.
00:18 “I am currently treating COVID patients in my office.”
I am, too. It is important when we talk about our own anecdotal experiences that we at least give some idea of volume. I have interacted with only a few COVID-19 + patients; our county and city has had a blissfully small burden of disease from this virus and has not yet hit anything like a surge. Dallas, a much larger metropolitan area, has been hit harder, and I would readily believe that Dr. Lozano has seen more COVID-19 patients than I have personally; though she does not here give an indication of the number of cases she has personally treated. Yet, Texas also has had relatively few cases, and so both of our experiences would pale in comparison to those of clinicians in New York, Wuhan China, Italy, Spain, etc. We need to have the humility, as doctors, to recognize that our own small samples cannot lead to definitive clinical data on their own.
00:25 – 1:23 “Let’s start with some simple numbers.”
330 million in the US
29 million in the State of Texas
2 million people in Dallas
Dr. Lozano: “When you see those numbers it kind of shocks you, that we could stop society for one hundred and eleven deaths.”
So here is my first objection. The Number of deaths in Dallas County, 111 (now 145), has nothing to do with two things. First, it has nothing to do with the populations of either the entire United States or of the State of Texas. If you want to include those numbers, your data set would look something like this:
Population 330 million
89,932 Deaths from COVID-19
Population 29 million
1,336 Deaths from COVID-19
Population 2 million
111 Deaths from COVID-19
If you are not going to include the number of deaths (underestimated though they may be) in the US and Texas, why include those populations? I believe it’s simply to make the 111 deaths in Dallas seem small in comparison. I could do this in Waco, too; I could stand up at a rally and say “the population of the US is 330 million, and there are 257 thousand people in McLennan Country. We’ve only had 4 deaths. Are we really going to shut down all of society for 4 deaths?” It sounds pretty silly doesn’t it, to invoke that 330 million people without mentioning the 90 thousand lives lost among them?
Now, maybe it sounds like I am splitting hairs, but this is important; the reason that we shouldn’t invoke population numbers detached from death numbers is because the 111 deaths in Dallas also has nothing to do with shutting down Dallas. Think about that for a moment. Cities, States, and Nations that were not hit early by the pandemic have had the privilege of developing their response based on the impact in other places. Shutting down Dallas wasn’t based on 111 people in Dallas losing their lives to COVID-19; it was based on over 15,000 deaths in New York, 27,000 deaths in England, and 32,000 deaths in Italy. It was based on the recognition of what this virus can do to a city or a region, particularly once the healthcare infrastructure is overwhelmed. In fact, in saying that Dallas was shutdown because of only 111 deaths, she is exactly reversing the logical relationship between those ideas; the reality is that there have likely only been 111 deaths because Dallas was shutdown.
Dr. Lozano goes on, “here is how it is notified to you:”
27,000 Positive Covid Tests (??? but probably Texas)
3,000 Recovered (???)
111 Dead (Dallas)
“If 3,000 have recovered, from 127,000 (???) positive tests, that’s 124,000 that have recovered.”
Now it’s clear that Dr. Lozano misspeaks here, either with the 27,000 or the 127,000 above; please remember, she is speaking in a very challenging format and such things happen. However, I honestly cannot tell which is the statistic she intended. Looking back at data from May 9th, Texas had around 37,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 1049 deaths, but listed 19,000 as recovered, not 3,000. Dallas had 111 deaths but to date has only had about 6,000 confirmed cases total, and the US was already in the millions of cases by that time. So, without knowing where her numbers have come from, it’s a bit hard for me to fully examined the claims she is making, but we can safely make at least three observations.
First, she is now directly comparing the number of cases in Texas (the 27,000 above; I cannot imagine where else this number could have come from) to the number of deaths in Dallas only, without mentioning the number of cases in Dallas at all. This is deceitful use of statistics and I sincerely hope it was accidental. Second, her point seems to be that the public is being lied to about the number of cases that are recovered; “27,000 cases, only 3,000 recovered.” But this is not the case; at the time of her speech, official data placed those numbers at 37,000 cases and 19,000 recovered. Third, her final conclusion (here she misspeaks again but her intent is clear) that the number of cases minus the number of deaths equals the number of recoveries is erroneous both because we do not yet know the long term ramifications of the disease, and more to the point, because there are still over a million people with the illness in the US who have not yet recovered. Most of them are at home under close observation and follow-up, but many are fighting for their lives in the ICU and are by no means ‘out of the woods’; some of these people are in the ICU in Texas, and we cannot discount their struggle and the suffering and danger they are still facing. Some will still die, despite the best efforts of their doctors and nurses.
1:23 “I don’t want to bring statistics from other physicians because there is always someone on the Left who wants to contradict me.”
This is the portion of the video where Dr. Lozano begins to speak about her personal experiences, but I want to spend one more moment on this very troubling statement. The politicization of COVID-19 within the medical field is largely a false narrative, and not a particularly coherent one. We’ve talked about this a lot on this blog, on multiple occasions, but basically the conspiracy theorists would like you take any doctors you happen to know and trust, or who share their conspiracy theory, and put them in the “one of the good ones” box; the few honest doctors fighting for the truth. All the rest of us, even if we happen to share your background or faith or even political leanings, are to be put in the “part of the system” box and seen as either infamous conspirators or unwitting patsies. We are, so they argue, inflating death numbers, scamming medicare, and lying to the public in order to… do… something. This part isn’t really clear, you see. Despite the vast scope of different political allegiances, backgrounds, economic views, and personal convictions among doctors, we are all somehow part of a conspiracy to destroy the economy, embarrass Donald Trump, bring about a totalitarian police state, enact socialism, etc. Despite many docs I know getting all of their news from Fox, despite some being close to retirement and watching their 401k’s like hawks, despite many having voted for Trump and planning to again, despite the fact that we are not a monolith. Despite the fact that we have had to work extra hard to take care of our patients in the midst of a pandemic, and the fact that many of us have gotten sick, and some have died, doing so. Despite the fact that, a few minutes later, most conspiracy theorists will point to empty ER’s and closing doctor’s offices in non-surge areas as a sign of the economic injury being done by mitigation measures, their conspiracy theories still call for those doctors struggling the most financially to be a part of a conspiracy to propagate the COVID-19 myth. It’s all rather silly, I’m afraid.
Which is why it is so alarming to see Dr. Lozano adopting it here. What she is saying is that she is only willing to rely on her own anecdotal evidence in talking about and treating COVID-19 because she believes that the experiences of her colleagues and higher quality data from research hospitalsaround the globe are skewed by a Leftist political agenda. This is a very, very dangerous way to practice medicine. At best, Dr. Lozano knows her audience and is willing to let them believe in these conspiracy theories in spite of her knowledge of the way medicine actually works, and the devotion that the overwhelming majority of doctors have to both veracity and the health of their patients regardless of their own political leanings. At worst, she has come to believe in this perverse and pessimistic view of physicians herself. My fear is that this perspective ultimately leads to practicing ‘lone wolf’ medicine detached from evidence, the insights and experiences of peers, and the commiseration and accountability that come from serving within this ancient and altruistic profession.
But because this Southern, Homeschooled, Eagle Scout, 4-wheeler-riding (is that still a conservative credential?) future-missionary-doctor has seen the compassion, the integrity, and the seemingly endless self-sacrifice of fellow physicians from every walk of life and all parts of political spectrum time and time again, I cannot be so quick to attribute to them nefarious political motivations capable of overwhelming their commitment to their calling and Oath. So when discussing Dr. Lozano’s anecdotal evidence, I will be relying on something more substantial than just my own.
1:48-2:05 Discussion of Symptoms
Here Dr. Lozano is discussing the patients with COVID-19 she has seen in clinic. I only point this out to note two things moving forward; first, she does not give us the number of patients she has actually seen in clinic who have the diagnosis. Second, her description of symptoms is interesting. She describes fever, but only fever at nighttime. She describes cough, but only with deep breaths. These are very specific qualifiers and do not exactly match what is known from observations of millions of cases of COVID-19 around the world. Many patients have cough, but not necessary only with deep breathing. Many patients have fever, but not necessarily only at nighttime. To me this suggests that Dr. Lozano may have seen a relatively small number of COVID-19 patients, because there does not seem to be much variability in the presentations she has encountered. It also illustrates the danger of relying on anecdotal evidence alone; once we have cemented a narrative that says this disease will always act like I have personally seen it act before, we put ourselves at risk of delaying the proper diagnosis or missing it entirely. We must learn from each other.
2:06 “These patients are afraid.”
This is true. One of the most important tasks we’ve had as physicians, and really as an entire healthcare field, has been to speak to the fears of our patients in the face of this very dangerous pandemic and help them navigate their medical and mental health needs with safety and confidence. This is an important part of our conversations with patients on every level, from individual encounters to entire populations. Every patient I see who has been exposed to the virus or who has symptoms that might be consistent with COVID-19 needs both reassurance and anticipatory guidance; they need to know what happens next, how to stay safe and keep their loved ones safe, and when they need to seek additional care. Our clinic system has instituted countless measures both to support our COVID-19 patients and to ensure that our patients know they can be safely seen for their chronic conditions as well, from telemedicine systems being built in a matter of weeks to patients being seen in their vehicles so they don’t have to enter into healthcare spaces, and a thousand small steps that probably go unnoticed but reduce our patients’ potential of being exposed to the virus. As physicians, we must combat fear with our compassion and the trust we have built with our patients; never with minimizing their concerns or spreading misinformation.
But Dr. Lozano then goes a step further. At 2:25 she states that the patients who are coming to see her for COVID-19 symptoms are being turned away from the emergency room.She says they are being sent home if they have a fever and told to quarantine, and that during that time they infect their families. She says that doctors are closing their doors and implementing telemedicine, which she considers a scandal because it does not involve a physical exam. She says near the end of the video that they are having patients ‘see their assistants’ instead, implying that they are having Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants take on risks they aren’t willing to themselves (and playing to the undeserved discrimination those professionals face in healthcare).
At 3:17, she says that other doctors are hiding in their fancy homes with their fancy cars in the midst of a pandemic, and the contempt for others in her profession is evident in each syllable she pronounces.
Her implication is that doctors are scared of the virus and are too timid to treat their patients; they are refusing to see people, the ER is turning people away, and they are using telemedicine and other tricks to avoid having to give compassionate care that might put themselves in danger from the virus. And if that’s true, it’s a tragedy; it represents the deepest betrayal of our Oaths and the values we hold in common as physicians.
But thankfully, it’s not true. When I heard her say this I really had to grieve for a moment; grieve for a doctor whose experiences and views have so detached her from the rest of her profession that she could hold, and promote, a view of physicians that is such a stark contrast to the reality. Please take a moment and really, honestly compare her narrative to the stories you are hearing and seeing from doctors all over the world; the doctors who are staying in donated hotel rooms or sleeping in the hospital call room between shifts because they are too frightened of the virus infecting their own families. Notice that they aren’t cancelling or no-showing their shifts; they are still taking care of patients every day, placing themselves in harms way and risking their live for others as they have been called to do, but they are also taking on the sacrifice of isolation themselves in order to protect those they love. Consider the doctors, even very old doctors who have come out of retirement to help and young doctors still in residency, who have gotten sick and died in the line of duty. Her narrative, at least on the physician side, doesn’t match the reality. And as much as I love my fancy car (it’s a motorcycle with a sidecar I bought used my first year out of residency; I’ve wanted one ever since I watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as a kid and I’m immensely proud of it), her actively promoting for her audience the myth that most physicians lead lives of extravagant wealth (sidecar motorcycles not withstanding) is not only disingenuous but extremely mean spirited. Many of us are currently drowning in medical school debt.
