Physicians’ role in bridging the COVID-19 health recommendations divide

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It has been a summer of disconcerting milestones for the US. Over 4 million people have now been infected with the novel coronavirus, and over 140,000 have lost their lives according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The country reported over 77,000 new cases on July 16, a single-day record at the time. Thirty-nine states have reported an increase in coronavirus cases, including Texas, California, and Arizona. In Texas and California, 740 military physicians, nurses, and support staff have been deployed to hospitals after requests from state officials and FEMA to help overwhelmed hospitals.  We are not ahead of the Covid-19 pandemic. As health-care workers, we know this. In our personal lives, however, we are often met with debate.

This juxtaposition came to a head last week with reports of efforts to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci, an internationally recognized infectious disease specialist, and lead on the coronavirus task force for the White House. Dr. Fauci, along with medical experts on the task force, was reportedly nicknamed “Dr. Gloom and Doom” for their sometimes dire warnings regarding the coronavirus trajectory. This attempt to gaslight Dr. Fauci on a national stage strikes a personal chord with fellow physicians, and a wave of support has emerged with the #istandwithfauci social media campaign.

As otolaryngologists, we are at increased risk for COVID infection, given the high viral load in the nose and upper airways. We routinely see patients who have a cough, sore throat, and nasal complaints, and thus we are exposed to viral aerosolization simply by examining a patient. We wear N95 masks often layered with surgical masks, eye protection, and use industrial-grade disinfectant judiciously on a daily basis. This is to protect ourselves and our families waiting at home.

 It is only natural that the precautions we, as well as other health care providers, take at work carry over into the rest of our lives. We are well-accustomed to reviewing the medical literature and making evidence-based decisions. We look to epidemiological and virology studies to guide our own behavior. Misinformation, however, is easily accessible in popular media. Plandemic, a 26-minute conspiracy video, has garnered millions of views despite being debunked by the medical community and removed by social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube for its spread of COVID-19 misinformation.  These easily accessible falsehoods, unfortunately, lead to much debate about the validity of scientific data in the lay community.

Physician parents may experience this dichotomy to an even greater extent as they contemplate the beginning of the school year. Our children are in desperate need of social interaction for their emotional and psychological well-being, but this must be balanced with their health and safety. There is a tremendous amount of guilt that comes from restricting your child’s experiences, even if for their safety. We can, however, use these opportunities to come together and have real discussions about moving safely forward into a new normal. We should not feel ashamed of following our best medical judgment, and should resist the temptation to compromise our instincts in response to peer pressure.

To be sure, conflicting COVID information from reputable agencies such as the World Health Organization does not help bridge the divide between health professionals and the public. It leads to an air of mistrust of official recommendations. However, misinformation about COVID-19, if propagated, can be deadly. The stakes are high. Physicians need to have a voice in this discussion and work towards impacting policy in a positive way. Physician-led groups such as IMPACT aim to advocate for evidence-based solutions for the protection of communities and serve an advisory role to those in charge of public policies. As physicians, our primary purpose is the well-being of our patients. We owe it to them to share not only information about sinus infections and sore throat, but how to protect themselves from COVID-19. We must share what we know.

We can and should begin to reintegrate into society, but as physicians, our responsibility to the community is to educate and protect. We should not shy away from sharing our expertise with others. This may include uncomfortable conversations with friends and family whose views differ from our own, but if we come from a place of respect and understanding, we can and will get through this together.

Inna Husain and Jill Jeffe are otolaryngologists.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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