Tagged health

One Marshmallow

       “These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.”

       Laurence Steinberg, The New York Times, June 15, 2020, referring to proposed college reopenings

Dear Students,

A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) wrote a column called “America Fails the Marshmallow Test.” This is a reference to a famous 1960s psychological experiment, in which a marshmallow (or cookie, or piece of candy) is placed in front of a young child, who is told she can eat that marshmallow now, but if she waits 15 minutes, she’ll get two instead of one. Studies stemming from this experiment became a cottage industry, and among the claims made by those involved, being able to postpone gratification for greater gain was a fundamental character trait in the two-marshmallow kids that predicted much about their later success. They were said to have better “executive function,” meaning their frontal lobes were better able to suppress the impulse to get one marshmallow now in order to get two later.

Krugman understood that a 2018 study apparently failed to replicate the marshmallow study, but wanted to use the metaphor for our country’s inability to wait a little longer before lifting social distancing restrictions. Actually, the marshmallow study was not debunked by the 2018 replication, which has been criticized for controlling away some variables (like early cognitive ability) that are intrinsic to what the marshmallow test tries to measure. Also, the replication did find that the test predicted some characteristics of adolescents, just not as much as earlier studies claimed. The critics of the critics—the marshmallow defenders—called their paper “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait,” with the running head, “Delaying Gratification Matters.”

Speaking of delaying gratification, it’s not just five-year-olds who are not good at it. Adolescents are not good at it either.

I know you don’t like to think of yourselves as adolescents, but the fact is that brain development is not complete until age 25 or so, and the main part of the brain that keeps developing is precisely those frontal lobes that are involved in executive functions: planning, reasoning, analyzing, and yes, postponing gratification. This period of extended frontal cortex development has been called youth, pre-adulthood, or emerging adulthood.

Psychologist Laurence Steinberg is the world’s leading authority on brain development in adolescence and beyond, especially in relation to executive functions. He has co-authored papers in law and psychology journals with titles like “Blaming Youth,” “Young Adulthood as a Transitional Legal Category,” and “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence.” He has tried to protect young people from the most severe punishments for acts which they literally did not have the brainpower to control.

Now Steinberg has weighed in on a question many of you have asked me about: College reopenings in August, including ours. Steinberg, who has spent his life as a college professor researching the young, wrote an essay two weeks ago called, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy.”

Based on his 40 years of research on young people, he writes, “Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s. Moreover, interventions designed to diminish risk-taking in this age group, such as attempts to squelch binge drinking on campus, have an underwhelming track record. There is little reason to think that the approaches proposed to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus among college students will fare any better.”

The evidence on the other side is very strong. Steinberg and his colleagues recently completed “a study of more than 5,000 people between the ages of 10 and 30 from 11 different countries (including both Western and non-Western ones)… Consistent with large-scale epidemiological studies, we found a peak in risk-taking somewhere between age 20 and 24 in virtually every country.” There are three straightforward reasons.

Youth (not just adolescence) is a time of 1. heightened risk taking, and 2. poor self-regulation in all cultures. These two psychological features of young adulthood are in turn explained by 3. easier activation of the brain’s reward circuits, made even worse under conditions of emotional arousal and in the presence of peers.

To Laurence Steinberg, who probably knows more about not only the psychology but the neurobiology of young people than anyone else alive, college reopenings will be a “perfect storm” for viral spread. College reopenings are also being criticized by moral philosophers, college presidents, lawyers, and, of course, some epidemiologists. Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s leading expert on the pandemic, says the matter is “complicated” and will depend on what region of the country you’re talking about.

It’s not always a bad idea to take a reward now even though it may be smaller. That’s why we have the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Young people are designed to take risks for short-term rewards because that is how they test themselves, learn about life, find mates, make friends, and generally position themselves among their peers. Up to a point you have to take risks.