But what about the patient side? Are patients really being turned away? Well first of all, it’s not only bad business and bad medicine but actually illegal to be denied treatment for an emergent condition at an emergency room. Moreover, in practice I’ve never even seen it done even for non-life-threatening conditions, and in fact one of the biggest problems with our healthcare system is that this means a great many people get all of their care from the ER because they don’t have access to a primary care doctor (when my residency program was founded 50 years ago, this was one of the problems it was created to address). Again, Dr. Lozano’s narrative seems to be the exact opposite of the real situation. From her comments alone you would think that patients with cough and fever were having the doors barred from entering their clinic or the ER; but in many areas that have been working under the assumption that a COVID-19 surge was imminent, most clinics and hospitals have deferred a great deal of other types of care in order to specifically care for large numbers of people with those exact symptoms. We have worked very hard to ensure that our other patients are still getting close follow-up, and things like telemedicinehave been put into place to make sure that my 95 year old patient with COPD and congestive heart failure can still get seen without being exposed to the transmission risks inherent in a clinic waiting room. No, patients with cough and fever are not finding a series of doors slammed in their faces, with Dr. Lozano being their last hope; but that isn’t what she’s actually saying.
4:05 Treatment for COVID-19
I promise we’ll get somewhat political momentarily, at least in the sense of giving governing officials their due while not ascribing to them godlike mastery of all intellectual disciplines, and of honestly reflecting on the merits and limitations of national and state medical associations. But let’s press on for now.
When Dr. Lozano was speaking of the patients being sent home and turned away, it might have sounded, to the casual listener, as though she meant they had been refused care, which has certainly not been the case. She tells us what she really means beginning at 5:12–6:30, and I’d encourage you to listen carefully again, and then I’ll explain the sequence of events she is eluding to.
The patients she is referring to were seen. They were evaluated. They were not sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. Because there is no specific medication that has been proven (by large scale studies, not individual anecdotal evidence) to be effective in an outpatient setting, these patients were not prescribed specific therapy. They were likely given recommendations for symptomatic treatment, instructions for self isolation, and guidelines for seeking out a higher level of care if their symptoms worsen; though the thoroughness of those discussions often depend on the time available, the practice style of the clinician, and the degree to which the patient is interested.
So far, this has actually been perfectly appropriate care. Please keep in mind that the hospital is not a place you want to be unless you absolutely have to be. Most patients (85%) with symptomatic COVID-19 have a “mild course.” This can be anything from a mild cough to significant flu-like symptoms which can be very uncomfortable, but most patients with the viral syndrome will not need to be hospitalized. Filling up hospitals withpatients who do not need to be there is the wrong decision not just for other patients in the hospital, those who might need to be hospitalized later, and for hospital staff, but also for the patient. It puts everyone at risk, including that patient, and it’s irresponsible. Dr. Lozano states that they were ‘sent home to quarantine, exposing their families’ as though this were a scandal. First of all, if these patients were symptomatic, their families had already been exposed. Second, home is where they would be safest and best taken care of unless they actually needed hospital level care. And third, there are no other viable options. Certainly some countries have set up mobile containment hospitals for mildly symptomatic COVID-19 patients to stay in until they are deemed non-contagious. Please ask yourself if that is something Americans would consent to; being told that even though their symptoms are mild, they cannot be trusted to keep from spreading the virus to others and are not allowed to return to their homes. We can’t even get people to wear masks.
Finally, these patients come to Dr. Lozano, who gives them a prescription for hydroxychloroquine and some unspecified antibiotic shots for good measure. It is now clear that way back at 2:25 when Dr. Lozano said these patients weren’t being treated, what she was really saying was that they weren’t being treated exactly the way they wanted. Now, we could go off on a rabbit trail about antibiotic stewardship and doctors prescribing antibiotics, and other medications, unnecessarily for viral conditions because it makes their patients feelthatsomethinghas been done. It builds loyalty, it gives them confidence in you, it keeps them coming back to you for minor conditions because they know you’re going to give them something for it; it does everything except actually treat the virus. Please keep in mind that in over half the viral misinformation videos we’ve seen, this is exactly what doctors are being accused of, despite the fact that most of us fight very hard against this exact mentality. It is much, much quicker and easier (and more lucrative, under many practice models) to tell a patient that the injection you are giving them will make them feel better than to carefully, patiently explain that their own immune system will defeat the virus, that there are no specific therapies but lots of things you can do to try to feel better in the meantime, and that your duty is to “First Do No Harm” to them, including prescribing unnecessary and potentially dangerous medications. The latter, in addition to taking more time, also feels unsatisfying to both the patient and the doctor; it’s also the right thing to do. If your doctor never refuses a single thing you ask for, you probably need a new doctor.
What about hydroxychloroquine?
You should know that no medicationis “considered a candy” or “a vitamin” (except, you know, actual vitamins). All medications have potential side effects and hydroxychloroquine, while relatively safe, should not be used without a specific indication and a careful evaluation of the risks and benefits. No medicine should.
But even allowing for Dr. Lozano’s waxing a bit eloquent in what comprises the bulk of her arguments in this video, we need to ask some very basic questions about hydroxychloroquine. First, we need to ask whether it works, and second, we need to ask whether her narrative and claims about the medication are true.
Does hydroxychloroquine work?
Because Dr. Judy Mikovits brought up the idea that doctors were being stopped from using hydroxychloroquine in the PlanDemic documentary a few weeks ago, I’ve written about this just recently. In the interest of length I will not reproduce those reflections here. The long and short of it is that the medication showed some promise when it was first used on a small number of patients, and following this it was used widely and we all hoped it would be incredibly effective; but unfortunately subsequent more rigorous trials and widespread physician experience have not shown this to be the case, and now it’s use in COVID-19 has been widely abandoned. For more details, please refer to the section titled “Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug” from the blog entry “The Paradoxes of PlanDemic,” or read this article from the New England Journal of Medicine that explains this all in greater detail, and the rationale by which the authors have chosen to stop using the medicine to fight COVID-19.
Claim: Donald Trump taught doctors to use this medicine…
While I’m afraid that I have to consider Dr. Lozano’s claims here to be politically motivated and revisionist, in the interest of fairness I admit that, depending on her individual experiences, what resources she has been using, how she acquires new medical information, and to what degree she was pursuing treatment guidance early in the pandemic, from her own perspective the sequence of events could conceivably appear as she has described them. The French study that originally established the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 was released in mid march, but there was talk of it being used even prior to this; an article coming out of Wuhan, China was published on March 9th, and by the time of the March 19th press conference where Donald Trump recommended it, all the doctors I know had been talking about it in multiple forums for over a week. I had discussions about it in person and on zoom calls, over text and e-mail, and on social media both on friend’s Facebook walls and in private physician COVID-19 groups. Unless you weren’t paying attention to emerging COVID-19 information (and I think almost all of us were by that time), the president’s mentioning hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, while certainly contemporary to the discussion, was not breaking news. Though Donald Trump was touting the medication with his usual unmitigated bravado, at the time a lot of us really did feel cautiously hopeful; we really wanted the treatment regimen to be universally effective and live up to the hype as well. We also agreed with Dr. Fauci, who stated that this study was little more than anecdotal, and while promising, shouldn’t be relied on as empirical evidence. This wasn’t a political statement; he was merely bringing to Donald Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement the temper and nuance we would expect from a medical professional. If Fauci’s later being proven right adds fuel to the political fire, it is merely a reflection of how unfortunately politicized this pandemic has become; to medical professionals, the rise and fall of hydroxychloroquine is a normal part of the scientific process, though expedited quite a bit by the pandemic.
But Dr. Lozano goes a step further than even Dr. Mikovits; she really seems to be implying that Donald Trump somehow came across this information on his own. While I understand that is a hallmark of diehard supporters of the president, the desire for him to be the smartest in the room on every subject, the idea that he was personally reviewing medical journal articles and came across this French study independently is really very silly. Of course this information would have been given to him during a briefing by his medical advisors, the same ones who then had to qualify his statements, and the very “bureaucrats standing next to our president” Dr. Lozano later decries for “thinking they know more about medicine than I do.” Notice too this strange juxtaposition; she is willing to stand on her professional pride when confronting Fauci and other advisors to the president with medical backgrounds calling for caution with the medication, calling them ‘bureaucrats’ despite their training; but she is eager to say that the president has taught her how to treat COVID-19.
….while medical societies gave no treatment guidance.
As I’ve said, this French study was published and read and discussed widely in the latter half of March, and many medical associations and news sites offered reflections on it. Treatment regimens were included in the original study, so Dr. Lozano’s saying “you would think I would get some kind of guidance from the American Medical Association” couldn’t refer to needing a hydroxychloroquine dosing schedule, but rather expert opinion on what to do with that already available information. As Dr. Lozano requested, that guidance came out on March 25th. The American Medical Association offered a very measured response, calling for physicians to weigh the evidence carefully and to be ‘just stewards’ of healthcare resources. They reiterated that the French study had been small and only included hospitalized patients, and that medications should always only be prescribed due to an appropriate medical condition. This was in response to reports that some doctors were ordering prescriptions of the medication “for themselves, their families, or their colleagues,” and that some organizations were stockpiling the medication. Indeed, there were reports at the time that some patients with Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis were having trouble getting their normal dose of the medication because of this. You can read the AMA’s joint statement with the American Pharmacists Association here; it has since been updated, but a summary of the original from March 25th is also online here.
Claim: Doctors are too scared to use it because it isn’t FDA approved.
The FDA actually issued and Emergency Use Authorization to treat COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine on March 30th. This is still in effect. The FDA has since issued safety guidelines which also cautioned against its use for COVID-19 outside of the hospital. This is because the medication has many possible side effects including prolonged QT syndrome, which can lead to sudden cardiac death, and because even early evidence only supported use for patients sick enough to be hospitalized, while later, more robust studies have not even supported that. The EUA is still in effect however, which does allow physicians treating extremely ill COVID-19 patients in the hospital to weigh the evidence for themselves.
Why won’t the pharmacy fill these prescriptions?
At 7:36, Dr. Lozano begins the narrative that after her 1st or 2nd or 3rd prescription for hydroxychloroquine, the pharmacist called her to ask for a diagnosis. Dr. Lozano presents this as though it were a conspiracy or scandal, the pharmacist trying to breach patient confidentiality laws. In reality this is very common; knowing the diagnosis is important for the pharmacist for a number of reasons, including counseling the patient appropriately, ensuring that look-alike/sound-alike medicines have not been prescribed on accident (this does happen; I have done it and a smart pharmacist caught the error before the prescription was filled). In fact it is required with certain controlled medications. Your pharmacist is considered to be involved in your care, and sharing your diagnoses with them is not a HIPPA violation if it helps them do their job. Moreover, regardless of Dr. Lozano’s jab that “your job is to put the pills in the bottle,” pharmacists literally go to school for years to study medications; they already know your diagnosis from the medicine alone 99% of the time. No pharmacist is saying, “huh, Mr. Johnson is being prescribed Metformin. I wonder what that could be for?” It’s a diabetes medicine; they know you have diabetes. And that’s fine, because they also abide by patient confidentiality laws and aren’t going to go out and tell people about your diabetes any more than your doctor or nurse would.
With hydroxychloroquine specifically, the pharmacist was likely asking Dr. Lozano for a diagnosis because of the AMA/APhA/ASHP joint statement above, which includes this specific phrasing:
Or maybe it was because of this rule from the Texas State Board of Pharmacy:
So the pharmacist in this scenario was simply following not only the rules of his state governing board but also the consensus advice of the national organizations that represent his profession. Dr. Lozano states that she got around this by eventually finding a pharmacy that would fill the prescription, and by giving them a diagnosis of hypertension or diabetes instead of COVID-19 (it is unclear from her presentation whether these patients in fact have those diagnoses; presumably not, since her whole point is that she is unwilling to share their medical information with the pharmacy). So this requires us to ask the question; are these rules good? Is it reasonable to tell pharmacists that they shouldn’t or can’t fill prescriptions for this medication unless it is for Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Malaria? In other words, should this decision really be up to the individual doctor?
