Back to School

I’ve promised at least a dozen people that I would write about this over the past month and have so far utterly failed them. The truth is that it’s such a huge topic, and so fraught with the risk of saying something too extreme and dogmatic, that it’s hard to even know where to start. In a way, being at least a month late to this topic is much, much more comfortable, because not only do we have much more data now, but I can write in the certain and comfortable knowledge that my essay will have no impact whatsoever on what we do about reopening schools (not that it would have anyway). My goal therefore, besides keeping out of trouble, is to provide whatever insight I can into whether or not it’s safe to reopen schools and then what you, dear reader, can do to mitigate the inherent risks within your own scope of influence. I don’t always lay out a thesis statement at the beginning of these essays, because despite what I learned in Freshman honors English, I usually don’t have one (sorry Mrs. Greer!); but today I want to address whether going back to school is going to worsen the pandemic, whether it is worth the risk, and what parents, educators, and we as a society can do to make this situation as safe as possible.


Is going back to school going to make the pandemic worse?

Answer: Yes, absolutely.

Did you want me to elaborate, or is that sufficient? The reality is that I can see no way that this isn’t going to make the pandemic worse. On some level this math is incredibly simple; more people in close quarters means more cases, and more cases means more deaths. The real question is how much worse will reopening schools make the pandemic, and as we discuss below, whether that risk is justified right now. This question is going to answer itself in a few months, maybe even within a few weeks; but right now the best we can do is guess.

When I first started writing about this issue, I wasn’t sure what conclusions I would draw (which is generally a good way to start, if you can do it). I actually expected to arrive at answers that were cautiously optimistic, but as I went through the current data I became more concerned. My goal in writing this was not to sound an alarm or argue a point but to evaluate the evidence, and if you find my conclusions somewhat more discouraging than you had hoped, please know you aren’t alone; I was discouraged too. We are going to look at three types of evidence; what the epidemiological and experimental data tells us about how children and adolescents spread the virus, what has already happened in other places that have reopened schools, and what the risk is to these populations, to educators, and to the family members of school aged children and adolescents.

Can children spread the virus?
I’ve said before that for any discussion of whether or not children and adolescents can spread the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the burden of proof would be on the side of proving that they don’t, not proving that they do. We have decades- nay, millennia- of experience with and evidence of children spreading viral respiratory illnesses. I see it literally every day in my clinic and have experienced it within my own body when I have been laid up for days (I’m told this is called a “man-cold”) from a virus that one of my adorable walking fomites brought home from parents-day-out or Sunday School (or whatever your church calls it to avoid having to call it Sunday School). Under normal circumstances we take this very seriously; we cancel birthday parties when one of our kids has a fever and we regretfully reschedule plans with friends when a respiratory virus has affected our family, because we know that we could spread it to their family. In fact, this is such a truism that it is accepted conventional wisdom, and I regularly have parents tell me of a cold or the flu that their children got it from a cousin and are “just passing it around” within the home. Barring some compelling microbiological difference, there is no reason to assume that it would be any different for COVID-19. Without definitive evidence, I simply do not find claims that ‘children don’t spread the virus’ convincing. It is well and good for people like British Epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse to say that there have been ‘no recorded cases worldwide of a teacher catching the coronavirus from a pupil’ (‘pupil’ is a British word for ‘student’), but aside from the problem of seeming to claim categorical knowledge, saying this in July when schools had been closed since the early days of the pandemic in March paints the risk as being low with much more confidence than the evidence warrants. But epidemiology is an applied science, and what we get wrong in our models and assumptions, the virus will correct for us in the bodies of students and teachers.

Nevertheless, the evidence was initially encouraging. A review of available evidence published on July 31st in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics asserted that “children most frequently acquire COVID-19 from adults, rather than transmitting it to them,” while acknowledging that this is a significant divergence from transmission patterns in other viral respiratory illnesses such as influenza. The authors concluded, “On the basis of these data, SARS-CoV-2 transmission in schools may be less important in community transmission than initially feared.” This conclusion is based on a study from Switzerland that tracked cases in 39 households, and another in China that included 68 children with confirmed COVID-19.

The same month, a study from Korea that traced contacts of 5,706 individuals with COVID-19 found that the highest transmission rates were for the household contacts of school-aged children with the virus, and concluded that “rates were higher for contacts of children than adults.” Because we are talking about COVID-19, this claim might be considered controversial. If we were talking about literally any other respiratory virus, every parent I know would respond by saying, “well… yeah.”

This finding, from a much larger study, provides a more balanced context for the major enigma from the AAP article; a German experiment that showed that viral loads in the nasopharynx (nasopharynxes? nasophari?) of children were as high as those in older people, “raising concern that children could be as infectious as adults” (Update: this result has since been confirmed by a study at Massachusetts General Hospital released yesterday, August 19th, which actually found viral loads in children with COVID-19 that were higher than that of severely ill hospitalized adults). The AAP article offered a few possible explanations for why this did not line up with the reassuring findings from the small epidemiological studies they reviewed. First, because children are more frequently mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic, releasing fewer infectious respiratory particles during their illness compared to adults. Sure; but adults don’t generally pick their noses and then touch every single muffin before deciding which one they want for breakfast. Maybe with this disgusting example from my life this morning in mind, the AAP article added, “Another possibility is that because school closures occurred in most locations… most close contacts became limited to households, reducing opportunities for children to become infected in the community and present as index cases.” And if that is the analysis of the most optimistic academic article on reopening schools I’ve seen yet, what will be the conclusions of the epidemiological studies from 2 months from now?

Are we actually seeing COVID-19 cases transmitted by children?
The second type of data reveals yet another benefit of pathologic procrastination, because if I had written this a month ago we wouldn’t have some of this data at all. A recent analysis showed a surge of nearly 100,000 new pediatric COVID-19 cases in the latter part of July, prompting Pediatric Infectious Diseases specialist Dr. Sean O’Leary of Children’s Hospital Colorado (where I did all of my pediatric rotations in med school) to say “I think it’s showing that, yes, kids can get infected and can spread the infection.” This trend continued this month, with 75,755 new cases from 7/30 to 8/13. To put this in context, that means that nearly half of US COVID-19 cases in children have been confirmed in the last 4 weeks. Still, while some school-related activities and sports camps were happening over this time frame, this was before most schools actually reopened; once they do, these numbers may end up looking small. In places where they have reopened, we have read about high schools, middles schools, and kindergartens shutting down, quarantining massive number of students, or further delaying reopening due to large numbers of exposures to the virus and increasing numbers of confirmed cases among students and staff. This is mirrored in other places where young people are together en masse. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has switched entirely to online classes (and now Notre Dame and Michigan State) for the semester due to multiple clusters of transmission on campus, and we have read reports throughout the Summer of camps closing due to massive outbreaks among campers and counselors.

More to the point, I see this all the time. I’ve evaluated hundreds of patients for COVID-19 over the past several months, and there has not been a strange, unexplained phenomenon of patients not getting sick from their kids. I know there are some people who will never believe in COVID-19 transmission in children from studies in Korea that demonstrate thousands of cases; so I’ll just tell you now, I’ve personally seen many people who got COVID-19 from their children. We’ve seen children stay with cousins who tested positive, and then bring the infection to the adults and other children in their own household. We’ve seen families of 5 or 6 all test positive for COVID-19 after one of the children developed symptoms first. I haven’t seen any teachers get COVID-19 from a student; but I don’t think any of our local schools are actually open at this point. But transmission from children is happening and has been happening, and as much as we all wish against it, there is simply no chance that we won’t see community transmission clustered around schools once they are reopened.

Yeah, but children aren’t at a high risk from COVID-19, right?
The inevitable questions is, so what? Aren’t kids immune? Or if not immune, at least far less susceptible to COVID-19 than adults? To some degree, the answer is “yes, thank God.” If this were the Spanish Flu of 1918, which disproportionately killed children, our society would not even be dreaming about reopening schools. As a parent of four small children, the fact that children are relatively safe from the virus has been the main reason I have felt comfortable seeing large volumes of patients with COVID-19-like symptoms daily over the past several months. As we discussed in the article addressing the America’s Frontline Doctors video, and again when discussing misinformation around COVID-19 and Human Trafficking, we don’t actually know the exact mortality rate among children. We do know it is much lower than for other groups.

My 5 year old son is 64x less likely than me to die from COVID-19, and 12,364x less likely to throw out his shoulder playing catch.

We also know it is not zero. While 20 of the states included in the latest analysis by the CDC reported zero child deaths, the rest reported at least one, and the mortality rate was as high as 0.6% in confirmed cases. The state with this frighteningly high mortality rate? Texas. Now before we break out our calculators and start to panic at the realization of what a 0.6% case fatality rate in children means, this is definitely an outlier (and I believe drastically overestimates the actual infection fatality rate in children), and of course it only includes identifiable cases; this mortality rate still cannot account for asymptomatic cases or minimally symptomatic children who don’t get tested. Nevertheless, not-zero multiplied by a lot is still a lot, and there is reason to expect that the 400,000 child cases of COVID-19 in the US so far may soon be a drop in the bucket. Some of the children who become infected over the coming weeks and months as schools reopen will, in fact, die, and for many of us who are affected by these deaths, this pandemic will no longer seem to have miraculously ‘spared children’ the way it has over the past 6 months with schools closed and children mostly kept at home.

But more importantly, death rates do not tell the entire story. While we have seen few child deaths, we have seen many children hospitalized for COVID-19, and an analysis of hospitalizations published just last week reveals that out of all hospitalized children with COVID-19, about one-third require ICU level care (though require mechanical ventilation far less frequently than adults). There are many ways to explain and understand this data, some of which are included in their analysis and some of which aren’t; but their conclusion is 100% spot-on:

“Children are at risk for severe COVID-19. Public health authorities and clinicians should continue to track pediatric SARS-CoV-2 infections. Reinforcement of prevention efforts is essential in congregate settings that serve children, including childcare centers and schools.”

Dr. Lindsay Kim, et. al

Finally, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we aren’t actually most worried about the kids. If you look back at the chart from the CDC above, the groups that we are worried about most are the ones who are 1,400 times, 3,500 times or 10,000 times more likely to die from COVID-19 infection than school age children; their older parents and grandparents. Without any conclusive evidence that children ‘can’t spread the virus’ and more than enough compelling data that they can, we have every reason to believe that the population at greatest risk from reopening schools will be the grandparents of school-age children, not to mention older parents, teachers, and educators. As a society, we are now in the impossible position of choosing whether our children will forego being educated, socialized, fed, and nurtured inside of schools or whether they will be exposed to a deadly virus (soon, two deadly viruses; flu season is coming) that they can bring home to vulnerable family members.


Is it worth the risk?

Answer: I have no idea.

Child abuse
So we know that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to get worse when schools reopen, but we don’t know by how much; and the other side of the equation is the risks associated with not reopening schools, which go far deeper than a semester or two of stymied educational attainment and missing out on the various intracranial and orthopedic injuries associated with high school sports (yes, I was on the Quiz Bowl Team. How did you know?). Since the beginning of the pandemic and the early closing of schools, cancelling of Summer programs and camps for children, and other mitigation measures that meant keeping children within the confines of their homes and family circles, we have been talking about, writing about, and worried about the possibility of child abuse and neglect going up during this crisis, especially when combined with unemployment, increased stress and anxiety, and grief related to the pandemic. And while this has been written about extensively by child advocates and physicians (like myself) who are also very concerned about the very real threat of COVID-19, it has also been used, similar to the issue of human trafficking, by people whose only real goal has been to diminish the threat of the virus and fight against any and all mitigation efforts.

So let me be clear. There is something gross and disturbing about people who have done everything within their power to make the pandemic worse, from neglecting social distancing to spreading misinformation and fighting against mask wearing, now saying that it is the people with legitimate epidemiological concerns about reopening schools who don’t care about child abuse. If it weren’t for people like this, we would be in a position to reopen schools much, much more safely and mitigate both threats more effectively. I deal with child abuse and its ramifications every day of my life; people don’t get to use it to try to give their deliberate pattern of denialism and irresponsibility throughout this pandemic the moral high ground. Reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic is an incredibly complex and difficult decision; but we are in this position, at least partly, because of them.

Well, so much for not getting myself into trouble.