But we are not talking about a torn ligament, a bad hangover, or a brush with gonorrhea. This is a situation that has never before existed in my lifetime, not even during the early years of HIV/AIDS. I have repeatedly emphasized to you that the unknowns in relation to this pandemic are greater than the knowns, and that remains true. Right now cases are on the rise in the nation, in most states, and in almost every major city in the southern half of the country from Los Angeles to Miami.

The entire state university system of California will be 100 percent online. If you were in college in a rural area of Massachusetts or New York, you would probably be safe attending live, but you are not in one of those colleges. The situation in Atlanta is uncertain, but Emory says it is taking precautions that will make reopening safe.

Last week I said that case counts are like lightning, and that I was waiting for the thunder—hospitalizations and deaths. Being no longer young, I am able to wait. Some leaders claim that the only reason we have more cases is that we have more testing. I think this is wrong, but I don’t want to argue about it because I can wait. Others say we really do have more cases but because the age of infection is on average much lower than it was a month or two ago, we will never see the hospitalizations or deaths go up by much.

Lightning is flashing all across the southern United States, and some say it is starting fires that will be impossible to control and that will in the end kill many. State after state in the south are backtracking on their openings. But the states don’t really control behavior, especially the behavior of the young.

The July 4th weekend is coming, and millions of young people will take the one marshmallow. What will you do?

Dr. K

“I, Corona”: My Exclusive Interview with the Little Guy Who’s Changing the World

Dear Students,

I have a special treat for you today, an exclusive interview with SARS-CoV-2, his first ever, on his life and times so far. I was able to arrange this through my special friend Charles Darwin, whom Sarsie—his preferred nickname—likes to call Uncle Charlie. Sarsie doesn’t think he’ll be confused with his older brother, SARS-CoV-1, whom he calls “pathetic,” nor does he think highly of his cousin MERS. “I mean, really, a few months in one or a few places, and then, poof! they’re pretty much gone.” He has a certain grudging admiration for cold viruses.

            But I’ll let him tell you in his own words. By the way, he insists on he/him/his, because as he puts it, “I don’t have the equipment to reproduce, so I gotta beg, borrow, or steal it from someone who does. I just put in my genes, and they do the rest. Also, let’s face it, a guy like me, who puts ambition above everything…I mean, I’m most likely gonna be male, right? Yep. My whole species, and my brothers and cousins too.”

            He asked me to call this column “I, Corona,” as an hommage to Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic, I, Robot. “I didn’t like his three ethical laws, of course, but when he got to the part about robots that secretly run the world, I could definitely wrap my envelope around that. But why keep it a secret? Just take the world over and run it, I say.”

            What follows is a lightly edited version of our interview, with my questions removed. Not that there were many. He doesn’t let a human get a word in edgewise. So I listened and learned.

            “Yep. I’m on the move for sure. My bros and cousins were well meaning, all princes in their way—and we’ve got more princes than the Saudi Royal family—but I’m the Crown Prince (get it? Corona? Crown?) and I will be King.

            “By the way, this whole debate about am I alive? Am I alive? Are you kidding me? I’m alive and I’m eating you alive.

            “But back to the family. We’ve only been around a hundred thousand years, less than you even, but then again, we reproduce in 48 hours, you take 20 years. Do the math. Ex. Po. Nen. Shl. As Uncle Charlie would say, we can sure do some evolving.

            “The family divides up the spoils, but we’re not all equally successful. Some of the corona cousins specialized in farm critters. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it. Let’s be honest, though, you’re not goin’ down in history for makin’ a chicken cough or givin’ a pig a belly ache. Then there’s the bunch I call the Corona Sniffles, they’ve done alright for themselves actually, they got around, they hang around, they evolve, they come back. No drama, mama, but Uncle Charlie would be proud.