In general, physicians tend to be wary of any rule or law that displaces medical decision making outside of the patient-doctor relationship. Dr. Lozano speaks to this around the 8-9 minute mark. The hope is that the years of careful education and training we receive should be sufficient to instill in us the weight of the responsibility we have to follow the evidence and to treat with a light touch in the absence of strong evidence. I believe it generally is. However, there are over a million physicians in the US alone, and oversight and accountability are necessary. As someone who works in the area of opioid dependence treatment, I strongly believe that top-down measures to curb the prescribing of opioids has helped many people avoid addiction and dependence. In the case of hydroxychloroquine, these decisions were made to prevent stockpiling and overprescribing of the medication that would create a shortage that hurt patients who needed it, including those with conditions such as Lupus, and early on, patients in the hospital who were sick enough to be prescribed it for COVID-19.
But it is possible to imagine scenarios where this medication could have been legitimately prescribed in an outpatient setting, at least early on before more data was available. One could imagine a confluence of circumstances where a patient met or nearly met hospitalization criteria, but could not be hospitalized for some reason; being the sole caregiver for a small child and needing to wait a few days for family to return, for instance, or living in a city where the hospitals were full and they didn’t quite meet criteria for hospitalization during the pandemic, even though they might have under normal circumstances. One could imagine a patient in the midst of a work-up for Lupus, whom their doctor was considering starting on hydroxychloroquine anyway, suddenly being diagnosed with a mild case of COVID-19. Would it be legitimate for this to shift the balance of risk and benefit and justify its use now instead of once the work-up is complete? These situations would be exceedingly rare, but they are possible, and it would indeed be frustrating to be a doctor or patient stuck between these realities and the Pharmacy Board’s rules and be unable to get the medication filled.
But is this the case with Dr. Lozano’s patients? Dr. Lozano gave an interview on Fox News where she shares more details from her experiences with the pharmacy. She states, “Yesterday I wrote 5 prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine… Today was horrible, I had 15 people who needed 15 prescriptions.” I have never been in Dr. Lozano’s clinic; I was not there on the day she gave the interview, and cannot vouch for either the COVID-19 status or the severity of illness of her patients. But the idea of one physician in a solo practiceseeing 20 patients in 2 days who have COVID-19, and are sick enough that they should have been hospitalized but weren’t, in a city that has only had 6,000 confirmed cases total, is extremely far-fetched. Rather, this paints the picture of a physician who has chosen to simply give the people what they want, and instead of following the evidence and carefully weighing risks and benefits on a case-by-case basis, chose to cultivate a reputation (and client base; she says she has patients driving in her to see her from Austin and San Antonio) by being the doctor who would prescribe the medicine that was suddenly being talked about all over social media after the president’s press conference. Any doctor who suspended their clinical judgement and prescribed hydroxychloroquine for every cough and fever patient who wanted it in March and April could have done likewise; and that is exactly the kind of prescribing practice that the Texas Pharmacy Board rules and the statement by the AMA were meant to protect against.
But what about Dr. Lozano’s experiences with the medicine? Doesn’t that prove it works?
Please listen to what Dr. Lozano says at 7:15.
“I have patients at Lozano Medical Clinic who are cured of this disease. I have patients that recovered within 48 hours. In fact, the illness that they had was more caused by the stress and the fear of the propaganda that’s being spewed on the news media than by the actual virus.”
Dr. Lozano has told us that she prescribed these patients hydroxychloroquine. She has told us she prescribed them azithromycin as well. She has told us that she gave them ‘a few antibiotic injections’ just for good measure. She states that the FDA can approve you-know-what because she has seen patients get better with this treatment. She now tells us she believes most of their symptoms were from stress.
I also have patients who are cured of the virus; their immune systems did that for them. That’s what usually happens with most viruses, and it happens all the same without potentially dangerous or potentially lethal combinations of unnecessary medications. The number of cases where symptoms are so severe that someone needs a high level of support is particularly high for this virus, which is why we are dealing with a pandemic; but they are still in the minority, and Dr. Lozano has offered zero evidence (and quite a lot of counter-evidence) that these patients would have needed hospitalization without the medications she prescribed.
As a physician, I have bettertools for treating stress and fear about the virus; compassion, active listening, empathy, and careful explanations of the medical realities they are facing. As far as I know, none of those can cause sudden cardiac death.
“I think when you do things that are incorrect, you need to be thrown under the bus.”
Dr. Ivette Lozano
At 10:12 Dr. Lozano throws Walgreens Pharmacy under the bus. She says that if you have a prescription for hydroxychloroquine, Walgreens will call and ask you to fill the prescription in their drive-through instead of at the counter inside. An immuomodulator, for patients who have autoimmune diseases. That is sometimes being used to treat a virus, in the middle of a pandemic caused by that virus. Surely anyone can see that this is a reasonable request?
10:40 “If you are taking a prescription for hydroxychloroquine, they will ask you to come in through their driveway. Well you know what: maybe eventually they’ll ask you to wear a yellow star on your shirt.”
Internet memes and Godwin’s Law aside, this is an absurd comparison. Every clinic I know of has taken steps to ensure that all their patients stay safe during this crisis, and for many that means seeing patients with risk factors for COVID-19 complications and patientswith symptoms of the virus outside to prevent transmission. For whichever indication this medication was prescribed, picking it up at the drive-through is a reasonable step to keep both you and others safe. Is this what Dr. Lozano’s audience considers “oppression”? Is this comparable to the Holocaust? I understand that many people are legitimately concerned over the balance between safety during a pandemic and preservation of individual rights, but is going through the drive-through at Walgreens really the Rubicon we dare not cross? To quote one Twitter user:
Dr. Lozano then says that she has encouraged all of her patients to get their prescriptions filled elsewhere, and that gives me the opportunity to share my first financial disclosure in several months of arguing against financially motivated medical misinformation; my father manages a CVS (in a different state than where Dr. Lozano and myself practice). And while that doesn’t actually constitute a financial conflict of interest, on some emotional level I’m ok with Dr. Lozano calling out the competition here, the same way I didn’t like K-Mart growing up when dad was managing Wal-Mart stores. Call it tribalism I guess. In practice, the only time I care which pharmacy a patient chooses to use is when I know they will get a more affordable price somewhere else, and that’s when we talk through their pharmacy options more intentionally.
10:57 HIV vs. COVID-19
Dr. Lozano states that she trained in general surgery during a time when there was not a good test for HIV, so they took precautions with every single case and did not discriminate against people if they had the virus. It seems odd to compare a virus like HIV, which is very difficult to be infected by even through contact with blood, to SARS-CoV-2 which is spread by droplets and airborne transmission. Dr. Lozano is right that no patient should be discriminated against because of an illness, infectious or otherwise. She is also right that we should take precautions to keep ourselves, and others, from becoming infected. But this looks different for different type of infections, based on their infectivity, potential severity, and mode of transmission. Refusing to operate on an HIV positive patient because of their diagnosis would be discrimination; asking a patient with COVID-19 to use the drive-through during a pandemic- which we really all ought to be doing anyway if at all possible- is not.
11:22 “This virus is 98% treatable with no medication! For those 2% who are sick, the President of the United States has given us a phenomenal protocol.”
I’m going to pass over the fact that the president has apparently gone from being told about hydroxychloroquine by his advisors, to reading about it in his independent research, to now actually creating the treatment regimen himself. Fine.
The bigger issue with this sentence is the way that Dr. Lozano has distorted these numbers. Without getting into details about the percentage of patients who need hospitalization and the percentage that need to be in the ICU (these numbers have shifted and will continue to shift as we have better and better data and antibody testing, as physicians and epidemiologists have been saying since the start), we can accept and agree with Dr. Lozano’s point that only a relative few patients with COVID-19 will need intense and specific interventions; as we’ve already discussed most will get better on their own.
But it’s important to clarify two things. First, Dr. Lozano never mentions working in a hospital either in her youtube videos or on her website, only seeing patients in her clinic. I think it’s fair to assume she doesn’t see patients in an inpatient setting or treat critically ill patients in the ICU. This means that the small percentage of patients she mentions who are sick enough to need specific treatments and high-levels of care are not the patients she is interacting with.She has presented a narrative that says most patients get better on their own, so go get your hair cut and go shopping and if you happen to get very sick from COVID-19, go see her and she’ll prescribe you hydroxychloroquine. The reality is that the patients she is prescribing hydroxychloroquine for are the patients who would get better on their own; they are part of the “98%,” not the “2%.” They’ve already been evaluated by other doctors and were told, thankfully, that they didn’t need to be in the hospital. The patients who need the high level of care are actually in the ICU, those that made it there, and are fighting for their lives. Many of those who have had the worst cases and needed that level of care have in fact been treated with hydroxychloroquine, and many of those patients did die; this is where the more powerful and reliable data about it’s efficacy comes from, not from a small clinic that has drastically shifted the definition of ‘very sick’ because it never interacts with patients in the hospital and ICU.
And second, that small percentage of patients, for a virus that is this contagious, still represents an astronomical number of people. This is the same misrepresentation that Dr. Erickson spends the majority of his time on during his interview; the idea that if most people get better it means the virus isn’t very dangerous. Early mortality numbers based only on antigen testing have been in the society-ending range of 4%-12%, but we have known these numbers would come down once asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases could be accounted for. If this virus has ‘only’ a 1% case fatality rate, it still has the potential to overwhelm our healthcare infrastructures and kill millions without mitigation strategies. The danger is a product of the per-case risk multiplied by the infectivity, and this virus is both very deadly compared to something like the flu, which is scary enough, and also extremely infectious. A non-dangerous virus could not do to New York and Italy what COVID-19 has done.
“It is not dangerous to go to a restaurant, to go get your hair done, to go shopping.”
Well, it might be actually. I realize things are open now. This virus is very dangerous and unfortunately we do nothave a “phenomenal treatment protocol” that renders it harmless. Please make safe decisions for yourself, your loved ones, and your community.
Last night a friend sent me the latest viral COVID-19 misinformation video. You can view it below, though once it is inevitably removed from YouTube I won’t bother to re-link to it; I am sure it will be popping up on your Facebook feed soon enough (if it isn’t already).
Having recently spent considerable time attempting to help bring some clarity to the PlanDemic Documentary (26 minutes long) and the interview with the two Bakersfield Urgent Care Doctors (55 minutes long), I was glad that this video was fairly brief; the clip above is very short, but even the full-length video is a mere 3 minutes and 32 seconds. Still, it has over 680 million views, and that degree of viral spread, only equaled by SARS-CoV-2, deserves a response.
Claim #1: Never Gonna Give You Up
It’s hard to know to whom exactly this promise is being made. This was originally written in 1987, and Mr. Astley did not meet his wife, film producer Lene Bausager, until the song was already incredibly popular in 1988. Though I don’t have specific information on his personal life beforehand, it is reasonable to conclude that he did in fact ‘give up’ any former paramours prior to their relationship becoming serious.
Claim #2: Never Gonna Let You Down
The website KnowYourMeme defines the Rickrolling internet phenomenon as:
“A bait-and-switch prank that involves posting a hyperlink that is supposedly relevant to the topic at hand in an online discussion, but re-directs the viewer to the music video of “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a 1987 dance pop single by English singer-songwriter Rick Astley.”