The question of child abuse during the pandemic is one that remains unanswered. We all intuitively feel the danger of having children at home more and not having teacher’s eyes on children, especially in the midst of all the other risk factors we mentioned above. We all know of cases where a teacher or other educator has been the key person to report an abusive or neglectful situation and allow social services to intervene; I have seen this happen myself. But the idea that keeping children home from school will lead to a drastic rise in missed child abuse cases may overestimate the efficacy of the systems we have in place to report and investigate child abuse under normal circumstances. An in-depth article from The Marshall Project provides a careful analysis of the dynamics of mandated reporting, and while I think this is still an essential function of teachers, articles like this one from Mother Jones that list the huge drop-off in reports of suspected child abuse following school closures in March may be engaging in sensationalism; the vast majority of calls are not found to represent confirmed child abuse or neglect, and saying that, for instance, Illinois officials “received 6,672 reports of abuse in the week before the governor’s order to close, and 3,675 in the week after” does not mean that 2,997 abused or neglected children were missed.

There’s a balance here; early detection is the key to protecting children in child abuse situations, and there have been some reports by ER physicians that while the numbers of children presenting for child abuse are going down, the cases they do see seem to involve more severe or extensive injuries. Intuitively, we may believe that this is because of school closures… But most of this pandemic has so far taken place during months when schools would have been closed anyway, and it seems every bit as likely that the worsened severity of these child abuse cases is due to the other pressures of the pandemic not related to schools, like stress and anxiety and economic hardships. As the article above points out, we saw similar increases in child abuse severity during the 2008 recession even without school closures. Moreover, the long-held belief that child abuse peaks at all times children are home from school – the Summer, Christmas break, etc- seems to be a myth, and we are left to conclude what we really should have known already about the causes of child abuse; that they are complex. Blaming school closures for child abuse ignores this complexity in favor of a narrative that only seems to make the decision to reopen schools easier.

Other risks to children due to school closures
I have a friend who spent his entire Fall and Summer, before leaving a few weeks ago for Physician Assistant school, trying to get food to thousands of children who normally rely on school breakfasts and lunches for a substantial part of their weekly nutrition. I should note that he was working with an organization; he wasn’t just making tons of sandwiches and then driving around handing them out across Texas and Louisiana. Without people like Dustin and organizations like Texas Hunger Initiative, many of those children would have faced significant nutritional deficits throughout this pandemic, and many children across our country don’t have access to programs like this. Moreover, school is not just a center of learning; many essential services such as counseling, speech and physical therapy, and support for learning disabilities and learning disadvantages occur within school walls. Moreover, the families who have least need of these services and the least reliance on school lunches are also the families that are most likely to have educational books in the home, stable internet and redundant internet-capable devices that can be used for distance learning, and other privileges that allow them to engage with learning resources regardless of the status of in-person school. The real threat to education posed by the pandemic isn’t the risk of students missing a year of school across the board (what, are we trying to beat the Russians to the moon?), but the risk of perpetuating and amplifying educational disparities.

But to make things murkier still, those are also the same students that are themselves most likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, and whose parents and grandparents are at the greatest risk from the pandemic, due to healthcare disparities that often cut along the same racial and socio-economic lines as educational disparities, due to the same historical, systemic injustices. I hope you didn’t come here for answers; it really feels like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the only certainty is that the families and children in our society who are already the hardest pressed on all sides at baseline will suffer the most dire consequences from whatever decision we make. Trying to correct this and share our portion of the burden should be at the forefront of whatever policies or personal decisions we make going forward.


What can we do as parents?

Be responsible
I hesitate to put this one first because I realize it might sound accusational. Please look at the section heading; ‘what can we do as parents’; please understand that I’m including myself in this category (since I am not an educator or a society) and preaching this mini sermon to myself as well. Nevertheless, this is not an admonishment but a plea, to all of us, to take this virus seriously. As a primary care physician who sees many children, I have some version of this conversation a few times a week:

Me: Good morning, tell me what brings you guys in today.
Parent of child: The school called this morning and said he had a fever of 119.
Me, panicky: Wait… 101.9?
Parent of child: Right.
Me, less panicky: Whew… Ok, so when did his symptoms start?
Parent of child: He started with a cough 3 days ago and felt warm last night, but I didn’t have a thermometer. They checked him at school today and called me.

As a parent I’ve done this myself; not just misspoke and said the wrong temperature because I had been up with a fussy child all night, but also sent my child to daycare or school because I didn’t really believe they were sick and I was able to rationalize away their symptoms. I’ve received that phone call before; your 2 year old has a fever at parents-day-out, your 5 year old threw up at Vacation Bible School; come and get your child. And the thing is, out of anybody, I should really have known better. But some children have minor coughs and off days so often that under normal circumstances playing a game of chicken with the symptoms and letting the school or daycare be the ones to make the final call that they are really sick is understandable. Not justified, but understandable.

These are not normal circumstances.

As parents, now is the time to take those minor symptoms more seriously and call your PCP or bring your child to their doctor for milder symptoms than you might have otherwise; or even just to keep them home for a day and monitor their symptoms to see if they really do develop into something serious. This is especially important if your job provides sick days or personal days and you have HR policies and supervisors that don’t penalize you for actually using them, which is a privilege so many people simply don’t have. A certain percentage of those runny noses and mild coughs are going to be COVID-19; better my child stay at home and me call in sick, than him give it to a classmate whose parents’ only option when he becomes ill is to leave him with a grandmother already in poor health. As a community, we have to take the responsibility of protecting other people’s children, and families, as seriously as we do the responsibility of protecting are own; and the time to start that is right now.

Consider alternative schooling/home schooling/schooling at home
Homeschooling has always involved a good deal of privilege. I say that as someone who homeschooled until 8th grade, whose wife was homeschooled through highschool, and who(se wife) currently homeschools our children. We did not grow up wealthy and my mother enjoys working (and started working again once we had graduated), but my parents made more sacrifices than I realized at the time to allow her to stay home and teach us, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Most of the homeschooling families I know (and we know a lot) are not wealthy; keeping one parent at home to teach means financial hardships they wouldn’t have to bare otherwise. And the sacrifices aren’t just financial; my wife has left hobbies unpursued, books unread (and unwritten, if I could ever get her to write that series of children’s books), and a nursing career she loves temporarily on hold, all to teach our children at home.

But the fact that we can choose to make those sacrifices in the first place represents an awful lot of privilege, and there are many, many families for whom homeschooling is just not a viable option. Under normal circumstances, homeschooling is a hard decision for us. We believe in the public school system, and we realize that keeping our children at home means our voices aren’t contributing to the PTA, advocating for issues at the local elementary school or before the school board, or supporting the teachers and students and families that our own children would be interacting with every day. We try to be involved in and advocate for our community in other ways, but there’s no denying that we are less effective in this by homeschooling. It also means that our children miss out on opportunities to show love and kindness to people outside of their family circle every day. Sure, I guess there’s a possibility that my 8 year old would be the Regina George of the local 3rd grade or my 5 year old would be the Flash Thompson of Kindergarten, but I have enough pride as a parent and faith in my kids that I think it more likely they’d be an influence for good than otherwise. I think it’s fairly certain that somewhere in town an 8 year old is deprived of a best friend because my daughter is doing school at home with us.

So far we still feel that that’s the best decision for our family, but it’s definitely an ongoing discussion each and every year. But right now, with COVID-19, the privileges inherent in schooling at home can actually be used on behalf of the other children and families, and the teachers, at the local schools that our children won’t be attending. Each child that can safely be kept at home and successfully educated this year through distance learning or homeschooling makes it that much easier for teachers to maintain social distancing in the classroom, that much safer for teachers and other school staff in terms of transmission risk, and that much less likely that other students will become infected and bring the virus home to parents and grandparents. This year, at least, homeschooling was an easy decision for us; and if you have the resources, financial and otherwise, to successfully school at home for a semester or a school year, this is definitely the year to give it some careful consideration.


What can you do as an educator?

I just want to say, at the outset of this section, that I think that asking teachers and school principals to do the work of epidemiologists and government health officials and keep children safe from the virus is pretty lame. I am sorry that you are in this position; I hear your stress. I taught high school physics and physical science (and theatre!) for 8 months after college, and realized it was not something I was good at and certainly not something I could do for the rest of my life; I admire anyone who does it, and particularly anyone who does it well. When I left teaching to go to med school, I knew on some level that I was signing up to be on the front lines of any global pandemic that might happen to come our way; but when you became a teacher, you weren’t. So even though this shouldn’t be your job, I’d like to share some advice for how you can help keep yourself and your students, and their families, safe. Being months late with this post, I’m certain that any educators who might read this are already far along in the planning and implementation of their COVID-19 response plan, and those who have reached out to me have shared incredible, creative ideas to keep themselves and their students safe that I never would have thought of.

Seek counsel
A physician friend and residency classmate reached out to me in May when her child’s school asked her to give recommendations on reopening school safely. At the time we were operating under the assumption that the pandemic would be well in hand by the Fall, and that the biggest concern would be preventing a second surge. Clearly, this is no longer the case. Nevertheless, we brainstormed on the best and most practical ways to reduce transmission between students while interrupting their education as little as possible. We had ideas for reducing transmission during PE, music class, alternatives to all school assemblies, managing bathroom breaks and lunch and hallways during class changes. I briefly considered sharing a big list of ideas here, but the reality is that the changes that would help will be different for every school, every building and class schedule, and every situation. You know your school, I don’t; your ideas will be better than mine. And better still will be your ideas with the input of a physician or epidemiologist or other medical professional who has an intimate understanding of infection control and viral transmission and who takes the pandemic very seriously. Reach out to one in your community and ask them for help; they have a vested interested in keeping your school safe, even if they don’t have a child that attends there. Most would be honored to help with this work (and would be even more honored if you then actually followed their advice!). This works best as a two-way conversation; the medical professional is going to see opportunities for changing processes and physical spaces and creating a safer school that wouldn’t occur to someone without their education and experience; and you, the educator, are going to be in a position to tell them which of their ideas will work for your students and your classroom, and which need to be modified or scrapped. Then, when things have calmed down and we’ve finally got this virus under control, you can reach out again to seek their advice on deescalating the measures you’ve put into place and slowly returning to normal. And then later in the year when you need someone to speak to your students about going into healthcare at the next career day, guess who you are gonna call…

Get clever
As I’ve worked on this post, I’ve heard from teachers whose schools have implemented some incredibly clever and ambitious ideas. I’ve been told about schools keeping kids in cohorts throughout their entire daily schedule, even organizing sports activities and lunch and recess around these small, consistent groups. I’ve heard of multi-grade classrooms to keep siblings, cousins, and neighbors together, limiting the network of contacts per child. I’ve heard of classroom modifications, curriculum changes, changes in sports schedules, and restructuring of school-wide events. I’ve also heard of schools that are doing next to nothing (besides enforcing stricter social media policies for teachers), and teachers who are scrambling to keep their own classrooms as safe as possible within a school that is essentially denying that any danger exists. I’ve even heard of teachers taking a break from teaching this year because they couldn’t see any way to keep themselves, aged parents, or at-risk household contacts safe while being in the classroom every day. As a society, there is no denying that we’ve failed these teachers.

The classroom or school-wide plan that protects children from getting and spreading SARS-CoV-2 better than any other plan in the country is probably not “just keep children 6 feet apart,” “put up plexiglass between desks,” “masks at all times,” or “check temperatures at the door,” though it almost certainly will include some of those components. No, the best plan has probably already been devised by some creative, well-informed, scientifically minded out-of-the-box thinker somewhere. With any luck, it has been listened to and implemented; but unfortunately, too often it will probably be ignored by decision makers for being too weird or wonky, too conceptually challenging, or too inconvenient to implement. But now is exactly the moment that we need those creative and wonky ideas, because the stakes are too high to just hope it goes away if we can just ignore it hard enough.

Can your track or cross country team set up a Fitbit team challenge instead of practicing together after school?

Can you use pegboard and cardboard and printouts (that you’ll have to buy yourself, I realize) mounted on the walls of your STEAM class to make an interactive workspace that keeps students facing toward the walls for most of the class period instead of toward the teacher or across a table toward each other?

Or better yet…
Also, is this me? I pulled this image off of google, I don’t remember this at all, and I didn’t wear glasses at that age… But from this angle I feel like there’s still a good possibility that that’s me.

