The Misinformation Being Used to Pressure Us Into Re-Opening the Economy

Let’s shed a little light on the distortions and lies.

The people who are intent on re-opening the economy in the midst of the coronavirus crisis are relying on a lot of faulty science and outright lies. I thought it would be helpful to shine a bit of sunlight on some of their claims.

As an example, there are those who are suggesting that social distancing hasn’t worked to stop the spread of the virus, so we might as well end the practice. But that is based on a false premise. As you might recall, the reason given for social distancing was that it is a way to “flatten the curve,” ensuring that our health care system did not become overwhelmed. To demonstrate, here is the graph that went viral at the time.

Tom Friedan, head of the CDC under President Obama, made it clear that these efforts were designed not to prevent widespread transmission, but to “prevent explosive transmission and anything that overwhelms the health care system.” By taking those protective measures, it has always been assumed that the number of cases would remain the same, but would be spread over a longer period of time.

Even more widely circulated is the disinformation coming from two doctors, Daniel Erickson and Artin Massihi, who are the owners of an urgent care clinic in Bakersfield, CA. They produced an hour-long video which basically claimed that the mortality rate for COVID-19 patients was so low that restrictive stay-at-home measures are unwarranted. You can read a bit about how they cooked their numbers, but it is even more important to know that not only did Youtube remove the video from their platform for violating its community guidelines on spreading coronavirus misinformation, but two groups representing emergency medical professionals took the unprecedented step of condemning their presentation.

The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine (AAEM) jointly and emphatically condemn the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.

COVID-19 misinformation is widespread and dangerous. Members of ACEP and AAEM are first-hand witnesses to the human toll that COVID-19 is taking on our communities. ACEP and AAEM strongly advise against using any statements of Drs. Erickson and Massihi as a basis for policy and decision making.

Finally, there is a lot of chatter about how social distancing is actually hindering the process of developing “herd immunity.” That is an epidemiological term used to describe “the state where a population…is sufficiently immune to a disease that the infection will not spread within that group.” Most commonly, herd immunity is reached when a critical number of people have either been vaccinated or have developed natural immunity. Given what we know about COVID-19, that critical number would have to be at least 70 percent of the population.

Since a vaccine for coronavirus hasn’t been developed yet, those who are suggesting that we re-open the economy in order to develop herd immunity are relying on the assumption that people who have contracted COVID-19 have developed the antibodies necessary to give them natural immunity. But as Brian Resnick writes, that might be a faulty assumption.

Recently, the World Health Organization put out a buzzkill of a statement: “There is currently no evidence that people who have recovered from Covid-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection.”…

But experts in immunology and virology tell me that the WHO is right: The detection of antibodies to Covid-19 is not enough to declare a person immune because we don’t yet know how immunity to this virus works.

In addition, many people promoting the idea of herd immunity rely on two other factors: (1) that it is only the mortality rates for those over 60 that need to be taken into consideration, and (2) that people over 60 can be quarantined while the rest of us get back to normal life. Nowhere do you hear them address the long-term health effects we are seeing with those who have survived COVID-19, nor do they deal with the reality that many elderly people live with their children and grandchildren—something that is especially prevalent with low income elderly and people of color.

In exploring the possibility of developing herd immunity, Thomas Friedman looks to the example provided by Sweden. But it is important to note what that country has actually done.

Tegnell [the country’s top infectious disease official] explains that Sweden is not just blithely letting all Swedes get the disease to achieve herd immunity, but rather is pursuing a designed strategy for the most sustainable way to navigate through this pandemic. So colleges and high schools are closed, but kindergarten through grade nine are open, as are many restaurants, stores and businesses.

But the government has also issued social-distancing guidelines, which many people are abiding by, encouraged working from home and discouraged nonessential travel. Most important, it has encouraged everyone over 70 to stay at home and banned gatherings of more than 50 people and visits to nursing homes.

Given all of that, here are the results so far.

The death rate in Sweden has now risen significantly higher than many other countries in Europe, reaching more than 22 per 100,000 people, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University, controlled for population.

By contrast, Denmark has recorded just over seven deaths per 100,000 people, and both Norway and Finland less than four.

It is also helpful to remember that, in the hands of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the U.K.’s experiment with herd immunity turned into a debacle.

Hopefully, all of this provides you with some factual information that helps to dispel some of the misinformation we’re hearing from those who are intent on re-opening the economy in ways that disregard the best advice from scientific experts.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.