With this working definition, the song Never Gonna Give You Up has itself ‘let people down’ millions of times, as they click on a link to an article, resource, or opinion piece they believe will be relevant or useful and instead are directed to the video, enjoyable as it is. Though Mr. Astley could not possibly have known this in 1987 when he first recorded the single, “never gonna let you down” has nevertheless proven to be a wildly inaccurate statement since.
Claim #3 Never Gonna Run Around and Desert You
While I cannot comment on Mr. Astley’s exercise habits, it is a well known fact that he left producers Stock Aitken Waterman shortly after his first World Tour in 1989. This was largely due to negative press associated with the production company, and in fairness to Mr. Astley may have been a very warranted decision. While it is difficult to assess in retrospect, and from such as distance, whether such a decision could be considered a ‘desertion’, it is at least evident that claims of never leaving are a misrepresentation of the options he considered as viable pathways for the future.
Claim #4 Never Gonna Tell a Lie
Notwithstanding the above claims, I cannot specifically note any instance of Mr. Astley’s having been known to lie. However, I believe it is a truism that all of us have been prone to resorting to untruths on occasion, sometimes justifiable and sometimes not. To claim that he would never tell a lie seems at best lyrical hyperbole (all too common in this era of imprecise musical lyrics) and at worst demonstrates poor introspection regarding his own personal standards of veracity, which even if superior could not be expected to be actuallyperfect.
Claim #5 Never Gonna Say Goodbye
Mr. Astley actually says “Goodbye” no fewer than 5 times in this song alone.
“A full commitment’s what I’m thinking of,you wouldn’t get this from any other guy.”
This has always struck me as one of the most absurd claims of this misinformation video, and there is solid empirical evidence that Mr. Astley is here mischaracterizing the level of commitment of other guys. As this article from Psychology Today examines in detail, data from Pew Research Center indicates that levels of desired relationship commitment in men, include levels of ‘full commitment’, differ very little from that in women. According to the author,
83 percent of men and 88 percent of women report being “completely” or “very” committed to their partner. Even in the early twenties, well before the average age of marriage, men (and women) report high levels of commitment and often anticipate lifelong unions.
Elizabeth Aura McClintock Ph.D.
This evidence would suggest that, barring unknown or unusual circumstances, it would be inaccurate (and bordering on emotional manipulation) for Mr. Astley to suggest that no other guy would be interested in a full commitment to the intended recipient of his addresses.
I know this seems like a strange place to add my final thoughts (one might have expected them somewhere near… the end), but I want to honor the long tradition of TL;DR that has come before me. PlanDemic has been a fairly unique experience among COVID-19 misinformation videos so far. The production quality is much higher and the narrative, tied to the experiences (questionable though their veracity may be) of an individual scientist, is gripping. The story telling here is far, far better than any of the webcam style videos we have looked at so far, or even the interviews of Dr. Erickson or Dr. Ayyadurai. It’s actually hard to know how to categorize this video; is it an anti-Medicine conspiracy video capitalizing on COVID-19 fears and controversies, or is it a COVID-19 medical misinformation video set in a conspiracy theory narrative? Probably both, but I lean toward the former because while the conspiracy theory is well established and consistent, a brief version of the story Dr. Mikovits has been giving as her own interpretation of the events of her arrest and discreditation for years, the actual arguments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are piecemeal and self-contradictory, pulling from any and all vogue COVID-19 misinformation sources rather than forming any new or unified thesis. Still, given the popularity of this video, I will not be surprised if we begin to see more and more of these high production quality misinformation/conspiracy theory pieces; it seems to be an effective amalgamation.
I hope my reflections below prove helpful. My hope is that even if you do not have time to read this entire post (and I can’t blame you there; I don’t have time to read it either), you will be able to navigate to the analyses of one or two of the points from the video that you have particular questions about. If I don’t cover the points you are particularly interested in, feel free to comment below; or better yet, keep digging- I’m sure someone else has done a more thorough debunking on that point than I would have anyway. Thank you to those who have found this analysis relevant enough to share with friends and loved ones who are convinced by or sympathetic to the PlanDemic film; I hope that this information, combined with their affection and trust for you, is enough to open their eyes to the falsehoods being shared so widely, and to convince them to continue exercising caution against this terrible virus.
The link to the video that I originally shared is dead. It is still easy enough to find if you really want to watch it.
First Impression: The production quality here is going to be awesome. (00:04)
Learn about your sources before watching, and then watch critically. (00:10)
This is just good general advice; we trust far too much to our gut feelings (read: confirmation bias) when trying to decide on the veracity of new information. When I wrote about navigating medical misinformation during the pandemic, the first piece of advice I gave was to know your source. I would never argue that arguments can be discounted because of the source; but knowing something about the source is incredibly useful when engaging internally with the arguments, especially when choosing what degree of scrutiny to apply to them. This is especially true with a video like this one. The excellent production quality, the artistic filming and intentional choice of background music, the cinematography and editing, all of it is designed to be emotive and to render the content convincing. That’s not a bad thing; they want you to believe their message, presumably because they strongly believe it themselves. But when all of these features have the net effect of lending credibility to the speakers in the video, we may find ourselves attributing to them a certain expertise or background that may or may not fit. Knowing where they are coming from, who they are, and what they stand for before the emotive music begins gives you some context for weighing their claims outside of how those claims make you feel, or how much you would like to believe them.
By the way, this is the same advice I would give to someone visiting a church for the first time; don’t rely on your gut feeling as a guide to truth; emotive music and a well crafted stage presence can be incredibly convincing.
With that in mind, here are a few links to the main people involved in the video:
Dr. Judy Mikovits is a former researcher who holds a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from George Washington University. She published a since-retracted study in Science in 2009 that eventually lead to the legal action she discusses in the video. You can read more about her on her wikipedia page or on the blog Retraction Watch, if it is ever back up again (I believe the viral video has crashed the site multiple times). Since then she is mainly known as a frequent speaker at anti-vaccine events.
Mikki Willis is founder of Elevate, the production company that released the documentary. Their prior work tends to be focused on spiritual energy and positive vibrations (they have a short video talking about restoring your frequency to protect against COVID-19), but this seems to be their first foray into medical misinformation viral videos. You can check out his facebook page here. Before this I believe their biggest documentary was Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines. Also, as someone who has been interested in televangelists and pseudo-christian faith healers for years, he strikes me as the non-religious, spiritualist version of the young, good looking charismatic faith leader.
The Minions of Big Pharma (O0:38)
This is my first red flag in the video. “For exposing their deadly secrets, the Minions of Big Pharma waged war on Dr. Mikovits, destroying her good name, career, and personal life.” Now, “Minions of Big Pharma” may mean a lot of things; he might be referring to actual lawyers who work for pharmaceutical companies, or to all pharmaceutical employees (although it’s hard to see how drug reps could ruin her personal life), or to some other group altogether. But in the alternative health world this typically refers to doctors and scientists (nurses are generally excluded because as a society we actually like them, so it’s dangerous to the alt-health narrative to loop them in on conspiracy theories)(oh, and happy Nurses Week to my brilliant and beautiful wife!).
Now, I can’t comment much on Scientists working in the lab, since that hasn’t been a major part of my life, but I pretty strongly suspect that they have little to no interest in ruining anyone’s career (and if stereotypes are anything to go off of the only personal lives they are ruining are their own! Bazinga!). I know scientists who have worked for Universities and for major corporations and their main interest has been, unsurprisingly, Science. They love talking about their experiments and research, and their ideas about what might happened next with their project. Remember that these are not nameless and faceless people doing experiments in some hidden lab; these are often the sciency kids that you went to high school with who genuinely loved experiment day in Chemistry class and who were probably reading Lord of the Rings before it was cool. And it’s these science nerds, according to this video, that have now all been recruited into a world wide conspiracy. Tony Fauci calls up one of them and says, ‘we need to discredit a virologist because we don’t like her conclusions about retroviruses; publish a fake study that says she’s wrong.’ It’s really, really far fetched. In fact, if you want evidence of the standards of veracity that scientists generally hold each other’s research to, look no further than Dr. Mikovits’s retracted paper in Science, which was retracted not because she was rocking some boat or bucking some system, but because the methodology was flawed and the results were not reproducible. If you’ve forgotten everything else about those Science Fair geeks from high school, remember this; welovedproving people wrong. The peer review process capitalizes on that, and the conspiracy that there’s a top-down cabal determining what gets published and what doesn’t ignores that one overarching character flaw.
What I can tell you, with no shadow of a doubt, is that your doctor doesn’t work for Big Pharma. In fact, the relationship between your average Physician and the drug reps they interact with range from the politely tolerant to the openly antagonistic.
And this is the case for any part of the medical industry that is primarily profit driven, whether it’s the pharmaceutical companies, fly-by-night medical supply companies, pharmacies, or the insurance companies. Because Physicians are not primarily profit driven; we are driven by a desire to help people. We are driven by a desire to help people so much that it is dangerously cliche to even say so on a medical school admissions essay. We’ve taken on hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, sacrificed our 20’s and 30’s, and worked thousands of hours of unpaid overtime in order to learn the science and the clinical skills that we need in order to do the grueling work of helping people heal physically, emotionally, and psychologically, and there are just much, much easier ways to make money.
So that creates conflict. Conflict ranging from an annoyed ‘I don’t think that’s accurate’ to a pushy drug-rep overselling the latest product, to absolute rage when the price of a life-saving medication skyrockets for artificial reasons and my patients suddenly have to go without. But while we generally regard for-profit pharmaceutical and insurance companies to be side effects of a deeply broken healthcare system, they are still fixtures that we have to work with; and I guess that looks a lot like collusion to the outside world. Once you’ve bought into the myth that those with the most money universally control the people they interact with and endure no dissent, it’s easy to see conspiracies everywhere; of course the scientists are told what results to report, look who signs the checks. Of course the doctors prescribe what they’re told, their education is controlled by big pharma.
But might I submit that maybe ancient, altruistic, and (let’s face it) fairly egotistical professions don’t just roll over quite so easily? That maybe high standards of truth telling and care for the wellness and suffering of human beings are still the honored core of both the clinical and research branches of Medicine? In fact, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, to whatever degree drug or insurance companies really have wanted something like autonomous control over healthcare, it has largely been conscientious Physicians who have fought them.
But you don’t get to see those types of interactions that often at your doctors office, and this leads to a lot of pretty demoralizing misunderstandings; for instance when a patient’s medication should be $5 and they end up paying $50 at their pharmacy and think that I prescribed a more expensive medication because I’m getting a cut (this is why I now say to each patient at the end of each visit where I’ve prescribed a medication, “if you get to the pharmacy and any of your medicines are more expensive than you expected, please don’t buy it yet and give us a call instead”). It also means that when it comes to profits being put above people, we’ve probably just about seen it all, and fought against it all. So when even we have to say, yeah this looks like some pretty crazy conspiracy theory stuff, you need to understand it’s coming not from “Big Pharma’s” willing subordinates, but some of it’s most diligent and ferocious watchdogs.
“The plague of corruption that places all human life in danger.” (00:54)
I think the narrator is just waxing eloquent here, setting us up to understand that the medical field is the real plague or something like that (and if so it’s a good bit of work), but I’ll at least give the video the credit of seeming to take COVID-19 very seriously during the first minute. If you turn this off after minute one, you will at least leave with the idea that 1. there is a plague, 2. human lives are in danger, and 3. it’s a big enough problem that the fate of nations hangs in the balance. That plus the excellent production quality may go a long way towards fighting some of the ‘less dangerous than the flu’ misinformation that is out there already. Way to go, Elevate!
