What This Epidemiologist Wants Americans to Know About Covid-19 Right Now
A leading expert on the pandemic cuts through the mixed messages and confusion
One of the first scientists I reached out to in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak was Marc Lipsitch, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Soon after, he became hard to reach. Like other experts in infectious disease and epidemiology — the science of investigating causes, trends, and outcomes of diseases or other health-related events — Lipsitch’s time is in great demand from journalists and policymakers, not to mention the actual ongoing pandemic research.
Since then, much has been learned about the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and Covid-19, the disease it causes.
During these seven months, Lipsitch and other scientists — just like many other Americans — have become increasingly frustrated over mixed messaging from some health officials, outright falsehoods and misinformation uttered by some politicians and circulating wildly in social media, the lack of governmental leadership in managing the U.S. pandemic response, and the resulting disagreement over basic scientific facts and ensuing political and public polarization over what to do.
So on an Aug. 13 call with reporters covering a range of Covid-19 science details, I asked Lipsitch to step back and consider a broader question:
Amid all the confusion, what would you most like all Americans to know right now?
Here is an edited version of his responses on the call and in a subsequent exchange:
Viruses don’t care
“The first thing is just the very fundamental notion that if you have susceptible people, and if you have human contact, and if you have a virus to which those people are susceptible, it will spread, and the number of cases will increase. “My friend [and fellow epidemiologist] Bill Hanage sometimes says, ‘Viruses don’t read Twitter.’ They don’t care what we think about them. They don’t care what they do to the economy. They don’t care about anything. And we have to be rational in the face of that.”
Wishful thinking doesn’t work
“If a certain level of control measures didn’t bring transmission under control in the summer, unless there’s a lot more herd immunity to help us along, those same control measures still aren’t going to bring transmission under control in the fall and winter. Conversely, as more people start to get together in various ways, and as schools reopen, there will be more opportunities for transmission.” [Several experts have said the pandemic is likely to worsen this fall, raising concerns about the confluence with flu season.]
“Wishful thinking just doesn’t help. And I think that’s been a big part of the issue, a notion in some states in particular, that somehow we can be different from all the other experiences with this virus and other viruses and we can just hope that it won’t spread when we have high levels of contact.” [He cites complacency among U.S. policymakers when the virus was spreading in China and then Europe, and then complacency by some governors during the early outbreaks in New York and other states.]
Masks do work
“I think it would be great if people understood that masks, although they are somewhat disgusting to wear all day, really are a part of the solution, both as a direct protective for yourself and especially for others, but also as a reminder for people, because as they see the mask, they tend to stay away.”
Rampant virus spread is what’s bad for the economy
“I wish there was more sense of national solidarity around the idea that if the virus is spreading fast and at high levels in a community, it’s destructive to the economy, it’s destructive to every aspect of peoples’ lives, and the need to get the virus under control is in fact an investment in the economy and in getting our lives back into a normal state, rather than the sort of opposition between the ‘openers’ and the ‘closers.’ All of us closers want to close so that we get things under control enough so that we can open. No one likes being closed.
“And on the positive side, we know that concerted efforts to slow down transmission by reducing contacts can work. Many countries in Europe or Asia achieved a 10-fold reduction in cases and deaths with about two months of lockdown, and as a result of the pain they endured then, they are in a far stronger position than we are. We can still bring transmission down, but we have to make some sacrifices to do it.”
I also asked Lipsitch: Have scientists and healthcare experts and journalists collectively talked and written too much about all the evolving science and incremental details (and contradictory aspects) of the virus and the disease, to the point people simply tune out?
“I’m really bored of reading about Covid. But for me it’s one experience. For people who care much more about other things, it is, I presume, even more boring to have it be the only news.
“Covid-19 is dominating every aspect of life. It’s changed our economy, it’s changed our educational system, it’s changed our sports, it’s changed our other forms of entertainment and our arts. It really is the story, and I don’t know what to do to stop it being dominant other than stopping the virus itself.
“My overall evaluation of the coverage of this is that it’s been surprisingly good. Generalizing across different media types, almost every reporter I’ve had contact with is trying really hard to get the story right, to understand uncertainty, and to communicate clearly what’s known and what’s not known. I wonder almost if this is kind of a reaction to the fact that — with the key exception of Dr. Fauci — there hasn’t been a clear government voice in the United States that’s been loud enough at the federal level, or able to speak enough at the federal level, to fill that role, which is typically the CDC’s role. So I think journalists and scientists are collaborating quite effectively to bring that kind of information out with all the nuances.
“But of course not that many people want the entire newspaper to be science, or medicine, or even public health, and I think all of us working on this pandemic look forward to being less relevant.”