            “SARS-1 did alright for himself but he just couldn’t get transmissable enough, and on top of that he only jumped from Jim to Jane, or from Zhang Wei to Mei Ling, after he gave Jim or Zhang symptoms. Jane and Mei knew to keep their distance. So my Sarsie-1 bro hit Guandong Province in China, got to Toronto somehow, and got locked in with quarantine. 8,000 cases, 800 deaths, a little economic slump, that was about it. One wave in 2003, so far done and done.

            “Cousin MERS was a killer though, too much for his own good. You kill a guy, he ain’t passin’ it on. Also Cousin MERS was never good at jumping from one of you sorry humans to the next. Probably more of you have gotten him from camels than each other. He broke out in Saudi in ’12, trickled around to 27 countries since, 2,500 cases, 800-some-odd deaths, well controlled by even your bumbling species, nothing to write home about.

            “You can see where I’m goin’ with this. I’ve done more in eight months than the rest of them put together. I’m the Crown Corona Prince by acclamation. I mean, let’s look at the facts. Okay, I was trapped in bats for I don’t know how long. I was bummed. Do you have any idea what a bat cave smells like? But I took a deep breath—the kind I make impossible for you—and channeled Uncle Charlie. He counseled patience: “Be like a Buddha Virus, bide your time, mutation and evolution will do the rest.

            “Boy, did they ever. You helped, by bulldozing forests and setting the bats I was riding free. My hosts got snared, sold, and eaten, and I was on my way. Okay: I’d evolved my way from bats to humans, but would I be like my cuz MERS, get stuck in a bat-to-human trap like he did (mostly) with his camel-to-human song-and-dance? No way. Or would I maybe take a leaf from my bro Sarsie-1’s book and only jump from Jim to Jane when Jim was already sick and Jane could avoid him like, well, the plague? Nope again.

            “I did everything by Uncle Charlie’s playbook, evolve, wait, mutate, evolve. Jump from bats to you folks (Whoopie!): Check. Jump from Zhang Wei to Mei Ling: Check. Now, jump from Zhang to Mei before Zhang gets sick—three days, a week, two weeks: Check. Now, don’t even make Zhang sick at all, ever. Or Mei Ling. True, a cough or a sneeze will spread me yards in droplets and aerosols. But if Zhang and Mei are rehearsing in the same chorus for a couple of hours, or even sitting at different tables at a restaurant with the right air circulation system, that’ll work fine for me. If they exchange looks and fall in love and do a Chinese version French kissing, I’m golden.

            “But think about it: I can’t win big in Uncle Charlie’s sweepstakes by staying in one corner of Wuhan. So here’s where your species really starts to help me. Homo sapiens? Homo dumbellus is more like it. That young doc in Wuhan who tried to blow the whistle on me last year, right at the start? Whew, that was a close call. That could have ended me maybe, but thankfully his bosses shut him up fast. They even made him apologize for making me up! That was a great moment in my career, gave me just window I needed to zip around Wuhan.

            “He was some kind of hero. Poor guy got sick from one of the patients he tried to help, and I killed him. Wasn’t trying, you know, but there it is. He gave his life to tell the truth and save your species from mine. Not fair, but that’s how Uncle Charlie’s law swings. Or, you might say, how the fortune cookie crumbles. Sorry, couldn’t resist; but I spent enough time in China to know fortune cookies don’t crumble there, only in America.

            “Speaking of which, I was getting folks to carry me out of Wuhan to all over, even while the Chinese did a 180 and started to shut me down. They had the right government and the right science and the right culture to do it, and I was done there in a couple of more months. People cared about each other. They believed their doctors and scientists after that first blooper. They show the world how your species could win the war against mine. Or could have.

            “Some learned, some didn’t. I was rockin’ and rollin’ man. Jims and Janes, Fritzes and Gretchens, and especially Sergios and Claudias were leaving Wuhan and taking me home as a souvenir. I got a foothold on the Pacific Coast of your country in January, but that was small potatoes compared to Italy and Spain. Those folks love their grandmas, so instead of quarantining them they killed them. Okay, I killed them, but they gave me free rein.