Minute 1 to Minute 10
The bulk of the first 10 minutes of the documentary are spent on Dr. Mikovits’s personal history of maltreatment by the health industry/scientific community. I think people should be able to tell their stories from their perspectives, and I have no doubt that the demolition of her career has been a very difficult experience for her regardless of the circumstances that caused it. Still, it is important to remember that most stories have at least two sides that have to be considered, and other interpretations of those events are available widely on the internet. It’s a very dramatic story and someone other than me will need to dissect it. I will return to this section with a few observations once I have finished the analysis of the rest of the video, but for now my most immediate concerns are the statements related to COVID-19.
Update: Having finally finished this blog post 3 days later, I have had time to read through other articles and watch other videos debunking the claims of PlanDemic. Many do it much better than I can. A great many have focused specifically on the first 10 minutes of the video, and investigating the claims that Dr. Mikovits makes regarding her own history and the conspiracy against her; many have already been familiar with this history and her work in the anti-vaccine movement prior to PlanDemic. I will defer to them. Certainly I have no first hand knowledge of the events and no background in investigative journalism. If you are watching the video, there are 3 things I would point out in this section that I think should at least increase your level of suspicion that you are watching conspiracy theorist/misinformation propaganda. 1. When Dr. Mikovits is talking about her arrest (the video leaves you to assume it was a 5 year imprisonment; it was actually 5 days), they show presumably unrelated footage of SWAT teams and urban tanks in order to inspire fear. 2. The clear implication, towards the end of this section, is that Dr. Mikovits might be assassinated for doing this interview. The credulity people have towards this claim has been amazing, with so many comments along the lines of ‘this woman needs protection now’. Yet, is there any basis for believing that there has been or will be an attempt on her life? And for what? Sharing information about the COVID-19 pandemic that is almost entirely verifiably false? 3. Dr. Mikovits has a book out. I don’t think that this is her primary purpose in giving her interview, and my understanding is that she has been involved in trying to clear her name and garner support against the scientific establishment for years. But so far, financial motivations being tied to viral misinformation videos has been batting a thousand during this pandemic.
Is this an anti-vax video? (9:48)
Dr. Judy Mikovits: “And they will kill millions as they already have with their vaccines.”
Mikki Willis: “So I have to ask you, are you anti-vaccine?”
Dr. Judy Mikovits: “Oh absolutely not!”
‘But see, she’s not anti-vaccine! This is totally mainstream stuff, not anti-vax propaganda at all!’
Rest assured that many people in both alternative health and the anti-vaccine movement see the pandemic as an opportunity to anchor their products and agendas more firmly in the mainstream. While this is often for financial profit or accumulation of power and influence (as has been the case with every single misinformation purveyor we’ve addressed on the blog so far), I still believe that here are many honest people who earnestly believe in these ideas, and merely have their facts and narratives skewed concerning vaccines specifically and the medical field in general. I know and really like some of them. In fact, a lot of friends whom you might call ‘vaccine wary’, medically suspicious, or crunchy and oily (their words!) have been incredibly supportive of me personally and other healthcare workers during this pandemic. They have struck a balance they are personally comfortable with that allows questioning their Physicians and arriving at different conclusions (which is a good thing in general) and still recognizing a bedrock of reliable truth telling regarding danger, disease, and treatment. I think all of us are looking forward to the day when we can just get back to arguing about tea tree oil in your belly button again (or was it thieves?), but with a real crisis like COVID-19 there is no question that we are all on the same side.
The problem is that as a counter-culture, these movements have overall tended to have a very low threshold for whom to trust, assigning credibility and reliability to almost anyone who is comfortable using the same verbiage and demonizing modern medicine. This means that while many people have found a balance that remains very safe for their families, many others who begin as simply cautious of certain chemicals or treatments (as likely as not because their doctor didn’t/couldn’t take the time to explain it to them very well) become entrenched in increasing (and increasingly dangerous) depths of falsehood. For some, this video, with it’s emotive music and deep state conspiracy theory, will be their next step. The leaders of these movements know this and see dollar signs, potential converts, or both; and the pandemic is a golden opportunity for them because we are all looking for answers. I’ve seen the fallout from this on the individual level in my own experiences caring for adults and children, and on a larger scale with measles and pertussis outbreaks that were totally avoidable. My fear is that, with something as dangerous as COVID-19, the suffering that occurs for the people believing these conspiracies could be the worst and most widespread yet.
Just past the ten minute mark, we finally get into a discussion of COVID-19.
Do you think this virus came from a lab? (10:21)
Dr. Mikovits is making claims that come off as extremely authoritative, but which nobody actually knows the answers to. Labs that have sequenced the genome of SARS-CoV-2 have said it appears to be a naturally occurring virus strain, but the idea of zoonotic transmission from meat sold in an open air market in Wuhan has seemed extremely speculative from the beginning. BBC has a good article discussing the difficulties in sorting through the origins of the virus. As a Physician my main concern is with the viral syndrome that it causes, not where it came from; but the idea of it being involved in any way with a research lab is extremely appealing to conspiracy theorists that would like this to be a Dr. Evil style attempt to conquer mankind.
But look what Dr. Mikovits is actually saying here; she doesn’t think this is a bioterrorism weapon that was designed or engineered, but that doesn’t matter because “You can’t say naturally occurring if it came by way of a laboratory.” Um… Why not? A few moments later she says ‘studied in a laboratory’ like it’s damning evidence. But the thing is… laboratories are exactly where you study things. She’s done a fair bit of it herself in the past. I spent a Summer studying Passalidae Beetles in a laboratory and they are pretty naturally occurring.
What they are saying here, really, is that the origin of the virus doesn’t matter for their purposes; whether it had been engineered as a weapon, whether it was accidentally released from a lab, or whether it just happened to be transmitted from an animal that was being studied in a lab. What matters is the word “laboratory”, because with the degree of fear and paranoia about scientific processes already experienced by many of their target audience, combined with anxiety about the pandemic, that is enough to score points as one more piece of evidence of a global conspiracy.
Finally, at the end of this section Dr. Mikovits claims that SARS-CoV-2 must have undergone “accelerated viral evolution” because if it were naturally occurring, it would take 800 years to develop from SARS. First of all, that’s a pretty specific time frame without any further explanation, so I’m going to call ‘citation needed’ on this one. But the biggest problem with that claim is… Nobody thinks it evolved from SARS in the first place. There are a lot of Coronavirus species, and we don’t yet know (and may never know) the evolutionary history of this dangerous, novel virus. It is called ‘SARS-CoV-2’ because it is a Coronavirus (CoV) that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and it is the 2nd one identified that does this (because MERS is the Rodney Dangerfield of Coronaviruses; it gets no respect).
Ebola couldn’t infect humans until Dr. Mikovits taught it to in 1999. (12:04)
The first major known outbreaks of Ebola occurred in 1976, 23 years before Dr. Mikovits taught it how to infect humans. So this is pretty nonsensical. The CDC has a good article on the history of Ebola Virus, but I suppose if you have chosen to believe the claims in this video you will probably see this as propaganda? The conspiracy theorist world is a much more interesting world, when even fairly blandly written (though quite interesting, to me at least) and well hidden disease history pages on government websites are all deliberate and carefully crafted deceptions.
But if course, she’s not talking about Ebola virus here, not really; the implication of the video is that somebody had to teach the COVID-19 virus how to infect humans.Add this to the list of claims in the video that have zero empirical support, but that devotees will come away 100% believing.
The COVID-19 death toll is inflated (12:22)
The tabulating of deaths from COVID-19 has been written about time and again. I wrote about it here a month ago when these conspiracy theories about doctors faking death certificates and being told to call everything COVID-19 were already being circulated. It’s been debunked thoroughly and frequently, and our best guess is that the actual death toll has actually been underestimated. We’ll do a little more debunking here, yes, but honestly it’s getting a bit old.
But the first thing I want to point out is how this video, as a smorgasbord of COVID-19 conspiracy theories, ends up mixing it’s message and contradicting itself time and again. We just spent several minutes focusing on their belief that the virus was created in a lab, that it was intentionally taught to infect human cells, and that it is part of a government plan (I mean, that’s thename of the video, PlanDemic), and now we are talking about how it really isn’t that dangerous. This video would like to have its virus and eat it too; it wants the numbers to be inflated, but it also wants the deadly disease to be an evil plot. Now, you could come up with some scenario that fits both conspiracy theories; the virus was released by Scientists (the minions of Big Pharma) but wasn’t as deadly as they had hoped, so they have had Physicians (the other minions of Big Pharma) inflate the death numbers. Sure, if you add enough layers to your conspiracy theory you can account for apparently contradictory sub-plots; but you also have to involve more and more willing participants in the conspiracy, and at some point you have many millions of people colluding in order to… what? Get some people to take a vaccine? Credulity can only be stretched so far.
The other thing you need to recognize is that Dr. Mikovits is about to step firmly outside of her training and experience, which has nothing to do with clinical medicine. When she speaks about discerning the cause of death, the interaction of chronic diseases with acute infections, and the realities faced by doctors fighting this horrible virus, she is speaking entirely as a layperson.
COPD deaths are being counted as COVID-19 deaths?! (12:49)
I am sorry her husband has COPD. That really stinks.
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and Pulmonary Fibrosis are different types of lung damage (maybe her husband has both, which is absolutely possible)…
…and neither looks like SARS.
“But he has no evidence of infection”. Well, that’s a really wonderful thing; it’s also an important point on the natural history of COPD. Most COPD patients do not have thickened mucous, extreme shortness of breath, severe dyspnea, and prominent wheezing all the time. When those symptoms occur we call it a COPDAcute Exacerbation. And when you have an exacerbation, it absolutely is a sign of something acute happening, usually a viral or bacterial infection.
(13:10) No they absolutely wouldn’t. If he walked in with no evidence of infection, he shouldn’t be walking in at all; the ER is a dangerous place for him now more than ever. But if he comes in with acute worsening of his pulmonary symptoms, the worst COPD exacerbation he has had in his life, requiring high levels of oxygen and even intubation and ventilator support, with exposures to the COVID-19 virus or symptoms consistent with the disease in an endemic area, are you really saying thatpolitically motivated incredulity about the virus’s infectivity and lethality trumps the doctor’s diagnostic skills? The thing they have been working their entire lives to develop?
The Doctors are telling us the numbers are inflated. (13:15)
I know hundreds of doctors personally, maybe thousands, and have read or heard from even more. Some of them work in the front lines in places like New York that have been hit hardest (so far) by the pandemic. Throughout this crisis I have reconnected with classmates and friends I hadn’t talked to in years to touch base on how this whole thing is going for them, how they are holding up. None of us are being told to fudge numbers. Even if we were being told to, we wouldn’t. There are over a million doctors in the USA and I am convinced that almost every single one of them would blow the whistle and be on youtube tomorrow if the government was asking them to artificially inflate numbers or lie on death certs. This is ridiculous.
But more to the point, the guidance that has come from the CDC has actually been really reasonable. Even the images shown in the video, which are supposed to be some sort of damning evidence, are reasonable:
What this is saying is that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but the COVID-19 test is negative or not available, it’s still reasonable for a Physician to rely on their clinical judgement to determine the diagnosis. This is the opposite of a top-down mandate, and more to the point,it’s already how we practice medicine anyway. If you have a sore throat, fever, red and swollen tonsils, and your son had strep, I don’t test you for strep throat, I treat you for it; you have it,regardless of what the test says. And that test has a much higher degree of reliability than the SARS-CoV-2 antigen test. If you have symptoms of the flu, and it’s flu season, I only test if it would actually help me make a treatment decision, which is fairly rare; the sensitivity of the test is only 50% to 70%, which means that up to half the time you have the flu your test is going to be negative. It’s too early to know exactly what the sensitivity of the COVID-19 test is, but early reports said somewhere around 70%; so doctors very wisely chose not to defer their clinical decision making to a test result.
