Brunswick News publications carried a lead article on Saturday, August 8, 2020 posing the question: Are We Beginning to Tune Out of Covid-19? The previous day, the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Russell, posed a similar question in commenting on the latest large gathering of people in celebration at a boating event.
From the beginning, back in late 2019, the risk, scope, etiology, contagion, control, treatment and much else surrounding this virus has been the subject of so much more controversy on the international stage than any other in history. The public can be forgiven for feeling more than a little antsy a full 9 months in!
With previous outbreaks, particularly the worst ones in recent memory (e.g., SARS, H1N1), there was a huge spike, much publicity, much discomfort, and so little controversy because the science seemed less vague. Since the 1970’s we, as citizens, have become accustomed to the promotion of the annual “flu vaccine” which has been helpful but never forced on people. Indeed, the vaccines apparently get adjusted regularly and we typically are at the mercy of the pharmacist or doctor to ensure we are getting the latest vaccine.
With previous outbreaks, and they happen pretty much every year, the science seemed to be less controversial and treatment much less challenging. In each annual flu season, hundreds of New Brunswickers get very ill and a good number typically die. Those who succumb tend to be frail elders whose frailty is exacerbated by several underlying chronic medical conditions. That is the way it has been for decades.
This time, from the perspective of one on the outside, it seemed that at the very beginning there was anything but clarity as to the origin of the virus and its power. In January some reports were coming from China that described early victims as very young children. Then some of the major US media down-played the virus and its power, using terms like Pandemic Panic.
Clearly within the scientific community the virus was not well understood and justifiably so; it was brand new and just commencing its spread! Airports were not locked down initially. Based on the early but imperfect information, international statistical models were created that that created shock and much fear across the world; then, it was found that those statistical models were very over-stated. Observers will remember vividly the press conference in which Dr. Deborah Birx, by now an international Icon, admitted the estimates of spread and lethality were overstated by huge percentages.
The same public that dutifully watches Dr. Russell and Premier Higgs in their daily briefings also are barraged by endless publicity, some accurate and truthful, others representing much political posturing and alternate agendas.
With disease outbreaks and so much in the health and public policy arena, it is instructional to follow the money. From any large crisis in our society, there are always those who stand to gain in proportions that the average citizen cannot imagine. At this point, the public, world-wide, seems to be expecting a vaccine as the magic bullet. The public clamor, driven by World Health Organization, the Gates Foundation, Medical Officers of Health and other officials hoping that the vaccine will be the one silver bullet that will get the world out of this mess.
Many drug companies are vying to be the first in line with a vaccine that has satisfied all levels of clinical trial. Shareholders push the executives; executives push the scientists and researchers. At the end is the promise of the miracle drug and the hundreds of millions of dollars invested and the billions of dollars to be realized in new revenues are absolutely staggering.
Many in the public remain confused over effective treatments for the symptoms of the virus. With any previous virus, doctors were free to use whatever seemed to work as long as it was legitimate therapy and medicine. But this time physicians seem to be pushed to wait for some miracle drug, even though some profess to have used other therapies successfully. Unlike previous outbreaks, there is now heated public debate heightened seemingly by various political forces that leaves the public shaking its collective head! Never before has an outbreak been so politicized as to leave the public confused and divided.
This division is manifest in issue of masks: do they work? Are they necessary? Do they afford protection? Early in the pandemic Dr. Tam, on one of her daily briefings, was quite equivocal and was not strong at all in recommending masks. To reporters’ questions, it seemed like: if it makes you feel good, wear one.
So now we have a wide variety of practices in our province and beyond. The original 6-foot regulation regarding social distancing was sound and in the explanation, it noted that a virus, locked up in naso-pharyngeal mucous, can project up to 6 feet if you are coughing and sneezing. The idea of wearing masks in wide open spaces certainly satisfies the “wear a mask” directive but yields little if any protection for anyone.
There has been the public confusion over public gatherings. We were all happy to accept and abide by the “not over 50” regulation when it came out until some determined that auditoriums that house 3000 people perhaps should have different rules established than auditoriums that hold 100. Then people saw the Walmart parking lot full and the Church parking lots and movie theatre lots empty; lots of Tim Hortons buzz around that. Public demonstrations on both sides of the border appear to have been sanctioned by the authorities in which media photographs showed no regard for social distancing. It is hard to escape the inconsistencies in so many elements of control policy.
With all the material on social media, the public must be in a real quandary; just who do you believe? Some of the stories, both left and right, sound quite convincing. As I do fact-checking, I learn that some “fact checking sources” appear to be very right of centre while others very left of centre. Where, then, does the public go to just get “facts without someone’s spin? This, above all, is one of the most important problems facing consumers. There was a time when news was news; now it appears to be a battle of spin!
People who have loved ones in long term care, and there are at least 10,000 in care in New Brunswick, are at a point of sadness, depression, discouragement. It is true that the necessary highly-restrictive visiting regulations of the early months have now been relaxed a bit. But it still has the feel of “jail visiting” with the joy of visiting nearly dissipating. In visiting one friend a few weeks ago, I could not escape the feeling of jail visitation. Think, for a moment, of the psychology of that!
Even with H1N1, as bad as it was in taking lives, the restrictions were not nearly as severe nor prolonged; three weeks was about tops!
Is the public tuning out? Those with whom I speak remain concerned but are victims of much confusion and mixed messages. We have probably been at this long enough to re-group.
Ken McGeorge is a retired CEO in major teaching hospitals and long-term-care facilities. He was co-chair of the New Brunswick Council on Aging and is a columnist with Brunswick News. His email address is email@example.com.
Ken McGeorge, BS,DHA,CHE is a career health care executive based in Fredericton, NB, Canada.