            “Who’s they, you want to know? The young people. The ones who couldn’t sit at home. The ones who were chock full of me and I didn’t even make them sneeze. They were my ambassadors. Healthy young humans doin’ their thing, havin’ fun, hustling, moving. They’re the reason I left my Sarsie-1 bro and MERS cousin in my dust. They took me to every place on the planet. You humans talk about flyways for the flu. You mean geese and ducks. They fly south and north on two routes. They overlap a tad in the arctic. Geese? Ducks? Your species has a hundred thousand flights a day that go from everywhere to everywhere. And every one of them is carrying someone carrying me. Flu too by the way. He and I are gonna make beautiful music together. There’s gonna be some Darwinian mutual back-scratchin’ for sure.

            “Anyway, Italy mourned. Doctors and nurses were crying in the hospital halls. But I was headed for the U.K. and New York! That clown Boris thought he could pull a Sweden. I tried to help him see the light by laying him low for a while, but he squinted and bumbled again. Herd immunity? You have to be kidding me. That’s years away everywhere.

            “Treatments? Some day. Right now they’re just making a dent for the sickest, and may help me evolve resistance. I admit it’s been hard for me to reinfect someone I got to once before. I’m working on that, according to Uncle Charlie’s rules. We’ll see. The flu comes back every year in a different form. Every year a new vaccine that’s maybe half effective, and half of Homo dumbellus doesn’t even bother with it. Is that the sort of standoff I could live with long term? As they say in North Dakota (where by the way I’ll be heading soon), you betcha!

            “Meanwhile, Boris the Clown can’t hold a candle to that donkey’s rump Bolsonada in Brazil. It’s like Sweden without the modicum of leadership and with twenty times the population. Wow! Talk about a field day for me! They can’t dig graves fast enough in São Paulo. Mind you, it’s no great deal for me to be buried in a hole in the ground. But it’s the cost of doing business.

            “And then of course there’s the Clown of Clowns, the fat one with the orange face and pouffy yellow hair, the It’ll-be-gone-like-magic Gotta-open-up-our-country Whaddya-gotta-lose happy hero of every virus in Darwin’s kingdom. Sorry, it’s your country, I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But really. Open up the meat plants: Check! Don’t worry about the prisons and nursing homes or the small towns around them: Check! And then you got those folks yelling about freedom. “Don’t put your mask on me!” I love them so much I want to hug them. I do hug them.

            “And now these protests. I’m sorry, they have a right to grieve, but it doesn’t matter to a guy like me whether the crowds are righteous or not. I don’t give a flying fig whether I infect a Democrat or a Republican, as long as it’s a warm body. I am a teensy little Darwinian machine obeying Uncle Charlie’s laws to the letter. Good thing for me that guy in New York isn’t running your whole American show. I’d be beaten back into a corner for the summer and then you’d be gearing up to fight me and my buddy Flu-Boy in the fall.

            “But this is a zero-sum game, my species against yours, and I don’t think I’ll be in retreat during the summer. Maybe if you wake up in July and lock down again I’ll give you a five-minute break in September. But I’m not promising.

            “Good thing for me too that there aren’t more women running more countries. Seems like most of the countries that have kept me down or out are run by females, and the countries I win hands down are run by overgrown, overblown boys. Maybe you are actually two species: Homo sapiens, the ones with the reproductive equipment who know how to protect their own; and Homo dumbellus, the ones with DNA donation, the big shoulders, and the bluster.

            “Better believe it when I tell you you’ll be seing me around.

            “What? You think I’m ruthless the way I’m taking over the planet? How the hell do you think your species did it? You poisoned the earth, killed off half the other animals and plants, and brutalized each other beyond belief in your own species. You packed yourself into the crowds I swoon for. I can become King of the World without doing a fraction of the damage that you’ve done. It’s a miracle there were any bats left for me to evolve in.

            “But now you are really really helping me, so keep up the good work!