Finally, there’s the case the doctor in the video discusses around the 13:40 mark: the 86 year old patient who dies from pneumonia, who wasn’t tested for COVID–19, but her son later tested positive for the virus. The doctor asks, incredulously, whether it would be reasonable to list COVID-19as a possible cause of death?
Every practicing clinician: Um, yeah, it would. In fact, these are the exact people we know are most susceptible to the virus, and the ones we are working our butts off to protect. Most of my 86 year old patients treat me like a grandson; we are treating this virus like it can kill them because it can.
13:50: Dr. Erickson owns Urgent Care Centers in a low-prevalence country in California. He is not being pressured to write COVID-19 on anything, and if he’s writing death certificates with any degree of frequency that is a big, big problem. He would like this pandemic to be not that big of a deal just like the rest of us, only in his case, it’s at least partially because his Urgent Care business is suffering right now. (Update: He has also released a statement saying he has no association with the PlanDemic video).
“You don’t die with an infection, you die from an infection.” (14:38)
While this is not technically true (people die with infections all the time. You can get hit by a bus on the way back from your abscess drainage), I actually completely agree with Dr. Mikovits here. This is the inverse of the common saying for Prostate Cancer, “most people die with prostate cancer, not from prostate cancer.” It’s a common form of cancer that grows slowly and often near the end of life; most people with it will die from something else. Contrast this to COVID-19, which is an incredibly dangerous virus that has killed 75,000 people as of today in the US alone, and even if you don’t believe those numbers has overwhelmed healthcare infrastructures, exhausted doctors and nurses (and driven some to take their own lives), and decimated entire countries. This is a dangerous virus. It increases risk of blood clots, it seems to be causing strokes, it shuts down the lungs; the idea that people are suddenly dying in large numbers from these types of syndromes and their having the virus is just a coincidence is insane. You die from the virus; not with it.
The numbers have to match the real-life narratives, but by avoiding any discussion of the experiences of doctors, nurses, patients, and families that have been affected by the virus, the misinformation promoters hope to bypass your compassion and even your sense of rational self-preservation and deeply ingrain the idea that the virus isn’t dangerous with fake numbers and false dichotomies between acute infection and chronic disease. If they are successful, then you will be automatically suspicious of any images, narratives, or personal accounts you hear that paint a picture of a deadly virus causing real human suffering. The word ‘trauma actors’ is not far off. Don’t let them rob you of your empathy for their own personal gain.
Doctors are being incentivized to list COVID-19 (14:44)
Check-out this article from PolitiFact that covers this question in some detail. Yes, part of the CARES act was to provide a 20% stipend for treatment of COVID-19 cases. This is being done because hospitals that are hardest hit by the pandemic are also the ones that are going to have trouble staying afloat; they will be cancelling elective cases and other more profitable treatments for longer and focusing entirely on COVID-19, often in the midst of needing to pay nurses and doctors overtime, hire outside help, and wildly exceed their budgets for PPE and supplies. Now, we can talk about whether or not I think hospitals being for-profit is a good model in the first place (hint: I don’t), but the idea that a bipartisan government stimulus for hospitals in the hardest hit epicenters of the pandemic automatically equals corruption and conspiracy is awfully flimsy.
But more importantly, I want you to watch the way the video, with it’s excellent background music and high production standards, weaves this part of the narrative. Go back and watch the 15 seconds from 15:00 to 15:15 and notice the way that the words “you’ll get paid $13,000” and “if that COVID-19 patient goes on a ventilator you’ll get $39,000” are overlaid against medical professionals, in PPE, treating patients in the ICU. Look at all of these doctors just waiting to cash their $39,000 checks from medicare,the video is telling you. The reality is that decisions about diagnosis and decisions about treatment are made by Physicians, who are not paid $13,000 for a certain diagnosis or $39,000 for initiating life-saving treatment. Depending on the way their compensation agreement is structured, they may or may not see any of that additional money (I certainly won’t should we get hit hard here in Waco and I have to admit COVID-19 patients or intubate the critically ill).
Also listen to Mikki Willis’s statement right at the beginning of the segment; “I’ve spoken with doctorswho haveadmitted that theyarebeingincentivized…” This is the verbal equivalent of the above cinematography trick, and is the type of sentence you can utter with impunity because there are so many doctors it would be impossible to prove he hadn’t talked with doctors who said this. But notice how doctors are only a reliable source of truth telling if they are blowing the whistle on some big conspiracy, and not when they are saying, en masse, ‘this virus is dangerous. we are doing the best we can to take care of patients but please stay home. there’s no conspiracy here, just a really, really bad bug.”
The ventilators are what’s killing patients! (15:15)
I’d like you to understand that Dr. Mikovits, who is a PhD virologist and not a medical doctor, is here repeating what she has heard or read and is not speaking as an expert by any means. I’ve had a friend write to me extensively about how dangerous ventilators are. I’ve seen videos and articles and facebook posts saying “88% of people who go on ventilators die”, as though that were proof that ventilators were dangerous, instead of that the virus is dangerous. (here is an article working through those ventilator numbers, by the way). You see, we only intubate the sickest patients, so they already have the highest chance of dying. There’s a confounding variable, and it’s called severe respiratory distress.
Now, I do think there is a discussion to be had here in terms of the best use of our ventilators. The myth here seems to be, as best as I can understand it, that “ventilators” are a discrete treatment the way “ibuprofen” or “knee injections” are discrete treatments; either you do a knee injection or you don’t (ok that’s also not accurate), either you give ibuprofen or you don’t. But ventilators are incredibly complex tools and their use is not monolithic. Here is a very basic but extremely helpful (at least to someone like me who doesn’t use a ventilator on a daily basis) guide to vent strategies from some people I admire over at EmCrit. Did you read it? You got all of that? This is the tip of the iceberg. Even the clip that PlanDemic shows at 15:18 is an ER doctor from New York early in the course of the pandemic arguing for a different ventilator strategy, not against the use of ventilators. His name is Dr. Cameron Kyle-Sidell, and he goes on to say:
“Now, I don’t know the final answer to this disease. I do sense that we will have to use ventilators. We’ll have to use a great number of ventilators, and we need a great number of ventilators, but I sense that we can use them in a much safer way, in a much safer method.“
So they’ve shown this clip to make you think, doctors are using ventilators because they get paid more money, even though it kills people, but a few doctors like this one are speaking out against this corruption. The real narrative behind this clip is a lot more reasonable and a lot more hopeful, and it’s this: doctors are trying to fight this new virus with the best tools they have, and impassioned discussions and debates about how to use those tools well are already happening. I am a part of a number of Physician COVID-19 groups on facebook, and both there and in private conversations and discussions within my own clinic system, every aspect of when and how to use ventilators to support COVID-19 patients is being dissected and discussed. It’s a good thing that we know more than we did a month ago, and the more we can delay the spread of this virus, the more we will know when it finally hits your area.
But let me make one thing abundantly clear; this is not a choice between using a ventilator and making more money, and not using one so the patient can get better; that is a false narrative and, frankly, on the grossly cynical side even for the conspiracy theory people. When you intubate a severely hypoxic patient, having tried everything else you know of to keep them off the ventilator, your decision is to use a ventilator or watch them slowly die gasping for air. Unless you’ve been in that situation, your theories on doctors putting patients on ventilators because they were told to or are thinking about their next paycheck don’t carry much weight with me.
And let me just state, for the record, that if you suspect a doctor at your hospital is putting people on ventilators or doing any procedure in order to make more money, you should report that person right away. That’s what I did the one time in my education or career I thought I had seen it happen. And if you believe it’s happening on a large scale, that doctors all over the country are doing it, please start thinking now about what you will do when your child or loved one becomes terribly ill at some point in your life, because if you have that little faith in the good intentions and integrity and medical knowledge of doctors and nurses, I cannot imagine why you would evercome to a hospital (though I honestly hope you do, because I believe we’d have the best chance of helping them, even if you don’t right now).
What about Italy? (15:35)
I just want to say that as little as I’ve found in this video to agree with, I really respect even the willingness to address the parts of the Pandemic that simply can’t fit it into their narratives (ok, I’ve actually found nothing to agree with; but there is at least plenty I can’t comment on. For instance, I can’t say whether or not someone planted evidence in her house before she was arrested).
When the Bakersfield Doctors, misled by their shoddy statistics, concluded that the virus wasn’t at all dangerous, they simply hand-waved New York and Italy as ‘hotbeds’ and moved along; it didn’t fit their narrative and so they didn’t even make a show of trying to explain how a non-dangerous virus could cause such catastrophic damage. The narrative here is infinitely more interesting.
Reason #1 is good; Dr. Mikovits says that Italy “has an older population, and they are very sick with inflammatory disorders.” Now, I don’t have any data on whether Italy has a higher rate of autoimmune disease, which I believe is what she means by inflammatory disorders; but I think we can accept the idea that older populations with more chronic illnesses are going to be at higher risk for complications, including death, from COVID-19. That is very consistent with the data we have seen throughout the pandemic. I would also point out that Italy is not alone in having an older population; many US States have similar demographics. 22.8% of Italy’s population is older than 65; but so is 20.6% of Maine, 20.5% of Florida, and 19.9% of West Virginia. If Italy can experience a surge of cases bad enough to overwhelm their healthcare infrastructure, there is nothing to prevent it from happening here. And of course, age isn’t the only factor; it has happened in New York, and only 16.4% of their population is greater than 65 years old. But the point is, saying ‘Italy is old’ doesn’t explain how a non-dangerous virus can kill so many.
But at 15:47 she loses me. Her claim is that in 2019 Italy had a new, “untested” form of Flu vaccine, and that this explains Italy’s high COVID-19 burden. She says the vaccine was grown in a dog cell line, and that ‘dogs have lots of coronaviruses.’
So, does that even make sense? Well, someone will have to tell me whether the flu vaccine used in Italy last year was new in the sense of being designed or developed differently from flu vaccines used in prior years or in other countries (in another sense, the flu vaccine is new every year because epidemiologists have to decide which flu strains to include based on which are most likely to become endemic). By the way, Italy had a particularly light flu season; so if it was new it may be a really good vaccine. However, the mechanism she is describing isn’t logical. First of all, the flu vaccine they use in Italy includes only killed viruses; your body is exposed to the antigens and can mount an immune response, but the virus cannot ‘come to life’ and cause the flu (or any other ‘inflammatory reaction’ she is hinting at here). The antigens of the dead virus are picked up by circulating white blood cells and presented to the immune system, so that the next time the body sees the virus it has the ability to rapidly produce a robust antibody response, usually before a person is even symptomatic (it does not work by creating a magic forcefield around your body that flu germs bounce off of).
But the trick is preserving the dead flu proteins without eradicating them completely. The idea that Coronaviruses have somehow come from a cell line used to develop the vaccine, have survived the process of creating the vaccine (all of the ‘harsh chemicals and toxins’ we are always hearing about), and have tagged along and actually entered the person’s body through the flu shot is nonsensical. Even if that were true (it’s not), she gives no clear mechanism by which that would have literally anything to do with COVID-19. Remember, Coronaviruses are a big, big family of viruses, and exposure to one would at worst have nothing to do with infection by another, and at best give some degree of cross-reactive humoral immunity, which sadly does not seem to be the case for COVID-19. Really, ‘dogs have lots of coronaviruses’ is little more than word association.
But the title of this article is “The Paradoxes of PlanDemic”, and here is another one. Just 5 minutes ago Dr. Mikovits told us that the COVID-19 virus, SARS-CoV-2, was created in a lab in Wuhan China, and was accelerated and manipulated in bats. So what would a flu vaccine in Italy, created in a dog cell line, have to do with COVID-19? There isn’t even a theoretical mechanism here; just the hope that by saying flu vaccine and Coronavirus close enough together in the video, their viewers will believe that the 30,000 deaths in Italy are actually another crime of the scientific community, instead of a stark warning of how bad this pandemic can become.
