The Barnstable County outbreak in July is a great example of how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are. They show us what an outbreak of the Delta variant of COVID-19 looks like in a highly vaccinated population.
Barnstable is a county of 213,000 people in the 2nd most densely populated state in the country. It is a popular tourist location, especially during the Summer. It just suffered an outbreak triggered by a super-spreader event. This resulted in only about 500 cases of COVID-19 (in residents; we don’t have data, including vaccination data, on the other half who were from out-of-state), 5 hospitalizations, and 0 deaths. About 79% of the population is fully vaccinated, with many more partially vaccinated. The various disinformation purveyors cite the fact that 74% of those who got COVID-19 during this outbreak were vaccinated as a shocking counterpoint to literally all of the data pouring in from all over the country, as though it proves that the vaccines don’t work… When really, it is exactly what we should expect even if they do work. It’s a bit like saying “the people who lived there are the ones who got it while living there”; unvaccinated Texas and Floridians couldn’t have gotten COVID-19 from the outbreak in Barnstable County Massachusetts; they weren’t there. We know many people who were just visiting did get COVID-19 during the outbreak, we just don’t have information on their vaccination rates because they went back home and added to their county’s COVID-19 statistics after the event; they aren’t included in Barnstable’s.
All of the evidence we have from the other 3,005 counties (and 64 Parishes) in the US strongly suggests that if Barnstable had had this outbreak with, say, a 36% vaccination rate like we have here, this would not be a mere 500 person outbreak with just 5 hospitalizations and 𝐳𝐞𝐫𝐨 deaths. Less densely populated counties without super-spreader events are seeing worse numbers than these every day, and their hospitals and ICU’s are filling up rapidly as patients continue to die. To put it another way, when I worked as a full-time hospitalist in a small town I considered it a “light day” when I personally had 8 or 9 patients to care for by myself; I felt busy once that number was above 14 or 15 (and some hospitalists routinely see 18 or more). The entire Barnstable outbreak resulted in a burden on their hospital system that required 1/3 of the time and effort of 1 doctor each day. And they all lived.
This is what might have been. This is what Texas could be experiencing right now if we had a higher vaccination rate: a minor surge, entirely within our capacity to handle, and quickly contained and improving. Instead hospitals all over the state are cancelling elective surgeries and operating beyond surge capacity, and the ER, hospital, and ICU doctors and nurses are so overwhelmed with COVID-19 that other patients can’t get access even when they are very ill or injured.
I live in a similarly sized county to Barnstable with half the population density, excellent local leadership, and no recent super-spreader events; yet we have 866 active cases, 173 new cases from just Friday (I diagnosed some of those personally), and over 100 hospitalizations. Most of those cases- and almost all of those hospitalizations- are unvaccinated patients. Our numbers just leave Barnstable county standing- because we have such a low vaccination rate. And we aren’t even calling it an outbreak; this is just what the COVID-19 Delta variant looks like anywhere without adequate vaccination rates to prevent widespread transmission.
McLennan County, Texas(This Week)
Population Density: 227 People/Sq. Mile
Current Active Cases: 866
Current COVID-19 Hospitalizations: 106
Barnstable County, Massachusetts (July Outbreak)
Population Density: 562 People/Sq. Mile
Total Cases in July: 560
Total Covid-19 Hospitalizations in July: 5
Vaccines don’t put a forcefield around us that keep us from coming in contact with the virus; they prime our immune system to fight the virus effectively when we do come into contact with it by teaching us how to build antibodies and a targeted immune response. No vaccine can keep every person from becoming symptomatic when they are exposed to COVID-19. But they do substantially reduce infections and thus transmission, and most importantly they greatly reduce the risk of severe illness and death; that has been their purpose since they were invented in the late 1700’s, and that was the purpose of vaccination’s predecessor, inoculation, which we inherited (one could argue, stole) from African, Indian, and Asian traditional healing practices.
Right now, hospitals all over the country are drowning in almost entirely unvaccinated COVID-19 cases that are absolutely overwhelming our medical infrastructure, and many of those patients are dying tragically- as are those who don’t have COVID-19 but can’t get medical access because the healthcare system is stretched so thin. They didn’t have to die. The Barnstable outbreak is indeed a warning about just how contagious the Delta variant really is- and how even vaccinated people need to continue exercising caution and wearing masks. But it also shows us how much better off we would be right now as a nation if all of our counties- and parishes- had vaccinated at the rate of Massachusetts.