Can you recruit that pop culture savvy AV kid (this is an oxymoron; none of us AV kids are pop culture savvy) to create some awesome Cast of Hamilton style video mash-ups so that your Zoom band rehearsals are Youtube worthy instead of unmitigated disasters?

If this is your music class, I’d be willing to substitute.

Can you use your school’s external doorways and internal layout to create a continuous one-way circuit during classroom changes, like Sylvester McMonkey McBean’s star belly tattoo machine?

Bad social distancing there in the middle, but pretty good otherwise.

I don’t know. Some of those ideas are probably things you’re already doing, or that you’ve already thought of and abandoned because there was just no way to make it work at your school or in your class. That’s my point; decreasing transmission right now is going to mean sound epidemiology principles combined with creative teaching ideas and applied to your individual teaching situation. Even for those schools that are very well prepared already, we have to keep in mind that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy; once schools do reopen, one size fits all solutions or rigid adherence to plans made over Zoom during the Summer are likely to mean insufficient protection and excessive interruption of learning if they aren’t reevaluated and readjusted. It’s a lot, I know; but all of us fighting to stop misinformation and promote mitigation efforts and health behaviors that would have slowed the virus have, so far, pretty much failed; so now it is apparently your problem to deal with. You need bold strokes because we’ve failed to convince more folks.

Advocate, advocate, advocate
Me using my blog to tell educators to advocate for each other, their students, and their communities is like hospital administrators pulling doctors aside to tell us how to treat patients (oh wait, that happens literally every day); this is clearly something you are already doing and is, in fact, a major part of your job. Nevertheless, this is now a more important job than ever, because there are so many stake-holders when it comes to reopening schools and not all of them care about the health of your students or their families.

In a moment we are going to talk about what the rest of us can and should be doing to support you during this time. Please keep lending us your voices. I know it feels like society has decided to ignore the collective and individual voices of teachers (I’m a doctor who writes a blog on medical misinformation; trust me, I feel you), but without understanding what’s happening in your schools and classrooms the rest of us have no hope of advocating for you in the ways you need most. We want to help. If your school has enforced social media policies that don’t allow you to say when you are concerned about the safety of your colleagues or your students, find ways to get that information out there anyway. Be sources of good health information and fight misinformation in the classroom every day. One thing I’ve heard from teacher after teacher is that their students have been amazing; wearing masks at a high rate without grumbling or complaining, practicing good distancing in the classroom, and in general being the best of us in taking the pandemic seriously. That is going to fatigue over the next few months without your example and reinforcement, but you are in a much better position than any of the rest of us to help lead this generation in doing the tedious day-to-day epidemiology work that we, their forebears, have failed at.


What can we do as a society?

Fight the virus on every possible front.
If I had written this post a month ago when I should have, I’m sure I’d be saying that the best plan to reopen schools safely would be to spend the next month doing everything in our power to decrease community transmission, and then only reopen schools once we knew it was as safe as we can reasonably expect (for a more epidemiology minded discussion of what that would look like, check out Waco Epidemiologist Emily Smith’s post on “Can we open schools safely?“). In fact, this is still what I think, and if I thought there was any chance of getting it to work, I would be strongly advocating for schools to delay reopening while mitigation efforts were redoubled. In cities like my own, where our testing positivity rates have been steadily declining over the past several weeks, this might not even take that long. But if we’ve learned anything through this pandemic it’s that we cannot rely on strategies that require small individual efforts but a large degree of buy-in. So here we are, with schools reopening in the midst of a pandemic, and bracing ourselves to see how much worse it will get as a result. But as one comedian said, I guess all the bad decisions we’ve made up to this point have made this a good one?

But even if school reopenings aren’t going to be delayed until a set community prevalence or test positivity rate is reached, we can still make every effort now to decrease transmission, especially with a few weeks still to go before all of our schools are opened. We need to be practicing good social (physical) distancing and mask wearing. We need to be participating in the work of informing our own contacts when we are diagnosed with COVID-19 since our public health sectors simply have not had the manpower to keep up. We need to practice diligence in our personal mitigation efforts, even though we are all incredibly fatigued from thinking about this virus and how it has affected our lives. As a society we claim that the safety of our children in schools is one of our highest priorities, and we take massive steps to protect them. Yes, I know there are some pretty obvious areas where we haven’t been taking common sense measures to keep kids safe in schools, but we do a pretty good job of slowing down to 20 MPH and putting down our cellphones when we drive through a school zone, and we make sure kids have those safety scissors that won’t actually cut anything just to reduce the chances of one of them losing a finger. Right now, the efforts you can make to reduce community transmission- social distancing, washing hands, getting tested if you are ill, and wearing a mask- are the efforts that will keep children, their teachers, and their families safe in the coming weeks.

What even is this?

Extend Trust
We’ve talked a lot about the role of educators and parents in fighting the virus and keeping our schools safe, but the reality is that those groups are limited in the actions they can take, with freedom from judgement and repercussions, without buy-in and affirmation from the rest of us. It’s well and good to tell parents to keep their child home for a day when they think she might be getting sick, but this requires policy changes that refrain from punishing parents for taking such a responsible action and trusting them to occasionally know, without a doctors note, when their child is too sick to come to school. Yes, that trust will be taken advantage of by some families, nobody knows it better than me; but right now I have visits every single week where parents know their child just has a mild illness and shouldn’t be in school, but had to come to the doctor to get a note for school and work; in the eyes of the school and their employer, they are guilty of faking an illness until my note proves them innocent. In the midst of a viral pandemic is exactly the time to reevaluate the wisdom of such policies and return that trust back to parents; and then keep it that way, because even aside from COVID-19 this dynamic is already dangerous during every single flu season.

Also, let’s get rid of perfect attendance awards.

Lower Our Expectations

And the same is true for our expectations of our teachers and school administrators. Being a high school physics teacher was my first real grown up job, and being a doctor was my second. There are plenty of similarities between the two, but one of the most salient is the constant feeling of being asked to do increasingly more with an ever decreasing amount of time and resources. As a primary care doctor, this often means walking out of one patient room and into the next from 8:00 to 12:30 and then from 1:00 to 5:15, providing extensive evaluation, compassionate listening, diagnosis, treatment, and teaching to each patient within a 10-15 minute window, and being expected to complete the documentation and respond to phone messages and refill requests in the often non-existent minutes “between visits” (we often don’t have time to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water “between visits”). As a teacher, it meant trying to make it through more curriculum than could possibly be covered in a year, prepare students for standardized testing, regulate behavior in the classroom, navigate and manage the interpersonal dynamics and conflicts of 13 years old, and provide counseling and interpersonal support for young people in some of the most formative and challenging years of their lives. Oh, and submit grades, which is just… I think I’ve still got some ungraded quizzes in a manila folder somewhere, and I haven’t taught since 2009.

Add to all of that the expectation that teachers will now be fighting COVID-19 transmission on the front lines of the pandemic and, somehow, teaching both in-person and online classes simultaneously, and you’ll realize what a sick joke it is to say that any adjustments we make to our expectations would be “lowering” them. We are asking so much of our teachers, and this year we are asking even more; we need to be comfortable, as a society, with accepting that less can be expected in terms of our students’ educational progress between now and May 2021 compared to years past and years to come. Somehow, in all of these discussions about reopening schools, I’ve missed all of the articles calling for a hiatus on standardized testing (or at least eliminating punitive measures related to those test results), on colleges using alternative evaluation methods for graduating seniors, and on discussions of exactly what percentage of the standard curriculum we expect teachers to be able to cover this coming semester; 50%, or just 35%? Rather than lowering our expectations, what we would really be doing is finally valuing teachers’ time and acknowledging their efforts, and recognizing that since most teachers are already working at maximum capacity as-is, we have to be willing to let something go when we add something on. If we are saying that schools need to be reopened because it is necessary to keep kids safe, detect cases of domestic violence early, and keep children from regressing academically, we need to realize that those goals do not logically imply that we can also somehow expect teachers and students to maintain the same pace of academic attainment, and that that is no longer our primary goal in reopening schools.

Be ready to pump the brakes
I think this is the biggest one, and it’s going to take an awful lot of honesty when we look at the epidemiology data that emerges over the coming weeks and months. As schools reopen around the country, we have to fight stronger than ever against misinformation. We will hear that any increase in cases is due to increased testing, even if it is mirrored by an increasing test positivity rate and hospitalizations. We will be told that the overall mortality rate is dropping and it “isn’t as dangerous as we were told,” because the virus is less dangerous for children than older adults, and seeing a decrease in the overall infection mortality rate is a natural artifact of an increasing number of cases in children and adolescents- even as teachers, school staff, and family members of students are hospitalized and die due to those exposures. As flu season approaches, we will be told every possible version of doctors lying to diminish the flu and inflate the pandemic or misattributing flu deaths to COVID-19 to hurt the economy or this or that politician, as though it mattered which preventable deadly respiratory virus your family member died from.

We have to be willing to cut through the noise and look carefully at the trends in cases in our community and ask continuously whether the risk is still justified today. It would be great if I were completely wrong, if cases continued to decrease even when schools start back in earnest; but it’s hard to imagine that happening, and the decisions are likely to get even more difficult, not less, from here on out. We need to drop our agendas and our egos and our politically motivated methods of interpreting data and meet the emerging information with intellectual honesty. We need to consider school closures and audibles and readjustments as the necessary and humble work that the pandemic requires of us, and work together to keep our kids, our teachers, and our communities safe.

COVID-19 Questions and (attempts at) Answers, Part 3: Isn’t a surge a good thing? Herd Immunity and the RECOVERY Trial.

I’ve had quite a few questions about COVID-19 put to me by friends and family members recently, and so last week I had intended to begin trying my best to answer them. This plan had to be put on hold when Waco (and various other cities in Texas) issued a requirement to wear a face mask inside of businesses and restaurants, and the whole world sort of lost it’s collective mind. I think things have calmed down now, at least locally, and as I’ve driven to clinic and back and the one or two other places I couldn’t really avoid going, I’ve thankfully seen a noticeable increase in masking, either in compliance with this decision or in response to the efforts of so many to share reliable information on the benefits and safety of wearing a face mask. Thank you all for fighting the crazy amount of misinformation out there. For my take on wearing masks you can read my previous blog post on masking.

Now in 8-bit Color!

Now that we’ve made it through another week without another viral misinformation video, I’m finally taking the time to sit down and write that original post I had planned on. I’ve tried to limit myself to just two paragraphs for each topic (paragraph length unspecified), but given just how many questions


Due to length, I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts.
Warning: These got really ‘mathy’ on me before I realized it was happening.
Part 1: Is the rise in cases just due to more testing?
Part 2: What about antibody testing and asymptomatic cases?

Question #3: Isn’t a surge a good thing since it will give us herd immunity?

The concept of herd immunity, susceptible persons being protected from infectious diseases by a sufficiently high number of people in their community already being immune, was controversial even before the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t mean it was a controversial area of epidemiology; the science behind it is very well established and pretty straightforward (and if you are going to read about the eradication of smallpox from that link, you should also read about a man called Onesimus, a slave in Boston whose knowledge of West African inoculation saved hundreds or thousands of lives and paved the way for Edward Jenner’s eventual invention of vaccination techniques). I mean it was something that we’ve had to argue about constantly in recent years because the anti-vaccine movement uses herd immunity as one of its many arguments against vaccination, while at the same time undercutting its effectiveness by seeking to decrease the number of people who are immune through being vaccinated. The idea is great in principal; just weather the storm now and then we will all be safe from the virus forever. The problem (one of the problems, for there are numerous) is that we don’t yet know exactly what percentage of the population needs to be immune to confer protection to everyone else. Most estimates have put this number somewhere between 60-70%, but a recent model published in Science estimates it at a much more attainable 43%. These numbers are based on several parameters that tell us both how easy the virus is to spread and whether certain activities, situations, or even individuals are more likely to spread it than others (you can read about the median reproduction value and dispersion factor if you want to dive a bit more into the math of it all). Because these numbers are incredibly hard to definitively determine in the midst of a pandemic, any percentage we arrive at is going to be a best guess; an estimate derived from multiple assumptions that will only be proved wrong if many more people get very sick even after we’ve achieved the required numbers for herd immunity. Herd immunity is a gamble because Virology, during a pandemic, is an applied science; the virus will correct all of our miscalculations and false assumptions for us. (other questions, such as whether immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is indeed long-lasting and whether the virus will mutate in such a way that it causes future outbreaks despite our acquired immunity are also important, but outside the immediate scope of the discussion).