At this time the video has been removed from YouTube, Facebook, and Vimeo, the three sources I had used to view it while writing this post. I have mixed feelings about this. I don’t believe in censorship in general, but I also worry about allowing verifiably false propaganda to deceive millions in the name of freedom of speech, and the real human suffering that could occur if these videos were spread unchecked. I am a Physician, and it’s probably more a question for a philosopher or at least a constitutional scholar.
That said, if you do have a source for the video, feel free to send it my way via the “contact” page. Otherwise, the rest of my comments will be given without any time-stamp or specific quotes, though I have viewed the video in it’s entirety prior to now.
Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle drug, which is why they won’t let us use it.
I remember back in March (oh those carefree days, where have they gone?) when an OB/GYN I know, a friend from undergrad, first shared the French study showing promising results in COVID-19 patients treated with hydroxychloroquine, an immunomodulator we use mainly for Lupus, and azithromycin, an antibiotic (but you already knew that because they give it to you every single time you go to an urgent care…). At the time the responses of the clinicians I know ranged from cautiously hopeful to very skeptical. Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin are not anti-viral drugs, some argued, and the study was so small that the results shouldn’t change our practice. Others argued that both medicines have some theoretical anti-viral properties, so even though they are not anti-virals per se there is at least a reasonable mechanism of action in play. For azithromycin, this involves anti-viral effects on the epithelial cells of the lungs; for hydroxychloroquine, prevention of viral entry into the cytoplasm of host cells.
Since this wasn’t a large randomized double-blind placebo controlled trial, this small article coming from France hardly constituted a gold standard of treatment; but since the medications were fairly safe and somewhat promising, and since it is the middle of a global pandemic, many doctors and hospitals began to use one or both. There were even some promising, but ultimately anecdotal results. Locally we used hydroxychloroquine but not azithromycin, generally, because of the concern that the combination of both could cause prolonged QT syndrome (which can, you know, kill you). Here is the very measured guidance from a field guide a friend sent me:
As far as I know, each hospital and Physician had to weigh this evidence for themselves. The FDA did release an emergency approval for hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, and at no point were doctors told we weren’t allowed to use it, unless this came from their own clinics, hospitals, or medical societies; certainly I’ve never heard of any of the ‘doctors being threatened if they use hydroxychloroquine’ that they mention in the video. Unfortunately, subsequent larger and more intentionally designed trials have not shown a benefit; not to fault the French trial, they were trying to save lives and were publishing the modest but promising results they had so far, not trying to empirically prove the efficacy of the medicine. Here is an article from the New England Journal of Medicine that explains this all in greater detail, and the rationale by which the authors chose to stop using the medicine to fight COVID-19.
So that’s the story of hydroxychloroquine, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone could think there was any conspiracy behind that pretty straightforward sequence of events. Really, that’s how these things are supposed to work; if the treatment is safe and cheap and seems to help, it’s reasonable to use it while you are waiting for more reliable data. If that data then shows that the benefit just really isn’t there, you stop using it. When the president touted the drug as being promising, it was with his usual bravado but to some degree reflected the hope many of us felt about it at the time; when Dr. Fauci advised caution and stated the evidence was anecdotal, he was right, and was saying exactly what your local Physician might say at that point if she had been reading up on it. I don’t know anything about the doc yelling in the clip they showed, but unless he was actually treating COVID-19 patients and had some really excellent anecdotal results, I really can’t understand the vehemence he felt about the medicine; it hasn’t been warranted at any point by the evidence.
But before we move on, there’s one more thing I wanted to mention (and here is where I feel most keenly the loss of the video itself), and it’s that the idea of anyone in the healthcare industry actually trying to block doctorsfrom using a medication because it is working is obscene in the highest degree. I’ve seen enough corporate espionage movies and read enough Spider-Man 2099 comics to have a healthy suspicion of the big pharmaceutical companies, but I really believe this is beyond even them. But if you wouldn’t put it past them, at least consider this; if the government or big pharma or whoever were really telling doctors they couldn’t use a medicine that the doctors knew was saving lives, how would the doctors react? Would they go along willingly, because their one and only interest is obeying their corporate masters? Would they shrug their shoulders and watch people die who they could have saved?
Would you see just that one angry doctor ranting on YouTube, or hundreds of thousands?
Wearing masks increases your risk of infection, reactivates your own COVID-19.
To me, this is the strangest claim in the entire video, and it’s hard to understand for a number of reasons. First, how in the world is asking people to wear masks a conspiracy? Many of the masks we give to patients even in our own clinic are homemade, so it can’t possibly be Big Mask trying to turn a profit. I know many people chafe under any sense of the government trying to control them; but does this actually count, asking us to wear masks in public, that we’ve either made ourselves or gotten for free at our doctor’s office, to keep ourselves and especially others from getting sick? I don’t like wearing masks much either (unless it’s for Comic-Con), but it always strikes me as a particularly troublesome part of our highly individualistic culture that we oppose on principle so much that we ought to do voluntarily the moment there is even a hint of it being mandatory, particularly acts of charity (financial and otherwise) toward our neighbors. Remember, you don’t wear a mask for yourself; you are wearing it to prevent transmission if you have SARS-CoV-2 and are asymptomatic, to keep from spreading it to others.
Of course, this demands the question of whether or not wearing these homemade masks actually is an act of charity; that is, if it really does protect our neighbors from the virus. And as easy as it would be to simply say, ‘yes, masks obviously decrease transmission of respiratory viruses by blocking droplets’, the reality is that in science, what feels right or makes sense intuitively isn’t always a reliable guide to what’s true (hence this blog). So the real answer is; yes, they probably help. LiveScience has a good summary of the most current info and recent studies. With promising but limited evidence we have to weigh the risks and benefits. Remember what we said about using hydroxychloroquine earlier; if a treatment is promising, cheap, and safe, it’s reasonable to use while waiting for more data, and the same is true about prevention strategies. In this case, while we may well get more data we will likely never have a definitive answer about the degree of benefit. What would it look like, exactly, to do a large double-blind placebo controlled trial of wearing masks?
But Dr. Webb,you said the masks are only a good idea if they are safe, and the video says they aren’t. There is a very strange claim in the video, The idea that wearing a mask is somehow dangerous. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they are once again contradicting themselves, but this time in rapid fire sequence. They want at once for the masks to be bad because they keep viruses and bacteria out (they show the clip of Dr. Erickson talking about how touching your face and eyes is vital for your immune system, failing utterly to distinguish between a deadly pathogen and mere microbes), and for them to be badbecause they expose you to your own microbes. This is not only poor science, it’s also poor debating. To borrow from Scott Adams (Dilbert), it’s like saying Sorry, I never got the message to call you. And when I did return the call, you didn’t answer. One excuse is better than two.
But I think what’s really going on with this claim is two things; an appeal to the deep desire we all have for a sense of normalcy, and an exploitation of the sensationalization of wearing masks. The truth is that wearing masks isn’t new, and we do it all the time anyway. I wear a maskfrequentlyat work because it both protects my patients when I have a cough that might be infectious, and protects me from respiratory organisms. But you wear a mask too. You wear one when you have the flu and don’t want your kids to get sick; people ask me for them all the time when they are at the office. You wear them when you go snow skiing, or when you are around dust, or when you are painting or staining wood or doing projects with strong fumes, or at Halloween. I’ve never heard of anyone, health conspiracy theorist or otherwise, crying out that they were dangerous, that they reactivated your own viruses or starved your brain of oxygen. But now that it’s a matter of admitting how deadly and dangerous this virus can be for the people you are interacting with and following a reasonable recommendation from the government, all of the sudden they are part of a conspiracy, a symbol of oppression?
All of that said, there is one situation where wearing masks really is dangerous, and it’s when people treat them as though they alleviate the need for any other safety measures; as though it made them invincible from the virus. With only limited efficacy at protecting against respiratory viruses, masks are not the ultimate answer to COVID-19, and physical distancing, hand washing, and careful mitigation strategies are still vitally important. But most of us can remember to do those things while still wearing a mask.
Healing microbes in the Ocean.
I’m sorry, I’m just totally lost here guys. Maybe she means these?
COVID-19 Deaths from the day PlanDemic was released:
So the video has resurfaced (thank you to all who provided the links), and rather than any “DOCTORS CRUSH COVID-19 CONSPIRACY!” headline, it has been posted with the much more subdued (though still fairly inaccurate) “Doctors report from Front Lines.” The whole point of their video is that they really haven’t been at the front lines because the surge isn’t there yet; but since that is exactly where I find myself as well (albeit gratefully), maybe I shouldn’t put too fine a point on it.
A note on timing: Since the original video on YouTube was removed, I’ll be working off of the video on Facebook here, which is about 12 seconds ahead of the video used in part 1.
In the last post we went through the first 15 minutes or so of Dr. Erickson’s video, addressing the gross errors in his statistics methodology that leads him to the clearly erroneous conclusion that COVID-19 is not very dangerous. For state after state and country after country, he multiplies the total population by the results of non-random testing that is not representative of that population, to arrive at outrageous figures for prevalence (number of cases) of COVID-19. This mathematical trick shrinks the death rate, certainly, but it isn’t founded in reality; these are figures that can only exist in Dr. Erickson’s mind and on his calculator. He does this while ignoring the best data we have available that shows very high case fatality rates for known COVID-19 patients, framing that data as a good thing. “New York has a 92% Recovery Rate! If you get COVID, 92% of you will recover!” This is exactly the same as saying that COVID has an astronomically high 8% case fatality rate, but he has chosen to frame this as a good thing by flipping the statistic.
Now that the video is available again (for better or for worse), we will move on to the other arguments in the video.
9:16 “Is this significantly different than Influenza A and B?”
This is a question I have already addressed here, but frankly it’s absurd to still be comparing COVID-19 to influenza this late in the game. We are less than 2 months in from the first reports of deaths from COVID-19, and already it has killed as many people as the worst flu seasons we have experienced; and most places have not yet experienced a surge in cases. Our comparisons for COVID-19 are the bubonic plague and the Spanish Flu, not seasonal influenza; even in a very bad year like 2017-2018.
Comparisons to the flu do not match the reality of the people facing this virus as patients or healthcare workers, and can only be clung to by those who have not yet been affected by the pandemic. This is an argument from privilege, pure and simple. And yet, all of us in healthcare sincerely hope that as many people as possible will still go on unaffected; I sincerely hope Dr. Erickson never has to recant this silly argument because the deaths in his own community have made him do so.
But a few more lines on statistics won’t hurt the discussion.
9:24COVID-19 Vs. Flu in the USA.
USA – COVID-19
“Which gives us a 19.6 positive rate out of those who were tested (emphasis mine). If this is a typical extrapolation (his term for ignoring all sound statistics and epidemiology principles for arriving at accurate prevalence data)”… ‘That’s 64 million people with COVID-19.’
So to summarize his math for the USA:
Known COVID-19 cases in the USA: 802,590
Dr. Erickson’s number of COVID-19 Cases: 64,000,000
63,197,050 without a confirmed diagnosis.
Actual number of cases: Unknown, because we do not yet have large scale, random antibody testing; in other words, we cannot yet actually do the type of math that Dr. Erickson is only playing at, because we do not have the data.