The vaccines are incredibly safe and super effective; please go out and get one.
As might be expected, there are a great many videos and articles about health surfacing right now during the pandemic; it’s a topic that is firmly on all our minds, even more so than usual. Unfortunately this means there is a lot of misinformation out there. I am actually really grateful when friends and family ask for my input on health information; I think informing our communities and using our education and experience to aid in the challenging work of discernment in this area is really important work, and one of the roles we need to engage in as Physicians. That said, there is so much misinformation out there right now, and life is already so busy because of the work of fighting the virus itself, that I have pretty much given up on addressing each article or video point by point in the way I normally would. I tend to be excessively verbose so you could imagine that cutting back is a challenge for me!
First, I would say that a good place to start, really with any of these articles or videos, is to ask whether the source is a reliable source of truth, a frequent source of falsehood and misinformation, or something in between. I don’t mean that we could write someone off because they have been mistaken (even brazenly mistaken) in the past, but simply that it is helpful to know their track record of veracity as a starting place for any new claims. It is important to know if the source has, as Chesterton put it, “revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.”
With that in mind I would encourage you to do some research on Dr. Pompa as a backdrop for understanding his perspective. He is not a medical doctor or a scientist. He has a degree as a Chiropractor. A discussion of alternative medicine in general is outside of the scope of this discussion, but I will say Chiropractory is a widely varied field in terms of adherence to scientific evidence and even basic medical ethics. I have known very good chiropractors who genuinely wanted to help with people’s pain and believed their methodology was superior to (or more often, worked in combination with) traditional approaches such as physical therapy, exercise, etc. My parents see a Chiropractor to this day and he came to all of our new year’s gatherings growing up; I like him very much as a person, and I’d like to think they are mostly like that. There are also, unfortunately, some Chiropractors who have discouraged patients from following the advice of their Physicians and receiving necessary treatments, and convinced them instead that a realignment of their spine can cure everything from diabetes to cancer. I have known some to sell unbelievably expensive and entirely unproven supplements from their offices and branch into other facets of alternative medicine even more dubious. Sorry to digress; all of that is to say, we don’t know what kind of Chiropractor he was, but when he speaks on virology, immunology, and microbiology, we need to understand that he is by no means speaking as an expert, or as someone who has actually trained in those areas of study extensively (though I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t actually know how much microbiology and immunology is taught in Chiropractor school; if a Chiropractor reads this and disagrees with my assessment, please feel free to lend your insight!).
Further, I think it bears pointing out that he is no longer practicing Chiropractory. As best I can tell, his license with the Pennsylvania board of Chiropractors has been on probation since 2014. To be fair, this was due to “moral turpitude” over a civil issue (which you could google if you wish, but I won’t share the details of the case here) and not due to issues related to his practice (this is of course assuming I have the correct Dr. Daniel Pompa, Chiropractor. I am ready to retract this information if someone is better at google than me and it turns out to be a different guy!). He currently works as a “cellular healing” and detox consultant and, as far as I can tell, all around alternative health huckster. His website and blog are absolutely full of dubious claims (though I’ve seen worse) and, of course, are oriented around a (presumably) expensive and unproven service that he can provide. Only Dr. Pompa has the key to unlocking your cellular health!
So, what’s the most we can say about Dr. Pompa so far? We know he trained in a fairly mainstream, regulated alternative medicine field, but is no longer able to practice in that field for legal reasons unrelated to chiropractory itself. We know that he now works in an entirely unregulated field of holistic healing/alternative medicine and puts himself forward as a “cellular healing and detox” specialist, which are not real areas of medicine. We also know that he is a very gifted communicator. He is handsome and well spoken, he dresses well and is likable on video, and most importantly he uses the combination of “common sense” arguments and pseudo-science vocabulary that is what makes alternative medicine seem especially convincing; the terminology all seems like the right type of terminology, but there is nothing here that you could say ‘well that doesn’t make sense’ to (in contrast to what C.S. Lewis says about things that are actually real; “the problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either”).
