A year of COVID-19: What have we learned? What is Real? What is Fake?

  • Importantly, What are the risks to ourselves and others by not knowing for sure

What is real?  What is Fake? How are you supposed to figure it out?  The problem with news is that “No News in its basic sense is Fake”.   It is the interpretation of the news story according to the perspective of the storyteller, unsubstantiated opinions and theories conjured up by the reporter, the motives of the critic, the addition and/or substitutions of key players in the stories, the inflammatory reactions to chosen adjectives which are inserted to elicit a visceral response, the substitution and rewording of the important context of the story, as well as added graphics and video effects that make a legitimate news story “Fake”. 

Based on a well-designed study, the number one predictor to clue you as to whether information is real or false is your prior knowledge of facts related to the topic being discussed.  Also, importantly, are the reliability of sources of your background learning, the subject expertise of the primary authors of the original references (prior to alterations by others) and your own openness to not dismiss scientifically-vetted information because it may not coincide with your previous beliefs.  

Equally, if not more, important is recognizing that the generation of health-related evidence creation is not a one-time, static occurrence.  Indeed, science and discovery are dynamic processes.   True scientists are naturally humble with knowing that at any time their findings may be challenged or disproven.  There exist literally dozens, if not hundreds, of studies looking to find solutions or fill crucial unanswered gaps in medicine.  Some may contradict others.  These are why medical societies and public health organizations such as the WHO & CDC gather groups of global and national experts to analyze the totality of new and existing data to formulate consensus recommendations. 

So what do you believe when you are not familiar with the background of a particular story?

With respect to COVID-19, Lisa Maragakis, MD, senior director of infection prevention from Johns Hopkins says, “I think this whole process has been humbling, you know for everyone.” Maragakis says the pandemic response was bound to be messy. We were just learning about a new virus and everyone was trying hard to figure out how to stop it.  What made this even more painful, she says, was that people were following every twist and turn so closely.

“In science and medicine, we are used to the kind of ebb and flow of scientific information that you know, it’s not always linear,” she says, “You sort of find your way by triangulating amongst the different pieces of evidence.” “The whole public was faced with following along with science in a way that, you know, I don’t think we usually get that level of scrutiny or attention that everyone is seeing blow-by-blow as scientific knowledge is accumulated in real time,” she says.

Much of the public health guidance given to the public last year turned out to be incorrect. “Putting aside rampant disinformation and political interference, the real tragedy was not having any COVID-19 testing for the first 2 months of the US pandemic, which promoted diffuse spread of the virus across the country, and we’ve never been able to contain it since,” said Eric Topol, MD, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research and editor-in-chief of Medscape. “That was the unforgivable mistake…a fatal mistake for thousands of Americans,” Topol said. https://twitter.com/EricTopol/status/1369658228234022915

What is a key take home message from this article? What are some characteristics of “Fake” News or Reports that can help you discriminate real from false information?  Look out for these:

  • The story appeals to your emotions, not your intellect
  • Presented as a Flashy, Shareable headline
  • Not corroborated by more than one independent, reputable source
  • Seem to be Agenda setting
  • Reflect the opinion of the presenter rather than the facts
  • Originate from an unfamiliar/unreliable source

For the COVID-19 pandemic, the examples seem never-ending:

  • Treatments:  Some work if used at the proper time, but nothing works all the time; Some claims were packed with hope, but also with disappointment; Many had no scientific basis, while others were outright ludicrous.  FDA Fraudulent COVID-19 Disease Products
  • Responsible communications:  Doctors touting Fake information;  Elected Government legislators relaying blatant misinformation (https://twitter.com/BadCOVID19Takes/status/1368050032474198018)
  • New discoveries prompt changes to recommendations:  Being flexible and keeping current with updated information is crucial.  Examples for COVID-19 in a year
  • March 2020: No Need to Panic. The Flu Is Worse
  • March 2021: It’s Worse Than the Flu
  • March 2020: Asymptomatic Spread Is Rare
  • March 2021: 40% of New Cases Come From People Without Symptoms
  • March 2020: We Don’t Think the Virus Is a Threat to Young People
  • March 2021: Sadly, No.
    • Over last summer, adults under 30 accounted for more than 20% of all COVID cases in the US, according to the CDC. More than 12,000 Americans under the age of 45 have now died from COVID-19.
    • The majority of new cases as of April 3, 2021 is in people under 40 years of age
  • March 2020: Masks Aren’t Necessary
  • March 2021: Consider Wearing Two
  • March 2020: We Don’t Think the Virus Stays in the Air for Long
  • March 2021: Check Your CO2 Levels and Ventilate Because This Virus Definitely Hangs Around in the Air

As discoveries happen, changes may occur, or what we already know with be more strongly supported. However, these changes are only acceptable if the aforementioned scientific processes continue to drive innovation

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