Data Analyst Declines to Analyze Data, Part 1: Home Isolation, Medicare Fraud, and The Flu.

I want to begin by acknowledging that the headline to this article is quite snarky. While I try to write about these issues of medical misinformation with some degree of charity towards those I disagree with (and often fail at that), writing titles to posts doesn’t allow for quite so much nuance; I honestly find it to be the most challenging thing about blogging.

Here is a video that was recently shared on my friend’s Facebook timeline. It is mercifully short (less than 5 minutes) and I have included the link for those who would like to watch it in it’s entirety. My friend is an Emergency Physician in New York state, and she was probably on shift when this was shared to her wall. Later on she did leave her own comments, and I have chosen to include some of them, and snippets of our conversation afterward, in this blog post. Let me tell you why.

This was about the guy in the video, not about me.
I’m pretty sure.

I tend to believe that while the people generating these conspiracy theory videos are motivated by desire for some combination of fame, power, or fortune (and this video may well be an exception to that) the people who are sharing them widely on social media and forming opinions based on them are more victims than accomplices. They are being given false information exactly calculated to appeal to their fears, their political leanings, and their preconceptions, and they are deciding to place their trust in these so-called experts because they themselves do not have the background or knowledge base to parse the information on their own. Without a background in statistics, medicine, epidemiology, etc. they feel they have no choice but to trust one “expert” or the other, and all too naturally quiet their own discernment and choose the one that reinforces their own views. The problem is that while one group of experts have devoted their lives to rigorously studying disease and the human body so that they can help those who are suffering, the other group of “experts” are actually only experts in engendering this sort of trust, and not in the areas of knowledge they claim to understand; they are essentially false information experts.

Because of this, I do try to approach these topics with gentleness, recognizing that it is easy to be deceived and hard to sort truth from fiction. I have that privilege because right now the COVID-19 pandemic has really impacted my life quite minimally, compared to the rest of the world. Katie is still homeschooling and I am still going into work. We haven’t hit a surge yet and so while I have seen COVID-19 patients, and we have had some deaths due to the virus in Waco, I am not being called upon, at this time, to work extended hospitalist or emergency room shifts trying to care for patients in an overwhelmed hospital with physically and emotionally exhausted staff and colleagues.

But my friend is working under exactly those circumstances, and if she’s a bit more adamant than I am about how hurtful, how dangerous, and how dehumanizing these types of nonsense and lies are to not only the victims of this terrible virus, but also to the healthcare workers fighting it… well, I think she’s perfectly entitled. Please trust me, if she found these falsehoods shared on her Facebook wall by friends or family members when she came home from a shift where multiple patients died or were admitted to the ICU due to COVID-19, she could be considerably more vociferous if she chose.

I’d like to devote a separate essay to the the main point of his video, which to him constitutes “100% proof” of fraud and a major international conspiracy lead by WHO and the CDC, and apparently involving doctors and healthcare workers across the globe. This revolves mainly around CPT codes, and the “two CPT codes” being used for COVID-19 in order to cook the books “right in front of your eyes.” We are going to go into this in more detail, hopefully sometime in the next 2 days, but first I want to discuss the other issues he raises in the video.

Home Isolation

At the 1:46 mark of the video, Mr. McCarthy says, “Here’s a document from the CDC dated July 2020 (Note: this means that the article is due to be published in July, not that this article is from the future, as helpful as those would be if we could get our hands on them) that clearly states…”

“In addition, our findings suggest that home isolation of persons with suspected COVID-19 might not be a good control strategy (McCarthy: Oh there’s a shocker!). Family members usually do not have personal protective equipment and lack professional training, which easily leads to familial cluster infections.”

He concludes, “meaning it’s making it worse, not better folks!”

This is a direct quote from the study below (image links to full article on CDC website).

His point here seems to be that having people who are actually suspected of having the virus stay medically isolated at home is actually worsening the pandemic. Which is… pretty nuts. We are not even discussing broad based social/physical distancing measures and shelter in place orders here, but actual management of suspected cases. It’s hard to imagine in what way, or compared to what strategy, having these patients isolate at home would make things worse. Would he prefer for patients with suspected COVID-19 just go back to work, despite their cough and fever, and wait for their test results? Does he think that patients wouldn’t be in their homes exposing their families at all if not for doctor’s orders? He doesn’t say, but the implication, in the context of the rest of the video, is that having patients who are actually ill keep themselves at home and away from the general public is yet another tool of the COVID-19 conspiracy… As opposed to being a common-sense step we already take for pretty much every other contagious illness.

It’s hard to know whether Mr. McCarthy is simply confused in thinking that the article’s point is that home isolation is too draconian, or if he is intentionally drawing the wrong conclusion in order to deceive his listeners. Sadly, I think it must be the latter, because the very next sentence of the article reads as follows:

During the outbreak, the government of China strove to the fullest extent possible to isolate all patients with suspected COVID-19 by actions such as constructing mobile cabin hospitals in Wuhan, which ensured that all patients with suspected disease were cared for by professional medical staff and that virus transmission was effectively cut off.