So, with all of my initial apologies about brevity, I find myself out of time and having not even addressed the video itself. To be fair, I didn’t know that there would be so many cautions to share about Dr. Pompa when I first started to research his career. Honestly, that ought to be enough; he is someone who has made a career out of selling unproven treatments based on empty scientific-sounding vocabulary and personal presence alone, once ‘mainstream alternative medicine’ would no longer allow him to practice, and his video above is convincing, where it is convincing, primarily because of these two factors. But I do believe that it is worth addressing the content of the video itself, and if you’ll give me leave I will attempt to do so in a few hours after my children are in bed!
I’ve watched the video a couple of times and taken down a few quotes, but I’d like to start with a short preamble: It’s really not all that bad. Please understand, I’m not saying it’s true; if I were a fact checker I would have no choice but to categorize it as “fake.” But my standard for misinformation has probably shifted a little during this pandemic, and this video is pretty benign overall. Like so much of the alternative health industry, it is an uneven and patchy mingling of truth and falsehood, so you couldn’t say “everything he said is dead wrong.” This is one of the problems with this industry; people who are in it REALLY believe in it, much of the time, and often have a few scientific facts or principles down but without any supporting context or science education, so they easily believe entire narratives that are built up around those few isolated truths.
I’m also not quite sure why he’s making the video. I suppose that in his line of work fame and notoriety do lead directly to financial success, and we are seeing a lot of people in alternative healthcare trying to use the pandemic to make a name for themselves and be seen as an expert. There’s certainly plenty of evidence of that in the video, from him saying ‘bottom line the experts have missed it’ to ‘this study confirms my point’ and lots of other subtleties of language intended to convey that he is the true expert on health and the poor guys at the CDC and WHO just don’t know any better. So, maybe that’s part of it; that is certainly the name of the game in that industry. But I’d like to overall give him the benefit of the doubt and say he really believes his message and wants to get the information out there; maybe I’ve been duped because he’s just so darn handsome so I’d like to believe him.
The problem is that it just isn’t reliable information. There are a few extremely egregious falsehoods, and we might as we’ll get them out of the way now.
“They’re looking at the death rates just sinking around the virus, saying ok it’s probably more like 0.1% at best, which is basically the same as the regular flu.” “The bottom line is the experts have missed it.”
-I have no idea where he got this information from. Maybe he heard it somewhere but misinterpreted it? The ‘no more dangerous than the flu’ line seemed to have quieted down for a while as the pandemic spread, but has resurfaced as social distancing and containment measures have proven effective; it’s a very easy thing to say when you don’t have family and friends who are in the ICU or have died from the virus, and in many places there are so few severe cases that it’s easy to believe that COVID-19 “wasn’t actually that big of a deal”, as though the pandemic 1. Hadn’t already killed over a hundred thousand people, and 2. Was already over and done with. This is something public health experts and lay people alike have been saying since the beginning; if the extreme measures we take now actually work, people will say they weren’t necessary. In places where the healthcare system is particularly overwhelmed, the case fatality rate remains above 5%; astronomically higher than seasonal influenza. In places where the healthcare system can cope with patients at a more routine pace, without running short of either Physicians, Nurses, other support staff, or equipment, the rate is much lower; but still on the order of 2%, not 0.1%. This is an incredibly deadly disease, and before anyone buys into the conspiracy that this was all hype pushed on us for this purpose or that, they should open themselves up to the images and stories coming from Washington, New York, Louisiana, Italy, and Spain. I am sure we will soon enough be told that those people were all “trauma actors.”
The biggest question mark in all of this, of course, is the lack of universal testing. Our testing policies so far have been driven by test scarcity, and there has ALWAYS been the assumption that as more testing on asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic patients occurred we would find a large cohort of people who were more or less healthy despite having the virus. But we are still very, very early into having this sort of testing anywhere, and from colleagues in healthcare system that DO have universal testing policies I am hearing that they just aren’t seeing many asymptomatic carriers. So although we will not be able to come to a final estimate of the death rate from this virus until all is said and done, so far it is too early to see the drop in the death rate due to asymptomatic cases that we all have expected.
“But because they are attributing many different conditions to Corona it’s probably even half that.”
-It’s hard to know what he means, but I believe he is referencing the conspiracy theory that someone is either inadvertently or intentionally inflating the death rate for COVID-19 by attributing deaths due to other conditions to the virus. I’ve addressed this in detail a few days ago on another Facebook post; I am happy to share it with you if you would like.