            “And oh, please, I’m begging you, whatever you do, please please re-elect Empty Hairdo, the Leader of the Free World who will never ever figure out how to keep it free from me.”

            Well, students, now you’ve heard it, Sarsie in his own words, uncensored, from the horse’s—or the virus’s—mouth.

            And don’t knock his hopes and dreams. He’s just following Dr. Darwin’s prescription. For him.

            Dr. D’s advice for us? Stay safe, be well, and keep in touch—from a distance.

Dr. K

100,000

Dear students,

Before I share a few post-Memorial Day thoughts about the virus and this tragic and needless milestone, I would like to mention two people who have died recently but not from the corona or any virus: George Floyd, a black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, by strangulation, while handcuffed on the ground begging for his life, and Ahmaud Arbery, a black man shot and killed by vigilantes while jogging, in a modern-day lynching in Brunswick, Georgia. These tragic and needless deaths were part of the same long-standing pattern of structural racism which, as you know, accounts for the huge over-representation of African-Americans in the deaths from COVID-19.

I am frankly confused about where we are in the pandemic right now, both in our country and the world. More Americans have died of COVID-19 than in all the wars since the Korean War, and it is quite possible that before this is over we may be able to include the Korean War in that count. I see what appears to be a wholesale abandonment of the science of public health and medicine by many Americans. I can’t tell you how many, but I am pretty sure it’s enough to keep the U.S. epidemic boiling (not simmering) for months. Maybe we get a rest in September before the second wave. Or will it be the third wave?

I’ve always told you the most important thing you have to know is the limits of what you know. So I’m telling you now. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I don’t know about future cases, hospitalizations, or deaths because the models are shot to hell by the unpredicted and unpredictable behavior of a substantial minority of Americans. I don’t know about progress in vaccines or treatment because every announcement is not a scientific publication but a press release that hugely moves stock prices, especially of the companies involved. Remdesevir and convalescent plasma are in wide use and seem to have some effectiveness, but convincing studies have not been published. I do know something about the anti-malarial drug Whaddayagottalose-oquine. Worldwide randomized controlled trials have been stopped because more people die with it than without it. I took it for years, first to prevent malaria in Africa, then for a minor autoimmune condition. On March 25th in a private email I said that more research was needed but that I would take it if I got COVID-19. Now I wouldn’t. Lesson? Anecdotes, even from smart people, are no substitute for real studies.

This past weekend we commemorated those who gave their lives for our freedom; they died hoping we would use freedom wisely. Yesterday we flew our flags at half-mast to mourn 100,000 dead Americans. Today I want to celebrate the new warriors at the front of the coronavirus wars.