By the way, this also means that of the imaginary 64 million people who have had COVID-19, 79 times more people had the virus and didn’t have symptoms, or didn’t meet testing criteria, than those who actually had a confirmed case. This is a big, big logical leap from the rallying cry of ‘we need more testing’ that we have all been saying for a month, and it should be another check for Dr. Erickson when deciding whether or not to trust his data. He has talked briefly about quarantining the sick only, but the implication that his data leads to is that only a very small number of cases will even have symptoms. It’s hard to say if this is simply another oversight on his part, or if he is deliberately playing into the ‘we all had this back in December’ myth that has already been popular.
10:06 Why not the data for 2018-2019 you ask? Or average over multiple years? Because 2017-2018 was the worst flu season we’ve had in decades, and did nearly overwhelm the healthcare system in many places. He is cherry-picking his data; deadliest flu season vs. artificially minimized COVID-19 deaths.
10:00 “50-60 million with the flu (compared to his 64 million for COVID-19). 43,545 deaths. Similar death rate.”
Estimates vary, but most commonly reported is closer to 60,000 deaths from flu that year (not sure where he got the 43k figure from). But how is this data derived? Well, what they didn’t do was multiply the ratio of tests that were positive by the total US population (his methodology); this method would give us over 180 million cases. No, they used actual statistical modeling (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25738736). They also didn’t then divide the number of deaths by some crazy high number to get a low case fatality rate; instead they did much more complicated math to determine the excess attributable mortality. So already we are comparing apples to oranges, except that since his data is the product of his imagination, we are really comparing apples to… well, to some made up fruit.
Oh, and they didn’t do any of those calculations early in December before most places had even experienced their peak flu season, which is what attempts to ‘close the book’ on COVID-19 data right now amount to.
10:25 Again, he is talking about a flu season that lasts for 4-5 months, for which there is a vaccine (he will say this in a moment), and which has a much, much lower mortality rate. And we probably should be considering some of those things, to some extent, each flu season anyway.
10:55 Resisting the urge to dig on Urgent Care’s here. Testing everyone for flu is not sound clinical medicine. But that’s a different rant entirely.
13:47 Here he compares California to Sweden briefly. Again, do not trust anyoneto do statistics work for you if they are comparing regions without looking at population size. He is comparing the number of deaths in California (“with isolation; 1,220”) to the number of deaths in Sweden (“without isolation; 1,765”) and saying they are similar, with just a quick nod to their populations; “we have more people, but…”
Here’s how he should have phrased these numbers, if he really wanted to compare the impact to date of COVID-19 in these two regions:
California Population: 39.51 million
Number of Deaths: 1,220
Deaths per 100,000 People: 3 “with isolation”
Sweden Population: 10.23 million
Number of Deaths: 1,765
Deaths per 100,000 People: 17 “without isolation”
It isn’t fair to compare these two places in the first place, since a true surge hasn’t hit California yet (at least partially because of social distancing/mitigation measures), and because California and Sweden have very different healthcare structures and very different population vulnerabilities and demographics. But if we did a Dr. Erickson style extrapolation from Sweden to California, we would estimate 6,817 deaths so far in a California “without isolation”, 5.7 times higher than “with isolation.”
But again, these aren’t meaningful comparisons because statistics is a real field of mathematics and it doesn’t work that way. You can’t just take number of deaths from one place and multiply it by the population of another place and say ‘well this is the best data we have so we might as well trust it’, just like you can’t take data from very limited symptomatic testing and ‘extrapolate’ it to the entire population. The assumptions underlying the calculations are every bit as important as the calculations themselves, and so these particular ‘statistics’ I’ve just made up are probably only marginally more helpful than the ones Dr. Erickson made up.
14:00 Brief discussion of Sweden (1,765 deaths) and Norway (182 deaths) in Part 1 as well; the difference in how these nations have been affected by COVID-19 is only “statistically insignificant” (and not even then) when you invent tens of millions of phantom COVID cases to minimize the deaths, injury, and suffering of real life people.
14:58 Weird one to include, but ok.
15:14-16:47 Secondary effects of COVID-19
It’s pretty ridiculous that I’ve been trying to finish this overlong video analysis for 4 days now, writing between patients and during lunch, at the end of long days of clinic and pausing to read the Hobbit to my children, and have only made it to the 15 minute mark. But this is where I’ve been trying to get to, wading through all of the bad statistics and the misleading numerical comparisons, because it is this segment that I’ve been wanting to get to.
Because here, at least, I 100% agree with Dr. Erickson.
Doctors hate disease. We hate suffering. We hate abuse and neglect. We hate that people find themselves in dark places where there seems no way out. We probably hate it more than anyone except those experiencing them and the people who love them. The less wise among us take on far, far too much of that anguish in hopes of offloading a little of it from our patients; sometimes with tragic results. We took an oath to First Do No Harm and we take it pretty seriously. There’s a cultural myth that doctors like illness because without it we wouldn’t have jobs; which is a bit like saying that teachers like ignorance or soldiers love the enemy… although in the latter case, they really ought to, even if they still must fight them. Every doctor I’ve ever met would joyfully find a new line of work tomorrow (most of them are very talented) if they woke up to suddenly find disease, mental illness, physical pain, and all human suffering had suddenly ended forever (and some of us firmly believe that this is exactly what will happen).
In spite of everything, I believe this is probably true even of Dr. Erickson, and that when he is speaking of the suffering that will result from the necessary measures to fight COVID-19, he is speaking for the first time in this video as a Physician and not as an Entrepreneur. I think that’s why he’s had to dive so deeply into his false numbers in order to justify essentially ignoring COVID-19; because if he didn’t really convince himself that it wasn’t the threat that it so clearly is, he probably couldn’t bring himself to risk lives by making this video. At least, that is my sincere hope.
We are all concerned about the secondary effects he is talking about here. I wrote over a month ago, “All of us are afraid of a second spike in COVID-19 deaths if social distancing measures are discontinued too soon, but we are also concerned about a third spike; a spike of all-cause mortality and morbidity from the disruption this pandemic is causing to our normal modes of treating patients. That’s why we are working around the clock to figure out the best way to take care of the patients under our charge while at the same time preparing for and fighting the battle with COVID-19.”
I’ve written about it elsewhere, so I won’t go into details about all the things my clinic has done to work hard to address these very real threats. I work with some amazing people and they have been working their butts off. Since day one we have talked about what this would do to mental health in our community, about children trapped at home with abusive parents, about those with already tenuous chronic medical conditions or severe anxiety and depression, those with addiction, those with food insecurity, those with so-far silent conditions that need to be caught early.
Honestly, these are the things we worry about anyway. I worry about my mental health patients every time I take a vacation. I worry about patients with severe chronic illnesses not being able to get seen every time I make the difficult choice to cut back in clinic, in any way, because I’ve been drowning at my job since 3rd year of medical school. When I don’t have the mental bandwidth or the time to ask a more in depth question or allow a few more seconds of silence that gives the patient time to respond in a less guarded way, I worry what might have been missed. These are the realities of being a Physician in modern healthcare.
Which means that at whatever point doctors can in good conscience advocate for lifting the burden of social (physical) distancing and quarantine and sheltering-in-place off of our patients, friends, families, and selves, we will be the loudest and most persistent voices. If Dr. Erickson’s numbers were at all reputable, we would be thrilled; we would shout it from the rooftops. But they aren’t. And as someone who takes care of many of the patients in my city that our data tells us have the highest risk of complications and death from COVID-19, the only choice I can make is to work hard on my patients’ and community’s behalf to mitigate not only the very real risk of this one deadly virus, but also all of these secondary threats he is naming.
16:55 See discussion of the flu above (didn’t realize he was going to jump around so much). All I’ll add here is a reminder that the CDC is calculating the death rate as a comparison of deaths to estimated cases based on the best methodology available. If we used the Dr. Erickson method, the death rate for flu in 2017-2018, the worst flu season in decades, would be 0.03% instead of 0.13%. But again, it’s not a method any statistician would be tempted to use, not on a dare.
17:26 “The lethality of COVID-19 is much less.” There it is; don’t let anyone tell you that this doctor is just saying that COVID-19 is like the flu in some vague way. He is definitively telling you one is more dangerous than the other, and he’s got it exactly backwards.
17:28 Could someone explain to me how a ‘hotbed’ of a not-at-all-dangerous virus can overwhelm an entire city and kill thousands?
17:44 “I’m sick of following the science. I’m just going to ask it where it’s goin’, and hook up with it later.” -Mitch Hedberg if he were a doctor, probably.
18:00 I would like to know where Dr. Massihi taught immunology. Maybe they will fill in the gaps later, but at this point this could mean absolutely anything. I taught Kaplan MCAT and LSAT test prep courses after college and I was fairly bad at it I’m afraid; do I also get to claim to have taught immunology? What about logic and analytical reasoning?
We all have courses in microbiology, biochemistry, immunology, pathophysiology, virology, etc. It’s part of our curriculum from pre-med onward; what he is describing is the same education that all Physicians have. But the thing is, just because we’ve all had that training doesn’t make us experts; relative experts compared to the general public, sure, but there are people who have studied these systems a lot more. It certainly doesn’t mean we are each entitled to our own opinion about how the human body works, because medicine is a hard science. If he is going to make claims about the immune system, his authority as a doctor isn’t going to get him very far; the immune system is the authority on the way that it works, so we need to check his facts against it.
18:18 – 19:38 This is something that seems to crop up in almost every single medical misinformation video. I’ve written about it here, and here, and did an entirely overwrought Star Wars analogy about it here; and other people have written about it much better and in more detail than I have. It’s a common theme among alternative health “experts” who are spreading misinformation right now; don’t hide from the virus they say, your body needs it to build up the immune system! It plays into a lot of the cultural myths that Physicians are only interested in giving chemicals and harsh drugs, think all bacteria are bad, and don’t know anything about the body’s own immunity; ideas that are popular in alternative health spheres. So it’s pretty shocking to hear it from a doctor.
The major failure here is to distinguish between microbes and pathogens. Pathogens are microbes that can cause disease in humans, and some pathogens are so dangerous that either vaccination or avoidance are the best strategies to prevent the terrible, possibly life-long suffering and death that can result. Yet these misinformation purveyors want to pretend that when public health experts and epidemiologists recommend practical methods to decrease transmission of just such a deadly virus, they are actually saying that you can’t go outside, you should live in a sterile room, and your kids can’t play in the mud. Dr. Erickson wouldn’t tell you to touch your face and not wash your hands if you had been around Ebola. He wouldn’t tell you not to wash the surface of your kitchen counter if you had been cutting up raw chicken. He wouldn’t tell you that exposure to viruses is important to building a healthy immune system if you were about to pet a rabid dog.
But because his fake statistics have convinced us and especially himself that COVID-19 is about as dangerous as the common cold, he is willing to spend several minutes expounding the value of touching your face and eyes and not washing your hands so you can get that good IgG and IgM and have a healthy immune response… in the middle of the worst pandemic in a 100 years.
19:26 Just to be clear, you do NOT need SARS-CoV-2 to survive.
With that I am going to pause for the night. Thank you to all who have read these two very lengthy posts, despite my failed endeavor at choosing a format specifically intended to force me into some sort of brevity.
If this video continues to be widely circulated among friends and family in the coming days, I will return to finish the other half. I haven’t even met Dr. Massihi yet; maybe he’s a super reasonable guy who is going to give a balanced counterpoint to Dr. Erickson’s perspective? (Update: Nope.)
But my guess is that we are only hours away from the Next Big Thing in COVID-19 misinformation, and I’ll be forced to abandon this particular analysis at 19:26, just under halfway. If there is anything that particularly needs to be expounded on later in the video, I’ll quietly post it above; but feel free to leave a comment if there is a statement or section you would like me to address. Otherwise, I hope my perspective as a Physician has helped you to make sense of the dangerous errors my peers have fallen into in this video.
“Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.”