*This is from early in the pandemic, but a great visualization tool

But even more important than the difficulty in calculating the necessary percentage of people being immune to confer protection to everyone else is the question of how dangerous it is to get there in the first place. Let’s talk about measles for one moment. We know that the herd immunity required for measles is somewhere around 93%, which is part of the reason we have seen outbreaks of the disease recently in areas that have a substantial anti-vaccine sub-culture; it isn’t hard to fall below that number. Let’s say there wasn’t a Measles vaccine; that means 93% of people would need to develop immunity by living through the disease. With modern medical advances the case fatality rate for measles is a lot lower than it used to be, but it is still around 2.2%. This means that in a country of 330 million people that had no immunity to measles, 306 million would need to contract the disease to confer herd immunity to everyone else; of those, 6.75 million would die, not to mention the longstanding residual neurological deficits and other health complications in tens of millions more. Without effective vaccination, herd immunity would simply never have been an option for Measles; the cost in human life and suffering would just be too high. But what about COVID-19? We know that SARS-CoV-2 is thankfully less contagious, and we believe less deadly (see the last post for a discussion on this) than measles, but is it enough to make herd immunity a viable option? Let’s apply those same calculations based on the current estimates we have for infection fatality rate. If we accepted a 1% death rate estimate, then to achieve the widely accepted 60% mark for herd immunity we would see 198 million cases and 2 million deaths, while if we accepted the recently released 43% estimate and assumed an even more conservative 0.5% death rate, that would be 709,500 deaths; and neither accounts for the longstanding health deficits or the cost in human suffering of those who survive, or the other deaths and suffering that come with an overwhelmed mid-surge healthcare system. Now, could we devise some clever epidemiology strategy that uses emerging data about the already-immune, super-spreaders, natural resistance, new drug therapies, contact tracing, and protection of the most vulnerable? Of course; assuming that we could get a high degree of buy-in (we can’t even get people to wear masks), that’s exactly what we are all hoping for. But that’s not ‘herd immunity’, and it’s clear that the cost in lives and suffering from a “just get it and get it over with” ‘strategy’ would be astronomical even with our most optimistic estimates. Trust me, I’m tired too; I completely understand the pull towards a roll the dice approach that just gets this over with and lets the chips fall where they may; that approach completely appeals to my intellectual and emotional fatigue. But the longer we can work together to flatten the curve, the more time we create to discover those new therapies, improve our understanding of the virus, and collect high quality data about transmission and vulnerability that can help us develop novel, strategic mitigation approaches (which would probably incorporate something like herd immunity); and we are already seeing the benefits of the work of this kind that we have done so far as a society.


Question #4: What is the RECOVERY Trial?

(Confession: nobody asked about this, but I’m going to write about it anyway)

The RECOVERY Trial is a randomized (poor British researchers spelled it wrong) clinical trial out of Oxford that has shown benefits from using low-dose dexamethasone (a cheap and readily available steroid) for hospitalized COVID-19 patients on oxygen or on a ventilator; you can read a more detailed analysis of the trial from First10EM. This is still in the peer review process but results have been incredibly promising; the study showed a relative decrease in mortality of 20% in hospitalized patients requiring oxygen, and up to a 35% decrease in patients requiring ventilator support. Unlike many of the drug therapies that have been touted up until now, this is based on a randomized trial and not on anecdotal evidence, so it is much more likely that these results will be reproducible when used broadly. Already this has become the standard of care in the hospitals in your city, and if we see these results persist with widespread use it has the potential to save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives. I wanted to write about it for two reasons. First, I want to call on us all now to not let this become the next hydroxychloroquine. The study has established the benefits of this drug therapy only in a specific group of people; hospitalized patients requiring oxygen or ventilator support. They also studied hospitalized patients who were not sick enough to need oxygen, and it showed no benefits whatsoever. There is no reason to infer that this medication is protective in those without severe symptoms or in asymptomatic individuals, and so there is no reason for individuals to ask their doctor for an outpatient prescription or for pharmacies or clinicians to stockpile the medication as we saw done with hydroxychloroquine. We can be thankful that we have at least one helpful medication for our sickest patients without that immediately translating into figuring out a way to get it for ourselves whether it would actually help us or not. And if peer review and follow-up studies and the increased clinical experience that comes with widespread use of dexamethasone ultimately shows that it actually isn’t helpful for COVID-19, that will be tragic; but we should all understand now that that is just how science works, and won’t be part of some big government conspiracy to prevent people from getting the medication, just as it wasn’t with hydroxychloroquine.

But even more importantly, I wanted to talk about the RECOVERY Trial because it illustrates exactly what it looks like to fight this virus by engaging in mitigation and flattening the curve. Since April people have been saying (and we have all been feeling, to some degree or another) that if a certain amount of death and suffering from the virus is inevitable, we might as well just get it over with. We have also heard the slightly more sophisticated position that as long as our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and we aren’t running out of ventilators and other equipment and resources for sick patients, then we have reduced the danger as much as is helpful and anything more is unnecessary. The RECOVERY Trial is a powerful illustration of why flattening the curve is beneficial even beyond these important goals. If you had a severe case of COVID-19 one month ago and had to be on a ventilator, you would have been treated with hydroxychloroquine and not with dexamethasone; today, you would be treated with dex and not with hydroxychloroquine, and your chance of dying would be 35% less; and that doesn’t even take into account the less quantifiable benefits from all that your doctors have learned about this virus in the meantime. A month from now, with more high quality trials and more clinical experience, who knows what the new standard of care will be and how much better a very sick person’s odds of surviving the virus will be because of it. The reason I wear my PPE with every patient and am a stickler about fomites and transmission, the reason I wear my mask when I’m in public, and the reason I am writing from home instead of a coffee shop today and attended church online this morning, isn’t because I’m afraid of the virus; it’s because when and if (and for me it has always felt more like an ‘if’ than a ‘when’) I get COVID-19, I would rather be treated by doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists who have had ample time to learn how to fight it, who have perfected their approach to ventilator settings and other supportive techniques for this virus specifically, and who have access to medications that have been carefully studied and have been proven to be effective; and because I would like to have that knowledge base and those techniques and medications available if and when I have to treat you.

COVID-19 Questions and (attempts at) Answers, Part 2: What about antibody testing and asymptomatic cases?

I’ve had quite a few questions about COVID-19 put to me by friends and family members recently, and so last week I had intended to begin trying my best to answer them. This plan had to be put on hold when Waco (and various other cities in Texas) issued a requirement to wear a face mask inside of businesses and restaurants, and the whole world sort of lost it’s collective mind. I think things have calmed down now, at least locally, and as I’ve driven to clinic and back and the one or two other places I couldn’t really avoid going, I’ve thankfully seen a noticeable increase in masking, either in compliance with this decision or in response to the efforts of so many to share reliable information on the benefits and safety of wearing a face mask. Thank you all for fighting the crazy amount of misinformation out there. For my take on wearing masks you can read my previous blog post on masking.

Now in 8-bit Color!

Now that we’ve made it through another week without another viral misinformation video, I’m finally taking the time to sit down and write that original post I had planned on. I’ve tried to limit myself to just two paragraphs for each topic (paragraph length unspecified), but given just how many questions


Due to length, I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts.
Warning: These got really ‘mathy’ on me before I realized it was happening.
Part 1: Is the rise in cases just due to more testing?
Part 3: Isn’t a surge a good thing? Herd Immunity and the RECOVERY Trial.

Question #2: Do antibody testing and asymptomatic cases prove the virus isn’t as dangerous as we thought?

Asymptomatic Cases

The short answer here is, yes. And also in a very real sense… No. When antibody testing first began to confirm that a certain percentage of people contracted the virus but never developed symptoms, or had symptoms that were so mild they failed to associate them with the virus (‘weird how my allergies just acted for a couple of days’), it was great news for everyone. What it was not (and I’ve been on this soapbox for a while now) was proof that the ‘experts were wrong’ about how dangerous the virus is. I’ve been reading every model and study and expert opinion about COVID-19 I could keep up with for the past 3 months, and I cannot tell you the number of times that physicians and epidemiologists and researchers have either implied or explicitly stated that the mortality rates we were seeing from the virus didn’t account for asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic cases. I’m no expert, but I’ve typed it more times than I can count myself.

Actually I counted; it’s been 6 times. That’s still a lot.

Those scientists anticipated that a certain percentage of the population would contract the virus but never develop significant symptoms, but had to work from the best numbers they had until such testing was actually available. And it’s a very good thing that those assumptions were correct, since the original case fatality rates we were seeing were in the civilization ending range of 8-15% in certain countries. If antibody testing had been developed and found only a negligible amount of asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic cases, it would be devastating news for everyone; not least for the doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, and others who have turned their lives upside down to fight the pandemic. Accounting for asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic cases would clearly yield a much lower death rate, but still firmly in the very, very dangerous range. For instance, large scale antibody testing in New York in April found antibodies in 13.9% of the population (WBUR has an excellent article picking through the wildly varied estimates of asymptomatic cases) , which reduced their overall estimated fatality rate from 6% to 0.5%. Many current estimates place the overall fatality rate between 0.5% and 1.3%. For a virus this contagious, these are still scary numbers. Even here at the end of June, many people are still wanting to compare this to the flu to dismiss the danger, even though these much lower death rate estimates are still 5 to 13 times higher than seasonal influenza’s commonly accepted 0.1% fatality rate, and even though the flu itself regularly threatens to overwhelm our healthcare systems. Please keep in mind that this is at best an apples and oranges comparison. We don’t routinely measure influenza antibodies to determine the percentage of asymptomatic cases, focusing instead on those who are symptomatic, and our death rates for flu are based on a totally separate set of calculations (I talked about this in more detail in my response to the Bakersfield Urgent Care doctors). If you want to compare oranges to oranges we can look at excess mortality for both viruses. Consider the graph below from New York State: the first cluster of red crosses is the peak of the 2017-2018 flu season, the worst flu season I have experienced since starting medical school; the second is COVID-19 during New York’s surge in April.

Not the Flu.

Before we move on from asymptomatic cases, we need to mention two more things. First, while knowing the overall infection fatality rate including data from those who never had significant symptoms is great from an epidemiology standpoint, it doesn’t mean that the case fatality rate for people with symptoms is a ‘fake number’ or falsely elevated. If you develop symptoms and test positive for the virus, and especially if you end up in the hospital, it would be small comfort to know that some people didn’t get sick from it at all. We still need to know what the specific risk is for people with symptoms, and for people with severe symptoms, in order to properly counsel those patients and to inform our medical response. Second, asymptomatic cases are a double edged sword; yes, it means that some people will become immune without actually getting sick themselves, but it also means that some people can spread the virus without ever knowing they’ve had it. We all need to exercise caution even if we don’t have a cough and fever.

I realize this is the same joke from earlier. I just really like it.

Antibody Testing

One of the problems in determining a final overall death rate (besides the fact that we are still in the middle of the pandemic) is the accuracy of antibody testing, since we have to rely on this to tell us how many people had the virus and were either asymptomatic or didn’t get tested for it at the time. And this in turn relies on something called the positive predictive value, how likely it is your ‘positive’ test result has really detected the antibodies, which depends both on how well the antibody tests are designed (and their not being fake, which is apparently a problem now as well), but also on the prevalence, or in this case cumulative incidence, of the virus. The higher the percentage of people who have actually had the virus, the more likely it is that a positive test really represents a true positive and not a laboratory error. It’s a relatively simple concept, but honestly it’s just unintuitive enough that I’ve struggled with it myself for years. Basically, every lab test has some degree of error; sometimes these tests will tell you that you have the antibodies when you don’t, and sometimes it will tell you that you don’t have them when you really do. The more rare the virus has been in your area, the more likely that your ‘positive’ test was the result of such an error instead of actually having the antibodies. Carry this to the logical conclusion; if you brought an antibody testing system back in time to last Summer when nobody had SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, or for that matter back to Medieval England, you would still have some tests turn positive; but they would clearly all be from laboratory error because the prevalence of the disease then would have been 0%. When doing these tests, we cannot ignore the importance of how common or rare the virus has been in the region where we are testing.