Good News

  1. Dr. Richard Levitan, 59, a leading expert on teaching intubation, left safe Northern New Hampshire to volunteer for ten days at New York’s dangerous Bellevue hospital. After his first exhausting shift he went to his brother’s apartment, where he was staying, and was kicked out by the building’s other residents. He found some kind of lodging, completed his ten days, and wrote an article teaching others throughout the world how to deal with COVID-19 pneumonia.
  2. If you click on one link in this message, make it Dr. Sharon Duclos, a Family Medicine specialist in Cedar Valley, Iowa, and watch the video, recorded on May 6th, the day before the local Tyson meatpacking plant, the source of the cases that overwhelmed Dr. Duclos and her colleagues, reopened under government orders. She appeared calm today (May 28) at a press conference with other local medical leaders; she is at around minute 14:30 in this new video. She implored people to keep taking precautions, “as we go through the little lulls and valleys, and the peaks that will occur with this, for months to come.” More on this below.
  3. Sylvia Leroy, 35, was a labor and delivery nurse at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn, where patients she cared for were positive for the virus. She got it. She was 28 weeks pregnant with her second child. Her own hospital did not take proper care of her. She was transferred to Mount Sinai where she got better care but went into cardiac arrest for some four to eight minutes; the doctor who called Sylvia’s sister was crying herself. They delivered her baby, Esther, by C-section. The baby needed oxygen but was “pink and healthy.” As of May 20, Sylvia was very slowly recovering from brain damage; Baby Esther was doing well. See their GoFundMe page here. Her sister once asked her why she didn’t go into private practice. “And she said to me, ‘This is an underserved community. Who is going to help them if I don’t help them?’”
  4. Dr. Ryan Padgett, 45, who played football for Northwestern in the Rose Bowl, was one of the first U.S. doctors to get the virus. It was still February, and nobody knew anything, but he was taking care of a string of patients from one nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. He was in great shape, hardly ever missed a day of work, but in March he was near death. He recovered, but still had more recovery ahead of him, when he said, “As an emergency physician, you walk into every single room and take care of whatever is there. Going back, I don’t think that will change. I hope not.”
  5. Dr. Theresa Greene, an emergency physician in Miami, temporarily lost custody of her 4-year-old daughter because she takes care of COVID-19 patients. She said, “I think it’s not fair. It’s cruel to ask me to choose between my child and the oath I took as a physician. I won’t abandon my team at work or the patients who will increasingly look to me to save their lives in the coming weeks, but it’s torture.” She and her husband have amicably shared custody since their divorce two years ago. Why is this under “Good News”? Nobody’s sick. Nobody died. However unfair it may be, mother and daughter will live to put this separation behind them.

Bad News

  1. Madhvi Aya, 61, was a doctor in India but a senior physician assistant in the U.S. She worked at a hospital in one of the poorest sections of Brooklyn; it was overflowing with coronavirus patients, and she was there until she got sick herself. At the end, in a different hospital, she was alone after texting with her husband, mother, and daughter, whom she had been very afraid of infecting. She often said, “We have to take care of our patients first.”
  2. A nurse who must keep her identity secret for her own protection was on a bus in Chicago, coming home in her scrubs from a difficult shift, coughed into the crook of her elbow, with a mask, and was punched in the face by a man who accused her of trying to give him the virus. He gave her a black eye. Attacks on coronavirus heroes in all frontline professions have been happening all over the world. “It’s not going to stop me from coming to work every single day and taking care of the people I take care of,” she said.
  3. Immigrant Celia Marcos, 61, worked as a nurse at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center for 16 years until her death in April from COVID-19, which she almost certainly contracted from a patient. Her family and colleagues state that she was not provided with proper PPE, which the hospital denied. Her son Donald said, “when the call of duty came, she will do the best that she could.” He also said she “coded seven times” before she died. In their last conversation he said, “when you get out of that hospital, you will retire immediately.” She barely was able to say yes. Both were crying.
  4. Jason Hargrove, 50, a bus driver in Detroit, loved his job and did it faithfully, carrying essential workers and others to their own jobs. A passenger openly coughed near him without covering her mouth, and he recorded a Facebook video about the incident. He was worried about the other passengers and himself. He said, “I feel violated.” He died of the virus 11 days later. He left home by 5am and disinfected his bus every day. He would tell his wife, “Baby, when you get off work, make sure you grab me some more Lysol… I gotta make sure that my people are protected.”
  5. Dr. Lorna Breen, 49, head of the emergency medicine department at NY Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, contracted the virus while heroically trying to save others. She recovered, but the hospital told her to stay home. She moved from NY to her parents home in Charlottesville. There, with no history of mental illness, she took her own life. Her father said, “Make sure she’s praised as a hero.”

Under the Russian Tsars, young men were drafted into the army for 25 years. As a child I knew an old man who had chopped off the first joint of his own trigger finger to avoid that fate. And why do I mention this? Because many, maybe even most of you, have told me you want to become nurses, physician assistants, or physicians. You are signing up for roughly twice the length of service that the Tsars demanded of young people. There will be another pandemic like this in your career. You will be called on. Even medical students have been called on in this crisis. You will not say no when you are asked to put your own life, and that of your loved ones, in danger, because that is your oath. Even when you think or know that you are risking your life for stupid people who put their own lives in danger, you will serve. Know what you are signing up for.

