Columns for The Lufkin News

Coronavirus Information and Misinformation

Posted Aug 08, 2020 by Sidney C. Roberts, MD, FACR

As a physician, I have been fascinated by the rapid acquisition of knowledge about the novel coronavirus and the deadly disease it causes, COVID-19. True, that knowledge may not be coming as fast as we like. But the pace of vaccine development, for example, is remarkable. But along with knowledge come ignorance, misinformation, and deception.

First, a bit of ignorance. At a rally in Phoenix, in June, President Trump fired up his audience with anti-China rhetoric. In doing so, he displayed his lack of understanding of how COVID-19 got its name. “I said, ‘What’s the 19?’” Trump said. “COVID-19, some people can’t explain what the 19, give me, COVID-19, I said, ‘That’s an odd name.’”[1] Trump apparently thought names like kung flu, Wuhan virus, and Chinese flu were more appropriate.

We can all be forgiven for not knowing something like how COVID-19 got its technical (and not intuitively obvious) name. First, the virus that causes COVID-19 is the novel (meaning new) coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.[2] The first coronavirus caused an outbreak of SARS in the early 2000s. This new coronavirus appeared in 2019; hence, the disease it causes, COVID-19 – CO for corona, VI for virus, D for disease – carries the number 19 for the year it started (2019), not because it is the nineteenth disease (it is not). There’s your – and Trump’s – science lesson for the day.

On to misinformation and deception. Some misinformation is due to inaccurate information. For example, this paper published that while the number of COVID-19 cases has exploded in Texas nursing homes last month, Angelina County is bucking that trend.[3] That turned out to be based on either inaccurate or delayed information, as local physicians are aware of many local nursing home cases. The paper has updated the story as more information has come available. What is certain, however, is that our case count continues to rise.

Lack of information or incomplete information is different from deception. I have written previously about the importance of wearing masks.[4] But mask wearing took another hit recently when our own Congressman Louie Gohmert (TX-01) not only caught coronavirus, he released a video suggesting it was the mask that gave it to him.[5] In his own self-deception, he believes he wears a mask often, but many eyewitnesses (not to mention ever-present news media) suggest otherwise. Gohmert loves history, but history will not be on his side on this one. Deception to support a false narrative is no different than writing history to support a political agenda. Our country has seen too much of that.

When it comes to treatment, President Trump famously has advocated for unproven therapies, from bleach to the anti-malaria hydroxychloroquine. Regarding hydroxychloroquine, the results are in.[6][7] With strong data that hydroxychloroquine is not effective either as therapy or as postexposure prophylaxis, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently revoked its Emergency Use Authorization, saying it is “unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19” and that “in light of ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other serious side effects, the known and potential benefits … no longer outweigh the known and potential risks” for authorized use.[8] Our national coronavirus guru, Dr. Anthony Fauci, minced no words in saying, "The overwhelming prevailing clinical trials that have looked at the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine have indicated that it is not effective in coronavirus disease.”[9]

This has not stopped President Trump from practically practicing medicine without a license.

Trump literally is the most famous and influential person in the world. He is not alone in equating personal or anecdotal experience (I did X and Y didn’t happen; therefore, X prevented Y) with rigorous scientific study. My patients do it all the time. However, they do not have an international bully pulpit. His hubris throughout the pandemic in suggesting treatments (like bleach[10]) is jaw-droppingly astounding. (Bleach works on your countertop, right? Why wouldn’t it work inside your body?) Not only is his medical advice suspect at a minimum, it has been dangerous. And just this last week, Trump had his election campaign Twitter account temporarily blocked and a Facebook post deleted when he posted that children are “almost immune from this disease.”[11] When it comes to your health, listen to the doctors.

But don’t listen to quacks, especially those with pseudo-religious and anti-scientific claims. The bleach treatment claim (touted by a family of swindlers who formed a “church” in Florida) falls into that category.[12] But the icing on the cake – so far – has to go to a true charlatan, Dr. Stella Immanuel, a Houston physician of questionable medical training and even more dubious religious authority. She famously believes in alien DNA, demon sperm and that the government is run in part not by humans but by “reptilians” and other aliens.[13] That didn’t stop Donald Trump Jr. declared a video of hers a “must watch,” while President Trump himself retweeted the video.[14]

Unfortunately, attempts to set the record straight regarding coronavirus misinformation by referencing scientific data are considered by far too many to be “fake news” or viewed as a conspiracy theory. Just look at Facebook for examples. I implore you to use this information for how it is intended. Educate yourself on the facts of coronavirus. There is much we don’t yet know, of course. And the vast majority of us – anti-vaxxers excepted – eagerly await a vaccine. In the meantime, please DO wear your mask – over both your mouth AND nose, please! – and DO social distance. DO use hand sanitizer or soap and water often. Together – caring for each other – we can get through this.

[1] https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/coronavirus/article243762422.html

[2] https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it

[3] https://lufkindailynews.com/coronavirus/article_533d3efa-d123-11ea-865a-7b21c2c7bec0.html

[4] https://www.angelinaradiation.com/blog/pandemics-and-personal-responsibility

[5] https://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2020/07/29/texas-louie-gohmert-positive-covid-19-raju-nr-vpx.cnn

[6] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2019014

[7] https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2016638

[8] https://www.fda.gov/emergency-preparedness-and-response/mcm-legal-regulatory-and-policy-framework/emergency-use-authorization#coviddrugs

[9] https://www.wmur.com/article/president-trump-again-pushes-unproven-drug-as-covid-19-treatment/33446138#

[10] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/24/us/politics/trump-inject-disinfectant-bleach-coronavirus.html

[11] https://www.npr.org/2020/08/05/899558311/facebook-removes-trump-post-over-false-claim-about-children-and-covid-19

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/09/fake-coronavirus-cure-bleach/

[13] https://www.thedailybeast.com/stella-immanuel-trumps-new-covid-doctor-believes-in-alien-dna-demon-sperm-and-hydroxychloroquine

[14] https://www.thedailybeast.com/stella-immanuel-trumps-new-covid-doctor-believes-in-alien-dna-demon-sperm-and-hydroxychloroquine

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