So the opinion of this articles authors is that having suspected COVID-19 patients isolate at home is not nearly extreme enough to prevent spread of this virus, and that patients should be kept in mobile hospitals instead. Considering that his very next point is that hospitals are manipulating the COVID-19 data to make money, we must concluded that his omission of the very next sentence and his substituting his own conclusion, which is the exact opposite of that drawn by the study’s authors, is actually intentional.

Hospitals are miscategorizing people as COVID-19 patients because of the CARES Act.

This claim, which is implicit throughout the video, is explicitly stated at the 2:56 mark:

“All they have to do is use the right code! Why aren’t they using it? Because the average COVID-19 case for medicare or medicaid is between $13,000 and $100,000 right now folks. So by flipping this number to this number (pointing back to the CPT codes), the hospitals are making a tremendous amount of money off of medicare and medicaid… It’s absolutely fraud.”

Now, there’s a lot wrong and just plain silly with his take here. There’s the fact that our healthcare costs in this country are so inflated (largely because of the hospital-insurance company arms race) that those numbers, which he means to be a ‘they are charging how much!?’ moment… really aren’t all that shocking (also, that’s a pretty big range there). There’s the fact that using one COVID-19 code vs. another based on whether a test was positive isn’t going to affect billing or epidemiology data (we are going to go into this in more detail in the next blog post). And there’s the fact that this really does seem like the type of information that, like the last example, actually proves the opposite of his point if it proves anything at all. Many patients with COVID-19 are incredibly, unbelievably sick and require high levels of support and prolonged hospital stays (we have been closely following the story of a man here in town, a friend’s brother, who has only just returned home after over a month in the hospital, including an extended ICU stay), and quoting numbers about the exorbitant expenses associated the disease really shows two things; we need to move away from a for-profit model of healthcare in this country, and this is a very, very bad bug.

But unlike nonsensical theories of 5G towers reprogramming our DNA or defeating COVID-19 by doing a cellular health detox cleanse, most Physicians are not so quick to dismiss the idea that some in hospital administration and corporate medicine might see government provision for COVID-19 treatment, such as that provided in the CARES Act, as an opportunity to profit; or at least to make up for lost revenue from cancelling elective surgeries and decreased admissions leading up to any COVID-19 surge. I have known hospital and clinic administrators I trust implicitly, and I have known hospital administrators who have lied directly to my face; but most probably fall into a very broad category of people who just have different values and convictions around what medicine is supposed to be than I and most other Physicians hold to. At the end of the day, I tend to think it’s a bad idea in general to have the practice of medicine driven by, in so much as it is driven by, people who have studied and been hired to increase profits and market shares rather than people who have taken an oath to do no harm and to aid the suffering. It would be somewhat naive to expect that dynamic to disappear entirely in a pandemic.

But let me be clear; if a handful, or even a large number, of unethical hospital administrators are actually trying to commit fraud to gain access to additional payments related to COVID-19, either by attempting to influence clinician decision making or by actually modifying medical records, those people should be convicted. But even if this were the case, I do not believe for a moment that such activity has any way of significantly changing the hard data we are seeing, for a few reasons.

First and most importantly, the numbers we are seeing do match the experiences of doctors and nurses on the ground. Doctors have a good gauge for what a bad flu season looks like or when a viral GI bug is going around, and generally have a bead what is happening with the health of their communities. It is absurd to believe that doctors and nurses who are suddenly fighting for their own and their patients’ lives against this horrible virus have all been wrapped into some big conspiracy to profit hospital administrators and stock holders. That’s why the ‘hospital administrator cooking the books’ (note to self: new idea for a Les Mis parody song) idea tends to be a final redoubt for conspiracy theorists once they have been confronted by actual doctors and nurses, who in the cultural atmosphere since COVID-19 they no longer feel they can get away with calling liars and conspirators directly to their faces.

But it also doesn’t make any sense to equate medicare or medicaid fraud related to COVID-19 to an inflation of the epidemiology data, because even if EVERY hospital administrator were in on it, they would still have very limited influence on that data. They would not, for instance, be driving to community based and free standing labs to convince lab techs to report positive tests, so they would have a better COVID-19 paper trail if those patients showed up in their ER’s later. They are not going to unaffiliated, clinics and underserved healthcare centers and convincing Physicians, NP’s and PA’s to fudge their evaluations to make COVID-19 look more prevalent. They are not telling ICU and Emergency Room doctors when a patient’s respiratory status is sufficiently dire to require a ventilator (I have actually heard of such cases in the past, and those administrators were promptly reported for practicing medicine without a license), and at any rate if they were they would be ignored. They are certainly not killing people; it is the virus that is doing that.