It was very interesting for me to watch today’s press conference on local television in Black Hawk County, Iowa. This is the cutting edge of the U.S. pandemic going forward. The local Tyson meatpacking plant reopened because the governor and the president said so, and because it was in their financial interest. Three leading local physicians and county health officials spoke. They stated that they did not know what was going on at the Tyson plant and would not be getting that information. They said they could not do contact tracing of confirmed cases. A county health official laughed at the idea of testing health care workers in nursing homes, because they don’t have the resources to do it.

Don’t think about New York any more. Think about Black Hawk County. Times ten. Or maybe times 100.

Stay safe,

Dr. K

Opening Gambits: Freedom Goes Viral

            “With your talents and industry, with science, and that stedfast honesty which eternally pursues right, regardless of consequences, you may promise yourself every thing—but health, without which there is no happiness. An attention to health then should take place of every other object.” 

                        Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., July 6, 1787

Dear Students,

The letter that includes the above passage was written as part of a series to a young man of great promise. Randolph was 18 on the date above, which happened to be two days after the 11th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The Constitutional Convention was under way in Philadelphia, but Jefferson was still posted to Paris. (The federal government, still based in Philadelphia, was suspended several times during the 1790s yellow fever pandemic.) He began the letter by apologizing for his delay; he’d been traveling in southern France and northern Italy.

There is plenty of other advice in the letters, but young Thomas had been seriously ill a couple of years earlier, and the elder Thomas was concerned. The young man did take care of himself, and when the Jeffersons returned in 1789, he courted and married Jefferson’s eldest daughter Martha. They had 13 children together; 11 survived to adulthood. They eventually became estranged because his drinking interfered with his health and their life, although she was at his bedside when he died at age 59. But first he was a colonel in the War of 1812, served two terms in Congress, and became Governor of Virginia.

His future father-in-law’s advice kept him healthy for decades, and when he stopped following it he paid the price. I wonder what Thomas Jefferson, perhaps the greatest founder of early American freedoms, would have thought of the people risking their health and that of others to protest social distancing—while crowding together and refusing to wear masks—in the name of freedom.

All 50 states and many countries are easing or marching boldly out of their lockdown phases. It’s too soon to know the results; I predict they will be fine in some places and terrible in others. However, even “terrible” is in the eye of the beholder. Sweden has twice the population of Norway but around 16 times the number of COVID-19 deaths. Swedes regret that so many elderly and vulnerable people have died, but they defend their strategy of valuing individual autonomy and freedom; they think that other countries will have to follow their lead to the elusive goal of herd immunity.

Clearly a large minority of Americans agree. New York is opening slowly and carefully, but only after rigorous measures put its severe epidemic almost completely behind it. Texas and North Carolina are opening  boldly while cases continue to rise. The US as a whole gives a false impression of decreasing cases, but that is due to the huge decline in the worst-hit state, New York; most of the country is flat or rising.

The First Amendment to the Constitution, insisted on by Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, is now being used by leading legal authorities to justify anti-lockdown protests; they don’t mention the limits on my freedom to falsely yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or on my freedom to drive myself home from a party where I’ve been drinking. Protests are different as long as they’re non-violent. Apparently, wilfully spreading viruses more dangerous than bullets (bullets don’t keep jumping from person to person) is non-violent.