Still less useful than bringing Sony Walkman

Calculating positive predictive value based on prevalence can be done with just a few numbers (test sensitivity, test specificity, and prevalence) and the simple equation PPV = (sensitivity x prevalence) / [ (sensitivity x prevalence) + ((1 – specificity) x (1 – prevalence)) ] (Um, there’s also an online calculator if you’d rather follow along that way), and it’s always shocking to me how quickly the lab error for even very good tests becomes relevant when the prevalence of a disease is low. Most manufacturers rate their antibody tests in the extremely accurate range of 95-100% for both sensitivity and specificity (because of course they do); some have performed well in independent testing, but others not so much. Let’s use the online calculator (or the equation above, if you just really like that sort of thing) and plug in a few of these numbers.


  • Scenario 1: Post-Surge New York City, excellent quality antibody test.
    • Let’s say you never definitively got diagnosed with COVID-19 during the surge in New York, and wanted to get an antibody test to see if you have already had it and are immune.
      • Sensitivity: 95% (.95)
      • Specificity: 95% (.95)
      • “Prevalence”: 20% (.2)
    • Results: Positive Predictive Value = 82.6%
      • This means if you get a positive results from this very accurate test done after your city has survived a severe surge, there’s still about a 17% chance you don’t actually have the antibodies after all.
I hope you guys are having as much fun with this as I am.

  • Scenario 2: Pre-Surge Texas, excellent quality antibody test.
    • Now let’s say you had the antibody test done a few weeks ago here in Texas, again with a test that has excellent accuracy.
      • Sensitivity: 95% (.95)
      • Specificity: 95% (.95)
      • “Prevalence”: 4.6% (0.046)
    • Results: Positive Predictive Value = 47.8%
      • With a lower prevalence, a positive antibody test on the same machine is now about the same as a coin toss.

  • Scenario 3: Pre-Surge Texas, sub-par antibody test.
    • Same scenario as the last, but the quality of the test isn’t quite as good as the manufacturer funded studies seemed to promise.
      • Sensitivity: 88.6% (.886)
      • Specificity: 90.2% (.902)
      • “Prevalence”: 4.6% (0.046)
    • Results: Positive Predictive Value = 30.4%
      • At this point you are probably better off just switching the ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ labels on the readout…

Now, savvy statisticians will note three things in looking at the above numbers and playing around with the data. The first is that I’ve used the very antibody testing methods I’m questioning to fill in the prevalence, which is itself part of my calculations. Figuring out the real prevalence is a complex problem epidemiologists are still trying to solve; this is a simplification for illustrative purposes. But more importantly, you will notice that as the prevalence goes down so does the likelihood that a positive test was really positive; in fact, it drops quite precipitously, especially as you get below 5%. However, as the specificity– the likelihood that the test correctly calls a negative result negative– approaches 100%, the number of false positives actually drops to 0. If we want to make sure we never tell someone they are immune when they aren’t, we need a very high specificity; but because no test is truly perfect, this will mean some sacrifices in actually being able to detect the antibodies when they are there, which hurts our ability to accurately estimate the number of asymptomatic cases. To get a perfect specificity, you will lose some sensitivity, and vice versa; the right balance depends on what you intend to use the test for.

So all of that to say, when that antibody test you got comes back positive and the manufacturer says their test is “95% accurate,” you may be tricked into thinking it means there’s a 95% chance you really have already had the virus and now have antibodies against it. But they are only telling you half the story, and you either need access to some more data to make your calculations and determine the real positive predictive value, or at the very least you need to take it with a grain of salt and still exercise caution; especially if your area hasn’t actually had anything like a true surge yet. After all, only a great fool would accept what he was given, and you are not a great fool.

Sorry, I’m not going to say “inconceivable.”

COVID-19 Questions and (attempts at) Answers, Part 1: Is the rise in cases just due to more testing?

I’ve had quite a few questions about COVID-19 put to me by friends and family members recently, and so last week I had intended to begin trying my best to answer them. This plan had to be put on hold when Waco (and various other cities in Texas) issued a requirement to wear a face mask inside of businesses and restaurants, and the whole world sort of lost it’s collective mind. I think things have calmed down now, at least locally, and as I’ve driven to clinic and back and the one or two other places I couldn’t really avoid going, I’ve thankfully seen a noticeable increase in masking, either in compliance with this decision or in response to the efforts of so many to share reliable information on the benefits and safety of wearing a face mask. Thank you all for fighting the crazy amount of misinformation out there. For my take on wearing masks you can read my previous blog post on masking.

Now in 8-bit Color!

Now that we’ve made it through another week without another viral misinformation video, I’m finally taking the time to sit down and write that original post I had planned on. I’ve tried to limit myself to just two paragraphs for each topic (paragraph length unspecified), but given just how many questions


Due to length, I’ve broken this post up into multiple parts.
Warning: These got really ‘mathy’ on me before I realized it was happening.
Part 2: Do antibody testing and asymptomatic cases prove the virus isn’t as dangerous as we thought?
Part 3: Isn’t a surge a good thing? Herd Immunity and the RECOVERY Trial.

Question #1: Isn’t the rise in cases just a reflection of more widespread testing?

This is a question that has been on everyone’s minds since the very earliest days of our testing woes, back in March when we had barely any testing available. It has ranged from a very fair question to a rhetorical device for spreading misinformation, with at least one prominent political figure even seeming to say that it would be better if we didn’t test so much so that our numbers looked better. I honestly believe most people really are curious about the relationship between our testing numbers and our numbers of cases and are not asking to try to minimize the appearance of the surge we are facing in Texas right now. In one sense, we will always find more cases of a disease when we test for it than when we don’t; that’s a truism. But if we want to determine whether cases are really going up we can look at a few other parameters than the absolute number of positive tests that will inform our understanding of the ’75 new cases’ or ‘5,747 new cases’ we are seeing in the news and on social media each day (To go through these numbers I highly recommend you spend some time navigating the Texas DSHS COVID-19 Dashboard; both their case data and testing and hospital data sections).

The first number is the percentage of positive tests. Ever since testing became more widely available in April and we were able to shift away from testing only those with a high likelihood of having the disease and/or of developing complications, we have been testing essentially the same types of cases; people with some combination of cough, shortness of breath, fever, loss of taste and smell, etc. and/or known or suspected exposure to the virus. There are many causes of these types of symptoms, from allergies to other respiratory viruses to chronic conditions like asthma and COPD, and in our pre-surge days these explained the symptoms in the vast majority of people we tested. If you look at the Texas testing data from April you will see two things; an overall low number of tests (a very modest 5-10k per day) and a fairly high percentage of tests that are positive, between 10-14%. This reflects our very strict testing criteria at that time; we were only testing the people we already really thought had it. In late April and all through May we see an ever increasing number of daily tests and a falling rate of positive tests, a reflection of liberalizing testing criteria and strong evidence of overall low prevalence in our State. Throughout June, and especially over the last 2 weeks, we continue to see an increasing number of tests each day; but we are now also seeing our percentage of positive cases rising again. This isn’t because we’ve tightened up or restricted our testing criteria again; it’s because more people actually do have the virus.

Percentage of positive tests

This exactly matches my own clinical experiences; back in May I was testing for COVID-19 based on essentially the same criteria and clinical judgement I am using right now, but it was rare to get a positive case; I would know, because being told you have COVID-19 can be a very stressful experience, so I still personally call every patient I’ve tested who has a positive result in order to answer their questions and help them process that information. This past week I have had to make multiple of those phone calls daily and have been feeling the strain on my time that it has created. As a physician I was on the front lines in May just like I am now, and I can tell you that we are definitely feeling this surge in a way we didn’t then; it isn’t a statistical artifact.

The second kind of data that should inform our understanding of that increase in cases is the number of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19; and the number of people who are dying from it. A raw increase in cases without a change in the test positivity rate could certainly be explained by more widespread testing; but it could not explain why more people had severe enough symptoms to be hospitalized, and there is no question that we have seen an increase in hospitalized cases.

Hospitalizations

Many people will quickly point out that we don’t know what percentage of those people were hospitalized for COVID-19 related symptoms and what percentage just happened to have a positive test when they came to the hospital for other reasons. This is a seemingly fair argument on the surface, but it is guilty of two fallacies. First is the idea of COVID-19 infection being a coincidence that doesn’t effect the trajectory of someone’s chronic illnesses. For months now I have heard the argument that the people whom we know have the absolute highest risk of COVID-19 complications, elderly people with chronic heart and lung disease, have not died from COVID-19, just with COVID-19. Yes, they happened to have the virus but actually died, in large numbers, from their chronic illnesses all getting worse at the same time, during a surge in COVID-19 cases in their area. This is the tired conspiracy theory that doctors are misattributing the cause of death to inflate COVID-19 death numbers, and it’s one I’ve had to debunk over and over again on this blog; it willfully ignores the pathophysiology of the virus, the normal course of those illnesses, and the way that doctors understand and report contributing causes of death. The idea that we are suddenly seeing a huge uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations as an artifact of testing patients when they come in and unrelated to the virus itself is just another version of that same conspiracy theory. It’s also a very hypocritical argument, considering the types of sources it is coming from. One of the criticisms about mitigation efforts from the beginning was that people who needed care might not come in to the clinic or hospital because of fear of the virus; it’s a very real concern and a problem I’ve fought against daily as a physician, and have been writing about since my earliest social media and blog posts during the pandemic.

Their argument has been that telling people that the virus is dangerous and taking mitigation measures would discourage them from seeking care for conditions that were really dangerous, like congestive heart failure or blood clots in the lungs, because they were more afraid of catching COVID-19 at the hospital. Our argument has been that the virus is dangerous, and that it also makes congestive heart failure more dangerous and actually causes blood clots in the lungs, so we have an obligation to keep people safe from the virus and help them navigate when and how to seek care for other health concerns; it’s work we are doing constantly in our clinics and hospitals. Now these same sources are arguing that in the midst of a dramatic increase in cases and our first real surge in Texas, thousands of people with conditions that put them at risk for complications from COVID-19 suddenly aren’t worried about the virus after all and are all seeking hospital care at the same time, and just happen to test positive for the virus while they are there. There may well be some situations where this actually is the case, and people who were overlooked by our healthcare systems really are now getting very sick from their diabetes or coronary artery disease at the same time as our surge (you can only ignore a worsening chronic illness for so long before hitting a crisis point), but the idea that this would happen on a broad scale, all at the same time, and that enough of those patients would be positive for COVID-19 that it would cause a state-wide spike in hospitalized virus cases is a very, very, frustratingly silly argument.

The final number we need to consider is the number of deaths, and here at least there is some good news; we are not seeing a substantial increase in the people in Texas dying from COVID-19, at least not yet. There are two ways to understand this. The optimistic way is to think that something has changed; either the virus has somehow become less deadly than before, or our increased understanding of COVID-19 has led to a better ability to fight the virus; improved disease-specific ventilation strategies, effective drug therapies, and more efficacious supportive care measures. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that the latter really is true, as we will discuss in another post. But the pessimistic view (and the truth is probably a combination of both) is to realize that most people do not just get admitted to the hospital with severe COVID-19 infection and pass away the same day. There is a significant lag time as those patients are treated and fight against the virus, and our surge in hospitalized cases is only a little more than a week old.

Many of those hospitalized patients are fighting for their lives in the ICU right now, as the hospitals are starting to fill up around them and their nurses and doctors are becoming fatigued. Many of those people will recover, but many will not; and it will take a couple of weeks, and often times much longer, to see how many, and who. As we’ve seen elsewhere, the ratio of those who don’t recover will only increase if resources and the margin for careful attention and heroic efforts on their behalf begin to run short. Yes, our improved understanding of the virus and more effective therapies gives us a better chance to fight the virus than Italy had in March or New York had in April; but doubling down on the difficult work of mitigation now to prevent our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed in a couple of weeks when more and more patients reach their crisis point is every bit as important.

What will next month’s data look like? It’s still partly up to us.

On Masking

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.

It does work much better if you wear a cloak at all times.

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.

Masks aren’t perfect, but nobody is claiming they are.

