The COVID-19 Pandemic: Still okay in Colorado, and the ongoing challenge of mis- and dis-informationApr 18, 2022
A quick COVID-19 update to start. Cases are rising in some parts of the East Coast where two new subvariants of BA.2 are rising in frequency. The two subvariants (BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1) may be more infectious than BA.2, leading to their rising prevalence. In response to the rising case numbers and its own metrics, Philadelphia implemented an indoor mask mandate today, although its CDC community level is low. Not surprisingly, a lawsuit has been filed to block its implementation. In this circumstance, the mask order becomes a preventive strategy, resulting in dissonance given the level of the pandemic. An attorney filing the lawsuit said “the city’s emergency order went against recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ‘imposed a renegade standard unfound anywhere else in the world.’” In Colorado, the count of people hospitalized with COVID-19 remains low and steady, but test positivity and case numbers have ticked up.
And then there are the remarkable reports from Shanghai describing how the Chinese government is handling the Omicron outbreak in this city of 25 million people. Following its policy of achieving zero-COVID at the community level (no new cases outside of quarantined areas), China has locked down much of Shanghai. The approach is draconian with media reports of forcible removal of people from their homes and citizens are protesting, albeit without seeming impact. For the long run, this strategy may not be practicable in an “endemic world.”
The politics of the pandemic are at play again around the World Health Organization’s (WHO) estimation of excess deaths resulting from the pandemic. Release of a WHO report on excess deaths caused by the pandemic has been delayed by India’s objections to the estimate made for their country, which assigns an additional 3 million deaths beyond the official estimate of 520,000. The excess deaths would be expected to exceed official death counts, since both direct deaths from COVID-19 are included as are deaths from conditions complicated by COVID-19, and deaths among those not receiving treatment for health conditions because the pandemic was in progress. The estimate of excess deaths for India is consistent with a prior report that also suggested substantial undercounting. Given the size of India’s population, an upwards adjustment of the official count would greatly increase the global toll from the pandemic.
The news around the sinking of the Russian ship, the Moskova, highlights the problem of misinformation and “alternative facts.” How did the ship sink in the Black Sea? Ukraine claims it was their missile strike while Russia asserts that there was a fire on board. Much of the world views the sinking as a victory for Ukraine, while Russian media have likely told a quite different story. There is a truth here regardless of what misinformation is released by Russia for Russians.
Misinformation has haunted efforts to control the pandemic since its start. The March 25 issue of Science takes on the topic of social media, including misinformation, in a special section, "Social Media Storm." Read it—particularly the first article, “On the trail of bulls..t”—the title betrays the topic. The article describes the work of Carl Bergstrom, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Washington, in developing a research field on misinformation. An article by West and Bergstrom in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lays out a taxonomy of misinformation and proposes interventions. Here are the first two sentences: “Misinformation has reached crisis proportions. It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision making, endangers the well-being of the planet, and threatens public health.” Another article mentioned in Science addresses the flow of information through networks and the need to understand how the digital age and social media have altered collective behavior.
Also read “In the line of fire,” which provides findings of a survey by Science on harassment of COVID-19 researchers. Of 510 respondents to an online survey, 38 percent reported some form of harassment with personal insults being most common. Personal stands on “hot issues” (e.g., ivermectin treatment) were associated with harassment, and being harassed had personal consequences for many participants. Despite the limitations of online surveys, the results show that harassment now reaches to researchers, reflecting a seeming license for those captured by misinformation to go after those creating knowledge. Unfortunate and wrong.
Last week, I wrote about the first Giving Day for the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and the Colorado School of Public Health. I am pleased to share that we raised over $26,500 for the ColoradoSPH Diversity and Inclusive Excellence Scholarship. Beyond the original match, this total includes a $5,000 match for having the greatest number of donors, and an additional $5,000 for raising the most funds during the second half of the day. A terrific turnout of 53 donors made a big difference for the school. To everyone who participated, thank you for your generosity and for supporting our students and the equity, diversity, and inclusivity mission of the Colorado School of Public Health.
Jonathan Samet, MD, MS
Dean, Colorado School of Public Health