“Now we know it was a narrow group of people that were truly at risk for this virus.” “You can tell from my past videos that I am not one to have been fearing the virus.” “People are realizing that it’s not as dangerous as we thought and they want to get the antibodies…. Because if this mutates we could all be at risk.”
-This is a bit revisionist. He is making it sound as though we initially thought that every person had a big risk of ending up hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 and now we know it is only people with certain risk factors such as age, other medical conditions, immunocompromise, etc. This is actually the exact opposite of the true history of our understanding of COVID-19, and it was shocking when reports of death in young healthy people began to come out of Europe and then began to occur in the United States as well. Of course older people with medical problems are at higher risk; that is true for any infectious disease. But this is a virus that is, in fact, dangerous even for people who are young and healthy. We are ALREADY all at risk.
As far as the second quote goes, please do not be fooled; this disease is dangerous enough that TRYING to get the antibodies “naturally”, by intentionally being exposed to the virus, would be incredibly foolish and irresponsible. Vaccines were invented because some diseases are so dangerous that taking a chance on the live, unattenuated pathogen is the same as gambling with your life.
“They put things into place not understanding the risks…”
-I’ve included this because, briefly, I think it illustrates this concept of setting oneself up as an expert that is so common in these videos. The idea here is to convey that the people in charge, the epidemiology experts and virologists and the people who have actually spent years and years studying human disease and microbiology and human immunology, all meant well but just didn’t know or understand what he does. He goes on, as we’ll talk about below, to discuss the hygiene hypotheses of autoimmune disease and the ‘dangers’ of wearing masks, and if you connect the threads it really seems as though the physicians and researchers who have recommend ways to slow the spread of the disease just aren’t familiar with the principles he is referencing, which is of course preposterous. Please note, however, that he is releasing this video NOW instead of 2 or 3 weeks ago; now that the “things they put in place” have actually shown some measure of success, he has the luxury to say that none of it was necessary.
The Hygiene Theory
After this, we finally get into the real meat of his argument. He starts by quoting a study, “having fewer sanitary amenities in childhood is linked to a lower risk of having inflammatory bowel disease.” This is a basic concept of the hygiene hypothesis, that exposure to certain microbes is necessary and decreased exposure leads to multiple disease, including autoimmune disease. This is a valid scientific theory with a good bit of evidence. Like most things in medicine (or for that matter, most things in real life period), it is much more complicated than it is presented here. It would be dangerous, for instance, to presume that because some bacteria, viruses, and fungi are important to our growth, development, digestion, and the functioning of our immune systems, that therefore ALL such microbes are healthy and beneficial and we were wrong to want to protect ourselves from them. Concluding that because exposure to more microbes is linked to decrease in risk of inflammatory bowel disease, we should expose ourselves to ALL bacteria and viruses including the one that causes COVID-19, would be particularly illustrative of the clinging to a few points of medical data without actually understanding them that we talked about before, which is so emblematic of this industry.
“The whole point of all of these studies is that more the viruses, bacteria, and pathogens you are exposed to the healthier your immune system is.”
-I cheated there, because I knew he was going to say that already as I was writing that last paragraph. What he’s done is taken one category of disease and one set of risk factors for those diseases, and conflated them with all of human health in general because the words happen to be the same. Because disease, bacteria, and microbe all appear in both discussions of the hygiene hypothesis of autoimmune disease and in concepts related to infectious disease, he believes that data from one can be used to negate data from the other. It is a basic failure to understand the concepts and even the terminology that is being discussed. To put it more simply; he is stating that because some bacteria are good for us, bacteria can’t be bad for us. He probably doesn’t really believe that, but the implication is that if your immune system is healthy enough then everything that would make others sick will just make you stronger.
The failure here is to distinguish between viruses, bacteria, and fungi in general, and pathogens, which are viruses, bacteria, and fungi (and other fun little guys) that cause diseases in humans. Avoiding pathogens that can make you sick is the most basic way of avoiding dying from some of the most painful and devastating killers in our fallen world. It’s the reason we don’t eat raw pork and why we wash off a cut. It’s a very basic concept that is taught even in high school biology, and it isn’t confusing to anyone in the medical field. It isn’t really confusing to anyone at all, until the obfuscation occurs in videos like this. The alternative health industry, and particularly those sectors of it that are focused on ‘restoring natural immunity’ and establishing healthy gut flora, etc, need to convince you that they are the only ones that really understand these concepts, so they obscure simple ideas, minimize complicated ones, and conflate terminology until they have a version of our complex immune systems and interactions with the world around us that is almost, but not entirely, completely untrue. They would like you to believe that everyone else is confused; that doctors think all bacteria are bad and want to sterilize your microbiome and gut flora with antibiotics and hand sanitizer, and can’t distinguish between the presence or absence of an infectious disease. There was even a video recently where an alternative health partisan claimed that doctors don’t study the immune system in medical school at all, which is obvious nonsense. And in trying to convincing you, they do convince themselves.