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.

Or you should.

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.

I’ll admit, I freaked out for a minute before I realized the labels are upside down.

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.

Again, Oxygen molecules are < 0.5 nm

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.

Population: 328 Million
Population: 52 Million

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.

Apparent medical misinformation from an unlikely source: Asymptomatic, Presymptomatic, and Minimally Symptomatic.

On Monday, during a World Health Organization virtual press briefing, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove issued a statement that seemingly shook our entire understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Van Kerkhove is an Epidemiologist specializing in emerging infectious diseases and has been the technical lead for the WHO COVID-19 response team. The statement, which was immediately picked up by multiple news outlets, was this one:

It still appears to be rare that an asymptomatic individual actually transmits onward.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organization

Needless to say, the response was immediate, and massive. For months we have been treating every person we interact with, including and especially ourselves, as though we were potential sources of COVID-19, in order to flatten the curve and prevent both a surge of cases and the possibility of our healthcare systems being overwhelmed. We were told, early and often, and with increasing levels of scientific certainty, that it was not enough to simply stay home if you were coughing or had a fever; that we could spread the virus even before we had developed symptoms, or if our symptoms were only very mild, and that the person we spread it to might not be so fortunate. Suddenly, the WHO seemed to be making an about-face.

For those that are exhausted of the caution made necessary by the pandemic, and the associated anxiety (read: all of us) it was welcome, if somewhat annoying, news. For those who have consistently proclaimed the pandemic to be something between an overblown flu being used for political purposes to an actual hoax or planned conspiracy, it was a triumph; even the WHO was saying it wasn’t anything to worry about. But for many of us who have been following emerging evidence, testing methods, contact tracing techniques, and COVID-19 data from around the world since March, it sounded too good to be true.


What we all wanted it to mean.

The idea of asymptomatic transmission, the virus actually being transmitted from a person who does not feel ill, who may not even know they have been exposed, is pretty terrifying. It means that you could, without ever knowing it, be the agent of delivering a deadly pathogen to a loved one; and that you may not ever know you were the one that gave it to them even after the fact. The idea of someone who has never had the virus losing a family member to it, and then finding out months later that they are antibody positive and have thus been a carrier at some point, is heart breaking. For me, it conjures epidemiology computer simulations of faceless grey figures gradually turning red, as the world slowly but surely is overcome.

This is the stuff of nightmares.

If Dr. Van Kerkhove’s statement meant that only those with symptoms could possibly pass along the virus, it would make all the difference in the world. For one thing, it would drastically change our isolation and transmission control strategies, shifting our focus from social (physical) distancing and treating all contacts as possible COVID-19 contacts, to simply monitoring very well for cough and fever and other viral symptoms, like we already do for influenza and other respiratory illnesses. Although it wouldn’t mean the virus was less dangerous, it would mean that exposure to it was somewhat predictable; if we were careful, our biggest risk would be those few bad actors who had symptoms but denied them, and persisted in exposing others.

And yes, it would also mean that many of the experts, epidemiologists, and physicians (including myself) (that’s an oxford comma folks, and I’m definitely only including myself in that last group) had been wrong about both the degree and the nature of risk to our society. But here’s the thing; we would be fine with that. It would be a big hit to the ego, for sure, and I’d of course have to delete this blog before I applied for my next job, but overall eating crow is an incredibly small price to pay for the assurance of safety for my family and my patients, and for the assurance of a sound strategic path forward in defeating this virus once and for all. As we’ve said all along; every doctor who sounds like an alarmist about COVID-19 also hopes they are wrong. We are the exact people who would be the happiest if it somehow turned out it wasn’t that big of a deal.

It would also mean that somebody had a lot of work to do to figure out how COVID-19 had overwhelmed so many healthcare systems and decimated entire cities and nations. We would need to account for those 404,000 deaths worldwide, a quarter of which have occurred in the United States. If those people were all exposed by individuals with definite and likely identifiable symptoms, we would need to figure out why we had failed so badly at fighting such a straightforward viral disease.


Always go to the source.

When I first read the headlines and articles, I was cautiously optimistic; but very cautiously. This defied what we had believed all along, and it defied most of what we know about the way that respiratory viruses spread. It didn’t make sense with the transmission patterns we have seen and the reported K value of the virus for it to only spread through fully symptomatic patients. It also conflicted with two recent studies from China and Singapore that seemed to indicate that transmission does in fact occur, and at a high rate, from patients without any respiratory or viral symptoms. These studies reached similar conclusions despite very different methodologies, which is always more convincing than reaching the same conclusion with the same method or data set. The Singapore study concluded,

“The evidence of presymptomatic transmission in Singapore, in combination with evidence from other studies, supports the likelihood that viral shedding can occur in the absence of symptoms and before symptom onset. “

https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6914e1.htm

Still, I was hopeful. When I reviewed those studies there had been some assumptions and a few minor (and one major) methodological issues I wasn’t exactly comfortable with, and at any rate those studies were published back in April and we have learned an awful lot about SARS-CoV-2 since that time. I assumed that Dr. Van Kerkhove and the WHO were working from the most up-to-date data, so I did what I always advise people to do when evaluating emerging medical information; I went directly to the source. It’s a bit long but it’s worth reading Dr. Van Kerkhove’s entire answer and not just the excerpts that have been used in the various articles above.

Now, I know what you are asking; if these statements were confusing, why didn’t I ask her to clarify? Well, actually… that was a different TJ altogether.


Asymptomatic vs. Presymptomatic vs. Minimally Symptomatic.

There is one major component of Dr. Van Kerkhove’s answer that has been lost from most of the majors news stories and social media posts. Medicine and public health are subtle and detail heavy sciences, and it is unfortunate but perhaps unsurprising that the nuances of the above statement were lost, and that major news outlets reported “WHO says no asymptomatic spread,” when the real answer is much more restrained.

Dr. Van Kerkhove spends a considerable part of her answer specifically delineating between asymptomatic, presymptomatic, and minimally symptomatic cases, and it’s hard to put too fine a point on this distinction.

  • Asymptomatic cases are people who have been exposed to the virus, and it has reproduced itself within their bodies at a high enough rate that it becomes detectable by our testing methods; either it is present in their blood stream at a detectable rate at some point in time (they have a positive PCR test) or they have developed an immune response that can be detected after the fact (they have a positive antibody test). They have had the virus. However, they have never at any point had any symptoms they can identify; no day of fever, no fatigue, no cough, no ‘I thought I caught something but it got better’; they are fully non-symptomatic.
  • Presymptomatic cases are people who meet all of the above criteria at a certain point in time, but will eventually develop symptoms from the virus. Unless they are followed very closely, it is impossible to distinguish them from asymptomatic cases.
  • Minimally Symptomatic cases are people who have the virus but develop only very mild symptoms, or symptoms not as commonly associated with the COVID-19 syndrome. This is very, very challenging from both a diagnostic and an epidemiological standpoint. Many people have chronic cough, allergy symptoms, or shortness of breath related to chronic medical issues. Figuring out whether these symptoms worsened at a certain time that coincides with their SARS-CoV-2 infection, and that the infection was actually the cause, is nearly impossible, yet the way these cases are treated has huge implications in the way we understand data on asymptomatic transmission.

If you are reading this and thinking that these distinctions seem a little murky and difficult to unravel, you aren’t wrong. I don’t do contact tracing directly, but the idea of clearly delineating, over the phone and after the fact, between these three situations seems like a nightmare. Yet our understanding of the spread of this virus, and thus our risk to one another, hinges strongly on public health workers involved in contact tracing categorizing people into these groups with a high degree of fidelity. It is sound epidemiological work and is necessary and important, but realizing how much subtlety and difficulty is involved should make us wary of any overly optimistic (and yes, overly pessimistic as well) statements about risk based on such data. This is why it is so important that this data is compared to research on modes of transmission, viral shedding, and viral load in asymptomatic patients, and that all of those types of evidence be weighed together very carefully.


When misspeaking and misunderstanding becomes medical misinformation.

So the substance of Dr. Van Kerkhove’s answer is that unpublished data from an unknown number of countries, relying on methodology that is hardly foolproof (but may be the best we have available), seems to show that transmission of SARS-CoV-2, from the subset of people who will never develop even very mild symptoms, is rare. It is good news, but it is an incredibly measured response when properly understood, and the phrasing left it alarmingly ripe for misunderstanding. As soon as media outlets picked up this story it was clear that the original intent had not been understood, and that widespread confusion, vexation, and misinformation would result. On Tuesday, Dr. Van Kerkhove and the WHO attempted to clarify the statement.

“The majority of transmission that we know about is that people who have symptoms transmit the virus to other people through infectious droplets. But there are a subset of people who don’t develop symptoms, and to truly understand how many people don’t have symptoms, we don’t actually have that answer yet.”

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

But as you might have suspected, the damage was done. One of the most alarming things about misinformation in general, and medical misinformation in particular, is how those who share it are seemingly impervious to correction. They will choose to continue to believe information that has been demonstrated to be impossible, videos that have been proven to be a hoax, and now even statements that have been immediately retracted and clarified by those who uttered them. When confronted with the retraction, I have seen people essentially say, “well I believe it anyway.” Even today we are seeing people spread the original articles and double-down on the claim that asymptomatic spread (meaning, in their vernacular, ‘anyone without cough and fever’) is not possible, and that the WHO has finally confessed their complicity in this global conspiracy.


So… Is asymptomatic transmission still a thing?

I had hoped that we would be presented with the data Dr. Van Kerkhove had reviewed indicating the rarity of asymptomatic transmission. We have not seen that information yet, but other studies have reviewed available contact tracing data and arrived at a very different conclusion. Two recent studies were published on asymptomatic and minimally symptomatic spread within the last two weeks, one on May 28th in the journal of the Infectious Disease Society of America, and one on June 3rd in Annals of Internal Medicine. They offered similar conclusions:

“This review summarizes evidence that SARS-CoV-2 transmission is not only possible but likely highest during pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic phases.”

https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa654

“The early data that we have assembled on the prevalence of asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection suggest that this is a significant factor in the rapid progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical practice and public health measures should be modified to address this challenge.”

https://www.acpjournals.org/doi/10.7326/M20-3012

Both studies supported the high viral load and infectivity of presymptomatic individuals who would later go on to develop symptoms, which had been found in the China and Singapore studies in April. Both established, firmly, that transmission from asymptomatic individuals who would not go on to develop symptoms does in fact occur. They both analyzed the limitations of their methodologies and data sets, and explored the difficulties in distinguishing between asymptomatic, presymptomatic, and minimally symptomatic patients. Hence they both appropriately shied away from assigning any firm degree of risk or responsibility for transmission to asymptomatic spread of the virus. Unfortunately, we do not have reliable numbers for how many people are getting the virus from someone who will never know they have it. More studies are needed, but it seems clear that asymptomatic transmission is here to stay, at least as long as COVID-19 is.

Treat Your Immune System Like The Death Star (A Slideshow)

The amount of medical misinformation out there right now is staggering. Would-be alternative health celebrities see the COVID-19 pandemic as their opportunity to make a name for themselves and increase their fame and fortune, and their videos seem to range from 5 minutes of mostly benign half truths, to one I saw today that was 48 minutes of crazed rantings. As a Physician, I despair of being able to address even a fraction of the misinformation my friends and family are being exposed to right now.

But you have to start somewhere. One of the biggest areas around which falsehood and distortion crops up consistently is the role of your immune system in fighting disease in general, and in protecting you against COVID-19 in particular. And in this area there are two dangerous distortions that seem to crop up again and again. But to address those, I think it’s important that we think of the immune system as a Death Star.

 

The Church and Medical Misinformation During COVID-19

Preamble 1: This is written to Christians, and intended as a call to my fellow believers in Christ to hold to very high standards of truth telling, particularly as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic we are currently facing. I do think that the general principles I am espousing here apply to others as well, and all our welcome to read and comment.

