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Debunking Myths About COVID

By: David Ostrowsky

In sharing his thoughts about the ongoing pandemic at the MAHP (Massachusetts Association of Health Plans) 2022 Annual Health Care Conference held at the Seaport Hotel in Boston on November 17, Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, made it a point to debunk several widely circulated myths while emphasizing that there continues to be an illusion of knowledge about what will transpire next.

As has been well-chronicled, the Trump administration largely shouldered the blame for the country being ill-equipped to counter COVID. However, the medical field, according to Osterholm, deserves criticism as well. Notably, on January 20, 2020, Osterholm’s organization released a statement warning of a pandemic, only to be met with significant skepticism among members of the medical community. A few weeks later, in early February, he reached out to several major medical journals to publish his warnings but was rejected each time. The underlying message was that there needs to be far greater humility when it comes to rationalizing COVID and that, generally speaking, predictions are of little practical value.

Of equal importance, as consumers of mass media, Americans should receive messages with a healthy dose of skepticism. Particularly regarding masking and the transmission of the virus, there has been a significant amount of misinformation articulated via mainstream media outlets. Osterholm believes that the American media has misled the public about what masking can do; in particular, it has not been made abundantly clear that a cloth mask is far less effective than an N95 mask. In fact, in hospitals, patients have been told to remove their N95 masks and replace them with less effective surgical masks because that is the standard practice. This can be an especially dangerous situation for healthcare workers who are coming in contact with patients entering the ER or ICU for the first time. Additionally, in the early stages of the pandemic, people were constantly told to avoid shaking hands while maintaining meticulous care of their environment. However, as it turns out, there is no credible evidence proving the virus is transmitted via hand-to-hand contact and/or surface contamination.

Regarding the present-day status of the pandemic, we are currently experiencing Phase 4 in which subvariants of Omicron, ones able to neutralize the antibody protection people get from a vaccine or prior case of COVID, are rather prevalent. COVID-related cases have been rising particularly fast in European countries as well as in Japan and South Korea. Although FDA-approved vaccines are clearly effective in reducing rates of serious illness and death, they don’t necessarily stop infection or transmission of new subvariants as the virus invariably switches direction. In short, the pandemic is not over and there needs to be greater humility when it comes to predicting future outcomes.

In terms of the overall state of healthcare, Osterholm agrees with Baker that America is indeed in a state of crisis. Understaffing continues to plague the industry as throughout the country, including in Boston, emergency rooms remain overcrowded with patients, many of whom are now suffering from influenza and RSV. A couple interesting statistics, per Osterholm’s estimation: In the U.S. there are approximately one million professionally active physicians, leaving the country 35th in the world in physicians per capita; meanwhile there are approximately three million registered nurses, which equates to the country being 29th in the world in nurses per capita. Consequently, America needs to invest in its public health system by establishing a commission specifically focused on examining the aftermath of the pandemic and evaluating the subsequent successes and failures.