“Before this we had the hygiene theory: run from bacteria, kill all the bacteria” “Let’s not throw a whole decade of research out the window”
-Again, just to be clear, the hygiene hypothesis IS the theory that decreased exposure to microbes increases the risk of certain diseases. And the theory and research around it has been around for decades. I find it concerning that he keeps exactly inverting the concept of the one scientifically valid theory upon which he has built his entire pseudo-medical philosophy, and then calls it a failed theory that we have to abandon. In his defense, it is a misnomer, since avoiding non-pathogenic microbes has nothing to do with hygiene.
“If I was going into a group of people that was at risk I would wear a mask….” “It wasn’t about killing bacteria and viruses and pathogens, it was about living with them.”
-You might notice, as you watch the video, that he frequently shifts between treating the virus as something to take seriously and something we should live alongside and go ahead and ‘get antibodies’ to as early as possible. We haven’t really beaten this thing yet, so I don’t think that the people making these ‘it isn’t so bad’ videos can be quite so brazen in saying that the virus isn’t dangerous, no matter how much data their audiences are generally willing to ignore… at least, not yet. He is willing to tell you that you should keep your grandmother or immunocompromised friend safe by wearing a mask around them, but at other times in the video he encourages you to touch your face and implies that we need to take this opportunity to get exposed before the virus mutates. In 2-3 months we will see many articles and videos of people telling us that we missed our chance to have “COVID-19 parties” and that this is because big pharma and their pawns, doctors and nurses, want to suppress our natural immunity so they can sell vaccines. But those videos will have to wait until people stop dying from this virus. SARS-CoV-2, at least for the time being, still has to be respected as a pathogen.
“The hygiene philosophy failed. The antibiotic era, hand sanitizers, all of it has FAILED.”
-Let’s be clear; hygiene measures associated with germ theory have saved more human lives than any other intervention in medical history (vaccines and antibiotics are also in the top 5). It is ludicrous to say that hygiene doesn’t save lives. There are places in the world and in the United States where we STILL see the devastating effects and widespread disease and death associated with lack of access to clean water and basic hygiene measures. This is a privileged belief from every standpoint; chronologically, geographically, socio-economically. Living in a hygienic environment with potable water and clean, nutritious food, he has the gall to say that hygiene is a failed concept. He would like us to use the word ‘hygiene’ as a synonym for his red herring of ‘sterile’ and believe that doctors and public health experts want us to never be exposed to the world around us, which is patently false. He then wants to conflate the hundreds of years of excellent hygiene and microbiology work that has been done, which has saved billions of lives, with his own narrative that if they had their way doctors would have us all living in white rooms wearing gloves and afraid to let our kids play in dirt. Why? Because thoroughly undermining generally altruistic physicians and nurses that practice actual evidence-based medicine is very good for the alternative health business.
“The true risk of what we’re calling the new normal.” “People with masks and gloves”
-Please wear masks. Please treat the virus like it can cause terrible respiratory failure and kill you, because it definitely can. Nobody is recommending you lysol your house daily (but please do it to the kitchen counter if you are cutting raw chicken, because Salmonella is a bacteria that IS a pathogen and can also make you sick). Your kids can play in the mud; they can do it today, if you’ve got some mud in your back yard and nobody has been over to cough on that mud. Wearing masks every day of our lives, not hugging each other, avoiding social gatherings, avoiding dirt and trees, and cleaning everything we touch are not practices that have ever been espoused by Physicians or public health experts. Taking precautions as individuals when we are ill, and as a society right now because a particular, new, deadly virus is currently spreading in our communities and threatening to overwhelm our ability to care for those affected, is something we espouse; and I believe that, regardless of what some people might want us to believe, most of us have the common sense to see the difference.