Preamble 2: In this post I do talk quite a bit about holistic healing/alternative medicine. This is an area of complexity and nuance, but here I am primarily talking about self-proclaimed alternative health “experts”: modern day snake-oil salesmen who are seeking to use the COVID-19 crisis to create a name for themselves and garner greater fame and fortune. I know many of my friends lean towards ‘holistic’ alternatives or adjuncts to modern evidence-based medicine (modern medicine IS holistic but that’s another soap box entirely). I have FB and real life friends who are into essential oils, I have family that swear by their chiropractor, and I myself have received acupuncture in the past (it was kind of fun, to be honest). Most of them, thankfully, also choose to bring their children to the doctor when they are ill and to vaccinate them to prevent communicable diseases. Most of them have been very, very supportive of healthcare professionals in general and of me personally during this pandemic, and I have seen them both seek out and share good, reliable medical information. In short, I have been quite proud of these crunchy, oily friends of mine. If you are reading this as someone who identifies strongly with holistic or alternative medicine, I would ask you to please consider carefully whether the conspiracy theorists and COVID-19 deniers who are so prolific on the internet right now really represent your movement well and are espousing the same values that you find important in your area of wellness. My hope is that you wouldn’t be deceived by them easily just because they are comfortable using the same terminology that you hold close to your heart; an error we in the Church have all too often made with false teachers of all stripes.


“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

“Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from telling lies.”

When the initial wave of concern over COVID-19 began for our clinic system a few short weeks ago, there seemed no end to the things that needed to be done. We had to rapidly prepare to protect our staff and patients by minimizing transmission risk and eliminating fomites, go through all of our processes with a fine toothed comb and revise or rewrite a fair number, and innovate and implement novel ways to deliver high quality primary care under circumstances where it was no longer safe for our patients to sit in a crowded waiting room as they wait to see their primary care Physician, or even pass each other in the hallways on the way to the lab or radiology. This all in addition to learning how to work-up and treat the virus itself. During those first few weeks many of us worked until the wee hours of the morning each night and through the weekends, all the while continuing to see patients, return phone calls, and refill medications. But as these systems have been put into place and fine-tuned, and as the physical distancing and other epidemiology measures on a community level have effectively limited the spread of the virus in our area, life has thankfully slowed somewhat again.  Many of us that do hospital work are waiting to see whether more doctors will be needed to cover shifts, or if the shelter-in-place orders and distancing measures will be enough to avoid a true, overwhelming surge. In the meantime we read and stay up to date, we see our patients via telemedicine or in outdoor COVID-19 clinics and work hard to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks, and we prepare, personally and professionally, for worst-case scenarios. Throughout all of this we have each continued to ask ourselves what our next responsibility is as Physicians in the midst of this pandemic.

In answer to that last question, I have found myself more and more called on to provide an answer to misinformation around COVID-19, as friends and family have attempted to sort out the unprecedented amount of misunderstanding and abject falsehood that has been circulated over the past month. To be clear, even in the best of times there is already an overwhelming amount of misinformation around health and healthcare. The nuances of human health and disease and the means available to protect the former and fight the latter are unbelievably complex, and because of this it is easy for an individual who hasn’t spent a lifetime studying this area to feel overwhelmed and disempowered. The temptation of easy answers and quick fixes is very real. More to the point, Physicians have historically done a fairly poor job, in my opinion, of helping our patients to feel empowered and knowledgeable to the greatest degree that is possible without them actually entering the medical field themselves. In this context, it is no surprise that during this time of increased health anxiety and uncertainty, and with a myriad of political and economic motivations to obscure the realities around the virus, the amount of misinformation has increased dramatically. Between my day job, extra duties related to the virus, and this small matter of having a wife and four children, I consider it a real privilege when I have the margin to address a video or article that a friend has ‘tagged’ me in asking for my input.

But though there are plenty of unaddressed articles, videos, and memes spreading medical misinformation on my facebook feed this very day, I am writing this afternoon with a slightly different, though related, purpose. I am writing to call the Church to participate in this work with me.

We are called to be a people of the truth; we are not called to be a people of truth and falsehood mingled. When discussing his conversion to Christianity, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “My reason for accepting the religion and not merely the scattered and secular truths out of the religion… I do it because the thing has not merely told this truth or that truth, but has revealed itself as a truth-telling thing.” As followers of Christ, Christians ought also to have a reputation of truth-telling. Truth-telling in love, when the truths are difficult. Truth-telling in courage, when the the truths are spoken to those in places of power. Truth-telling in humility and repentance when those truths reflect poorly on ourselves or our conduct. We cannot afford the damage done to the witness of the Church by our gaining a reputation as unreliable sources of truth. Yes, physical health in general and the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, as devastating as it is, are still ultimately minor issues compared to the eternal importance of the Gospel; but how can the world around us look to us for the Truth of the latter when we have only provided them falsehood about the former? “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”

For this reason, I believe that our willingness as a people of Faith to perpetuate misinformation, particularly when it may truly injure our neighbors, is not a political issue or even an integrity issue, but a spiritual issue. There is no truth, whether philosophical, metaphysical, or scientific, that does not belong to our Creator; there is no Truth that we as Christians should fear, and there is no falsehood, no matter how convenient to our preferred narratives, that does not originate from our Enemy.


What follows is my take, as a Physician, on what a lay person can do when trying to weigh truth and falsehood and judge the reliability of medical information during the COVID-19 pandemic. I want you to know that I realize it is often very, very difficult. As a Physician I have the privilege of years of education and training in thinking about real and reliable truths about our bodies and the diseases that affect us; it is never my place to judge someone for sharing information they find convincing because they do not have those same experiences and have spent their time in other important work. It is my job, I think, to help my fellow believers supplement their God-given discernment with reliable data and professional insight; we are all one Body, but made up of many parts.

1. Understand your source.

Returning to Chesterton, I think it is reasonable to ask whether the author of the article or the self-purported expert we are listening to has a track record of providing reliable medical information; have they proven themselves to be a ‘truth-telling thing (er, person)’. Many of the people generating widely shared false information are political partisans who have no medical or other scientific background; are they sharing the perspective of actual experts, or are they merely creating false narratives and opinions out of thin air? If the source is not a politician but instead claims to be an expert, what is their education and background? So often we give our trust to people whose primary credentials are an attractive and disarming physical presence and a high verbal IQ but who do not have even the basic science background to understand the frameworks they are tearing down. I have seen youtube videos captioned ‘so and so DESTROYS the COVID-19 pandemic myth’ or ‘Dr. X crushes the CDC and WHO conspiracy’, etc., only to find that not a single intelligible sentence of valid scientific information was uttered during the entire 15 minute video. These are the ‘used car salesmen’ (no offense to actual used car salesmen; I am very pleased with my 2012 Honda Odyssey) of medical information, and their true area of expertise is in pretending to be experts.

Please understand what I am not saying; I am not saying that you must have a certain degree or a certain prerequisite combination of education or work experience in order to have a valid take on the pandemic. But often these videos are made by people putting themselves forward as experts without the credentials to support that claim; the first piece of misinformation is imbedded in their own self presentation. An example is a video a friend recently asked for input on, from a doctor putting himself forward as an expert on the immune system. It turns out that he was not an immunologist or a microbiologist, but a disgraced chiropractor turned “cellular detox diet” specialist. Again, this does not negate what he has to say; but it is a vital piece of context for weighing the claims he goes on to make.

This research is sometimes hard. These people are often incredible at building legitimate sounding resumes for themselves and at using terminology on their websites and bios that smacks of authenticity and scientific rigor. Moreover, there are also those who do have impressive credentials yet have strayed from any integrity in their work and have become deeply unreliable sources of healthcare information in their pursuit of fame or fortune (a fellow MD friend and I often joke, darkly, how easy it would be to make tons of money as a Physician, if it weren’t for these pesky morals). But even if you cannot establish someone’s reliability with a few minutes on google alone, conducting such research will help to answer a few basic questions that should set the tone for the information itself. Is there a direct link between the reach of this person’s social media influence and their opportunities for attainment of power and profit, such as a political office being at stake or a website that sells services or goods directly? Such a relationship would be fairly rare in medicine or academic science. Are the claims this person makes the types of things that would fall within their area of knowledge based on their education and work experience? Are they setting themselves up as experts in areas, such as clinical medicine, immunology, or epidemiology, where they seem to have had little to no experience? Finally, do they have a history of fraudulent claims, moral turpitude, or failed (or successful) scams in the past?

This step is sometimes a bit tedious, but I believe vitally important, especially when some of these videos are made by people who have spent a lifetime mastering the art of convincing others with their looks, manners, and likability. When it comes to medical misinformation, these are the wolves in sheep’s’ clothing of the moment.

2. Do your research.

This second point is so similar to the first that I won’t spent much time on it. Though understanding whether the source is reliable is important, I firmly believe that the content of the argument is more important still. When considering any degree of medical information shared on social media, or even mainstream media, pause to reflect on the main themes and content of the article or video. What was the driving point? What information contradicts that which is already widely available? What data seems shocking or seems to rely heavily on the existence of widespread conspiracies? For that matter, do those conspiracies depend on the sudden cooperation of diverse and often opposed sectors of society, such as the sudden cooperation of politically unaligned nations or the widespread collusion of large groups of healthcare professionals? What part of the information is benign and widely accepted already, and is it being presented as such? Or is there a claim that commonly accepted facts are denied by or unknown to ‘the powers that be’ (the CDC, the medical establishment, etc), and does that seem very likely? What would the major implications be if this video were true, and who would stand to profit by its widespread acceptance if it were false?

This list could go on, and in another time we would have only these important critical thinking questions to guide us to the informational content itself. But we live in a technological age and the odds are that if we are seeing a video, or at least a popular video, it has been critiqued or fact checked already. Read these critiques; seek them out. This alternative perspective, even if it comes from a source you normally don’t subscribe to personally (I know people who despise certain fact checking websites), may be enough to give you the ‘aha!’ moment you need to reach conclusions on the information for yourself. And if you believe the information and think it is worth sharing, then understanding the arguments against it will only strengthen your position.

3. Be honest with yourself about your political leanings.

I’ll keep this one brief because I don’t particularly want to be dragged into a specific political debate, at least at this time. As people of faith who are committed to the truth, we will find ourselves politically homeless a fair amount of the time, and holding onto important caveats and a sense of tension even in our areas of agreement with political movements. When the truth conflicts with the narratives of the political groups with which we most closely align, our choice is clear. Before sharing information from questionable sources, that our research tells us is not reliable, we have to check our politics; we have to be very honest with ourselves regarding whether our impulse to perpetuate the information stems from a real belief in its veracity or from a mere desire for it to be true. I have heard fellow Christians tell me “all politicians lie” (generally to excuse untruths from one group or individual), and then have seen them blindly re-post the lies that come from their own side. I may very well have been guilty of this myself. If we believe that politicians are not reliable sources of information in general (and we can debate later if some are worse than others to an almost unprecedented degree), it means that we will sometimes choose for reasons of discernment not to pass along information that, were it true, would be extremely convenient to our party or candidate. In contrast, if we find ourselves always repeating the party line and reinforcing the narratives of those in positions of power, I fear that we are in danger of rendering unto Caesar something that never belonged to him.

4. Beware of easy answers.

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys’ philosophies–these over simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either.”
C.S. Lewis wrote this when discussing the reality of Christianity and the complaint heard so often that ‘religion ought to be simple.’ But I think this quote is informative for us in this discussion of medical misinformation. Alternative health popularizers like the ones we are seeing in video after video right now have long mastered the art of combining oversimplified ‘common sense’ arguments with the right kind of complex medical vocabulary (some real, some fake), to appeal at once to both our desire that healthcare should be fully comprehensible and explicable to us and our desire to know we are hearing form an expert. They are experts in tickling the ears, in confirming our biases and ingratiating themselves to a public that is anxious over health and disease. For someone who has actually studied both the real concepts they are distorting and the real vocabulary they are misusing, these arguments are as transparent as they are ridiculous; but they are not trying to convince me, they are specifically trying to convince people who don’t have medical training.

That said, you don’t have to spend your life studying pathophysiology and be intimately familiar with medical terminology to spot these patterns for yourself and know when to be wary. These false arguments tend to fall along a few common themes, and once you learn to spot them you will be a big step closer to at least being able to ask the right questions.

  • The real solution is easy but they don’t want you to know that.