Just like with pharmaceutical companies, insurers, drug reps, home medical equipment companies, and so, so many other players in the healthcare arena, Physicians have complicated and often antagonistic relationships with hospital administrators. But even if you believed that every single hospital administrator were corrupt and currently working overtime to try to game the COVID-19 situation, there are just so many other people involved in tracking this data. There are epidemiologists and infectious disease doctors, the local public health department, the coroner’s office, local and state government officials of all political influences, and many, many people evaluating this data from every possible angle to see what we might be missing, or what patterns might help us be prepared for what comes next. And finally there are the people living through this pandemic; the doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists, yes, but also the patients, those living and those deceased, and their friends and family and loved ones. These are the people who are robbed of their dignity and their opportunity to grieve and process in peace when people like Daniel McCarthy erroneously claim that COVID-19 is being blown out of proportion to make money for a fairly small group of businessmen.

The flu kills more people anyway.

It’s hard to know exactly what point he’s trying to make by touching on influenza death and hospitalization data toward the end of the video. My hope is that he’s merely pointing out the importance of having reliable data. If so, I would agree with him, although from the rest of the video I don’t think I would trust him to recognize it once we had it. Unfortunately, however, I think he is simply reviving the ‘it’s just another flu’ rallying cry that we’ve heard consistently for months from those ignoring the realities of the COVID-19 situation; if that wasn’t his intent, my apologies to Mr. McCarthy; it’s a good thing for us to talk about here at some point anyway.

I’m honestly so sick to death of this one. It is the end of April and I am sure that this has been explained to Mr. McCarthy several times by now, so I can only assume he has chosen to perpetuate the lie that COVID-19 is ‘basically just like the flu’ because it fits with his narrative, and not out of actual ignorance. I hope I am wrong about that. I won’t go into extensive detail (I have included a link to an article below), but essentially the flu is a partially vaccine-preventable virus that demonstrates seasonal prevalence and has a high rate of mutation. Because of this, epidemiologists have to try to predict which strains of seasonal flu are likely to be prevalent in the coming flu season so that vaccines can be prepared. Some years these are more effective (and more widely accepted) than in other years, and some years the seasonal flu strains are more dangerous or more widespread than other years. This means that seasonal influenza has the potential to be very, very bad in any given year; but also that there is a high degree of variability. 

In addition to flu vaccines, there are several mitigating factors that help keep the flu from overwhelming our hospitals and healthcare infrastructures every Winter. First, flu season is fairly long; usually above 3 months, with a high degree of chronologic and geographic distribution. This means while hospitals are sometimes extremely taxed by the flu, it is rare for them to actually be overwhelmed; though there are certain years and certain locations that come very close. If you consolidated the impact of even a light flu season into a 1 month period, affecting every community in the country at roughly the same time, it would absolutely overwhelm our healthcare systems and people would begin to die not just from the flu but also from our inability to provide care for other conditions while battling it; and this is exactly what COVID-19 does threaten to do (and has done) because of it’s much higher degree of infectivity and, likely, higher degree of asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic spread compared with influenza. 

Second, we know the flu is coming. Each year Physician, Nurses, and other healthcare workers make strategic decisions leading up to flu season. When I have taken leave to work internationally, we have always scheduled that time during the late Spring or Summer, when I knew I would be less needed because we wouldn’t be in the midst of fighting the flu. Staffing decisions and other resource organization is made based on the expectation of a surge, even if the exact timing and parameters of that surge are unknown. With COVID-19, there was no preparation time in those regions that were hit earliest, and the rest of us have been scrambling ever since to ensure that our systems are ready for a surge that is unpredictable because there are no decades of past data to help us now what to expect at our hospital or in our region.

Third, we already how to deal with the flu. While influenza seasons and symptom clusters do vary, the syndrome is very recognizable and we generally have a good idea of what to expect with flu cases, and how they interact with other acute and chronic illnesses. As several quotes I’ve read recently have said, “The flu is an old enemy.” Yes, it is a very, very dangerous enemy, but it is definitely ‘the devil we know’ compared to COVID-19. We have years of research and clinical experience to help us. We know which medications have modest therapeutic benefits and which have none, and what strategies to use when patients present for dangerous complications of the flu, such as post-influenza bacterial pneumonia, or when it causes complications in preexisting lung disease. With COVID-19, new data is still emerging continuously about both the strange spectrum of harm that this virus causes, and the possible treatment approaches; those fighting the virus later in the course of this pandemic really do stand a better chance of both diagnosing it accurately and treating it effectively. 

Finally, the flu itself is already bad enough, and dismissing COVID-19 as ‘basically another flu’ just shows how the people spreading these ideas are already in the habit of dismissing incredibly dangerous infectious illnesses. Already COVID-19 has killed more people in the US than almost any flu season, and yet people are still waving it off as ‘another flu’ the way they were weeks ago when it had ‘only’ killed a few thousand. In the coming days the total number of deaths in the US will surpass the 62,000 mark set by the 2017-2018 flu season, the worst we’ve had since I’ve been a Physician. Once this benchmark is passed, will these conspiracy theorists finally abandon the ‘it’s just like another flu’ argument, or would they like to hold on to it until COVID-19 has actually surpassed the numbers set by the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918?