This one has come up a lot recently as people advocating against social/physical distancing measures (for political or financial purposes) are pushing the idea that other simple measures would actually prevent getting sick from COVID-19. Typically these are oriented around the immune system, and the idea that having a healthy immune system would actually prevent the disease entirely. Aside from being untrue, this is extremely problematic for two big reasons. First, I think we should recognize the degree of victim blaming involved in this line of reasoning; if these 41,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the US had just taken enough Vitamin C or eaten a healthier diet they wouldn’t have died. Certainly the interaction between health and lifestyle, including limitations in choices and socio-economic vulnerabilities, is complex. But there is not a set of choices that can make someone immune to illness in general, and in the case of infectious diseases specifically there is not a combination of lifestyle and nutrition that can make a person invincible (even Chris Trager got the Flu on Parks and Rec). Second, just consider the sheer number of people who would have to be in on such a conspiracy. Millions of doctors, nurses, and public health experts, many of whom have themselves become ill or lost friends and loved ones. The idea that all of these people are interested in covering up that a certain number of milligrams of Vitamin C or a certain number of hours of sunlight exposure could have alleviated all of this suffering is not only incredibly naive, but also unbelievably calloused.

  • Germs are good for you.

This is an argument that crops up when discussing any infectious disease, but it is particularly popular now. Many alternative health and particularly detox and microbiome style wellness salesmen are all too quick to tell you that viruses, bacteria, and fungi are important for us; that without them we wouldn’t have functioning immune systems. And they are right. But like so many of their arguments, they have taken just one piece of the incredibly complex story of human health and disease and have extrapolated it to illogical and harmful proportions. I have written about this more extensively recently, but they are essentially failing to make two important points. First, the difference between a microbe (any bacteria, virus, or fungi, etc) and a pathogen, which is a microbe known to cause human disease; it is absolutely not true that because ‘germs are good for us’, therefore infectious diseases are good for us. This virus can definitely kill you. And second, the role of an acute infection in establishing a secondary immune response. Yes, exposure to a pathogen does generally cause some degree of enhanced natural immunity against that same pathogen later (this is the entire principal upon which vaccines are based); but it is not necessary to allow yourself to get ill or indeed become as sick as possible in order to build that robust secondary immune response, and sometimes the risk is much greater than the reward. “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” still implies that dying is at least on the table.

I won’t rehash all the points I wrote about last week, but instead will share a quick story. When we lived in Denver we were visiting with a friend after church who showed us a fairly deep cut to his finger, near the joint, which he had received that morning. My wife, an RN, asked what he had used to clean the wound. He explained that he had NOT cleaned the wound because his body needed the germs to build an immune response, and that soap and water would prevent his body from fighting off the infection ‘naturally’. Katie attempted to persuade him otherwise and explain the roll of his immune system and ways he could help his body prevent an infection, but he wasn’t convinced. Two weeks later we saw him again, this time with a large bandage over his finger. We asked about this and he explained how his finger had become infected and he had to go to the emergency room, undergo and incision and drainage procedure to remove the pus, and then take antibiotics. He went into glorious detail about the procedure and the appearance of the infection and even showed us pictures. He did all of this without any sign of chagrin, and to this day neither of us is sure whether he had forgotten the first conversation entirely or if he is just the world’s most humble man.

And while what happened to my friend is funny in retrospect, because his finger fully recovered, it is certainly not funny when someone contracts a deadly illness because they are misled into thinking it’s actually better for their health.

  • The doctors don’t understand (or indeed know about) the immune system.

I’m always amazed when this one makes the rounds because it’s just such an incredibly goofy thing to say. We could spend paragraphs discussing the thousands of hours spent in medical school understanding every aspect of the human body and the huge swaths of microbiology, biochemistry, pathophysiology, infectious disease, anatomy, and pharmacology coursework that were devoted to understanding our fearfully and wonderfully made defenses against infection. I promise you we spent so much time studying the immune system that we dreamed of angry macrophages and inflammatory cytokines. So why such a silly and nonsensical lie? They are setting up a false dichotomy between your own immune system (which they would like to sell you products and services to augment) and the “big-pharma model of medicine”, a red herring of their own invention, which only believes in harsh chemicals. They have to reduce modern medicine and the scientific discoveries of the human body to just this one aspect in people’s minds so that they can claim for themselves the parts of it which seem to sell best. Whether the hucksters making such claims have actually studied the immune system in an intellectually honest and scientifically rigorous way themselves, however, is a question that perfectly justifies speculation.

I explore the rest further in the next section, but a few more, briefly:

  • The doctors want you to stay sick.

This is 100% a lie. Don’t be fooled by ‘common sense’ arguments that suddenly call for millions of well-meaning people to act nefariously.

  • The doctors are being controlled by big pharma.

Don’t be fooled by arguments that require passionate, notoriously difficult to control, and (let’s face it) often egoistic people to suddenly be submissive. Physicians are one of the primary reasons that pharmaceutical and insurance companies don’t yet control all of healthcare.

  • The doctors mean well but have been tricked.

Don’t be fooled by arguments that require very smart people to suddenly be easy to dupe.

5. Ask your brothers and sisters in Christ.

One of the many false narratives that Christians seem to believe at an alarming rate is that the medical field is somehow opposed to the Church. It is easy to point to controversial areas of medicine, or even the general principles of understanding illness and health as primarily physical phenomenon, to say that modern medicine is at it’s core agnostic or secular, and thus antagonistic to the Faith. This is an incredibly profitable narrative for televangelists and healing charlatans who would like you to believe that pursuing any means of healing aside from the overtly miraculous is a sign of lack of faith, and who exploit our fears and insecurities around health to sew mistrust in Physicians and other health professionals for their own profit. Perhaps a step down from the overt chicanery of these false prophets, we also see a strange marriage between Evangelical Christianity and unproven and sometimes even dangerous alternative health measures, which are marketed, sometimes, with a heavy mix of pseudo-Christian spirituality.

But if this is true, what then do we do with the millions of doctors, nurses, scientists, epidemiologists, and others within the healthcare sector that are faithful followers of Jesus Christ? I think the first temptation, too often, is to treat them like they are ‘one of the good ones’; as though a Christian Physician you know personally may be a reliable source of health information, but the medical field, in general, is not. I think this is incredibly problematic. As someone whose 20’s and 30’s were devoted to medical training, I have known hundreds (maybe thousands) of doctors personally. My older children who grew up during my residency thought that “Dr.” was just a gender-neutral way to say “Mr.” or “Mrs.”.  Because of where I have trained, many of these have been believers; but just as many that I have trusted and respected have not. Yes, I have certainly met doctors I would not trust with my own care or that of my family, but these have been remarkably, surprisingly few compared to the number of doctors I have known and worked with. In general I can say that Physicians as a group have self-selected for (and certainly this has been reinforced by training) both their desire to see people well and their commitment to scientific accuracy. To be clear, some of these doctors I disagree with vehemently on issues within medicine and the associated underlying moral and societal values. Nevertheless, and regardless of the cultural misrepresentations, your doctor wants you to be healthy and is, in general, a good and reliable source of information about health and disease. If they aren’t, you should get a new doctor immediately.

As we touched on earlier, a second and similar way to treat Christian Physicians and healthcare workers is as well-meaning but ultimately misled pseudo-experts with only a narrow scope of understanding regarding the human body. This is the view pushed by many in alternative health businesses; doctors are generally altruistic or noble, but they have had the wool pulled over their eyes, their education is controlled by Big Pharma and hospital administrators, and really all they are learning is essentially spreadsheet after spreadsheet of ‘if the patient has this, give them one of these drugs (and here are the prices; pick the most expensive one)’. Medical schools and residencies exist to train doctors to create profits for drug companies. Now, this is an incredibly silly idea and we could devote as much time as we wanted to this. I could explain that I never met a drug rep until after residency, because they generally aren’t allowed to interact with medical students or residents, and have never made a medical decision based on the advice of a drug rep in my life (except for Burton “Gus” Guster, of course). I could (and should, at some point) explain the very complex and often antagonistic relationship between systems within medicine that prioritize profits over people, including pharmaceutical companies, and the physicians, nurses, and clinical staff who exhaust themselves to help their patients find something like justice and equity in their healthcare. But these are areas I am passionate about, and I’m afraid this one section would eclipse the rest of the essay entirely.

Instead, I’m willing to bet that if took a step back and consulted even your own experiences with doctors you know personally, you would realize that their knowledge, education, and personal characteristics does not seem to match this narrative. If you have physicians in your family,, or in your church or Sunday school class, or have attended high school or college with them, or have friends who are doctors- in short, if you do know believing medical experts that you would ask for input on these videos and articles being circulated- ask yourself if they are a reliable source of information even aside from their medical background. Are they the type of people who are easily duped? Do they hold to questionable morals or a low view of the truth? Do they seem to possess discernment? Essentially, are they the type of people you would trust outside of a pandemic to answer questions unrelated to viruses and immunology and epidemiological data? If they are not, I would humbly suggest that you do not turn to them now, regardless of how closely the information you need clarified matches their field of work. But if they are, I would recommend showing them the courtesy to believe that they have applied at least that same degree of critical and independent thinking and that same spiritual discernment to the endeavor that has taken up the majority of their adult lives; namely the study of human health and disease.

Finally, my advice when framing these questions: be specific. When I am asked by a friend or acquaintance to address a viral video or a healthcare related article or meme, I try to be as thorough and complete as possible (I do find that after a few thousand words of my ramblings, they usually don’t ask a second time…). This can be time consuming, but I believe it is important work, and I personally have no problem being asked a general “would you give your input on this.” Not all healthcare professionals have the inclination to be quite so verbose, and of course many of us want for the time to do so now more than ever. If you ask for an opinion on a 20 minute video or a 2000 word article, let them know what your specific question is, or what about the content you found either particularly compelling, surprising, or questionable. If you are only looking for a ‘yes this is trustworthy’ or ‘no this isn’t trustworthy’ and are willing to take their word for it without a long explanation, let them know that as well.

6. Repent (or at least, redact).

I hesitate to make this last point because there is no way to express this without sounding somewhat judgmental. I hope it is clear that I intend to hold myself to this same standard as well, and hope that when (not if) I also fall into the ‘fake news’ trap and share misleading or unreliable information, I have the courage to follow my own advice.

What do you do when you have found information available on the internet and outside of your own area of expertise to be convincing and have passed it along, and through the (hopefully) kind input of friends have later discovered it to be untrue? I think there are a few good options. The simplest is to take it down; to delete the post so that others will not either follow you into believing the false information, or else in disbelieving it themselves begin to associate you with it. I think this is the minimum standard we should expect regarding our interactions with falsehood. However, I think an even better idea is what I have seen a family member do consistently in recent years; whenever she has shared a fake article or untrue information, she has then edited her post to clarify that the information is not reliable and why. Rather than distancing herself from those mistakes she embraces them, and in doing so helps protect others against the same errors. I believe that even better than Christians being known for never spreading false information (which is surely not the case now) would be us being known for the integrity and humility to publicly repent of error and embrace truth; in fact I can think of no more Christian way to deal with such a situation.

There is one thing we cannot do. Once we are aware of the falsehoods in something we have shared or promoted, we cannot choose to cling to it because we like the way it sounds or want people to believe that it is true. I have seen this done far too often; when it has been shown clearly that a source is unreliable or has even told outright lies, I have seen friends choose to continue to endorse and share it. There are myriad reasons, from liking a few of the points that weren’t exactly dishonest to wanting people to accept the overall message even if the content isn’t reliable. As people who believe that truth is authored by our Father and that we have an enemy who is only the father of lies, we cannot be comfortable with the mingling of the two. We cannot say, “yes, 7 of his 12 points were deliberately dishonest, and maybe or 3 or 4 were fairly dangers, but I really liked the other 5 and he’s just such an engaging speaker.” We must hold to higher standards of veracity than this. If we really want to promote those other ideas we should be incredibly, unmistakably clear that the rest of the content is not trustworthy… But better still, we should do the difficult work of finding a more consistently reliable source, and say of the first only that “he is a liar and the truth is not in him.”


I will conclude with the words of our Lord from Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” This pandemic is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes, and it is already the number one cause of death in the United States. We are living in an era of human history when reliable, true information is really capable of saving lives and when false information endangers our friends, loved ones, and neighbors. As we seek to obey the command of our Savior, let us reflect that we may never again in our lifetimes see such a moment as this, when these two concepts are so closely linked and refusal to be as wise as serpents can lead so directly to a failure to be as harmless as doves.