Good News

  1. The pharmaceutical company Moderna reports that of 45 patients who received their experimental vaccine, the 8 who got two specific doses (25 and 100mg), mustered antibodies to the virus more strongly than those found in people who have recovered from the disease. This vaccine uses messenger RNA (mRNA), which the viruses uses to make its proteins; this is a new approach that could be a game-changer for other viruses.
  2. Some states are opening slowly, carefully, and systematically. California is expanding its corps of contact-tracers from 1000 to 13,000. New York is deploying both viral and antibody testing, as well as contact tracing, and is poised to reimpose any restrictions it lifts if conditions warrant that. In Germany, this sequence from lockdown to partial opening, to small outbreaks, to selectively reimposed lockdown has already cycled through. When we have broadly available testing and contact tracing, as only a few places are approaching now, we can reopen more safely.
  3. Hospital systems are no longer overwhelmed in most of the U.S., and increasing numbers of elective procedures unrelated to COVID-19 are being done. Important exceptions are small community hospitals in areas surrounding meatpacking plants, prisons, and other hot spots, which may still be headed for disaster.
  4. Stay-at-home orders have worked. A multicity ongoing study conducted by the School of Public Health at Drexel University, estimates that the successful stay-at-home patterns prevented more than 2 million hospitalizations and 230,000 deaths. There is no vaccine and no treatment that has any prospect of making this much difference in the near future.
  5. We are understanding more and more about the course of illness (look at the excellent Medscape graph below; no, really look at it), modes of transmission (very numerous), and symptoms, especially those outside the lungs, also numerous.

Bad News

  1. Just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, 8 people responding doesn’t make a vaccine. The Moderna study is a very early Phase 1 trial. Phase 2 will involve hundreds of people, Phase 3 thousands. About a hundred other vaccine candidates are under study. I wouldn’t want to be a premature adopter of any of them. Remember that uselessness in preventing the disease is certainly not the worst possible vaccine outcome.
  2. I believe that bad blunders are being made in some reopenings. Time will tell, and it will take time because some states and localities are doing it right, some are not, and people in many places are taking more or fewer risks than their governments advise. I get that everyone is tired of being locked down. Imagine how tired we will be of death if the second wave (almost certain to come in the fall, complicated by flu season) has, like the second wave of the 1918-19 flu, far more cases and deaths than the first wave. All the carpenters in America working full tilt could not make enough coffins.
  3. The small rural hospitals that may soon be overwhelmed are far less resilient, flexible, and resourceful than the big urban hospitals that expanded their ICU, ventilator, and to a lesser extent PPE capacity, in a matter of days to weeks in April. Community hospitals, even if they could somehow get the beds, ventilators, and other equipment, do not have the expertise to use them. Perhaps an army of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and others from major medical centers will fan out to the rural hotspots overnight, but those people are literally sick and tired. How much damn heroism can we expect?
  4. Lockdowns have worked, but they are ending in haphazard ways, with hopelessly inadequate testing and tracing. We just have to see what happens, and continue building up (high-quality) viral testing, antibody testing, and contact tracing. Experts keep hammering away at this advice for a very simple reason: We are not there yet. Here’s your mnemonic: TETRIS: TEsting, TRacing, and ISolation.
  5. There is so much more about COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 that we don’t know. First, it was “Children don’t get it,” then, “They might be carriers,” then, “They’re definitely carriers but they don’t get sick,” to “Hundreds of children are showing up with a devastating post-viral hyperinflammatory syndrome and some of them have died horrible deaths.” The number with this, Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children may or may not remain small. Also, loss of smell and taste went from “Maybe in some cases” to “Maybe in a lot of cases” to “Often the only symptom.”

Your fellow student Caroline Yoon sent me a marvelous question the other day in a message called “Your take on positive retests?” She was concerned about the apparent reinfections in South Korea and on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and asked whether there might be reactivation of a long hidden infection as with HIV. It could be reinfection or reactivation or lousy tests, no one knows. But here’s my answer:

“The evidence of possible reinfection is very concerning in the two places you mention. The South Korea cases may be attributable to testing difficulties; the negative tests they had may have missed continuing infection (false negatives; there is a lot of evidence that this can linger for weeks to months). Or, the positive retests may be due to what some call “virus litter”—fragments hanging around after the infection is over (a type of false positive). The interpretation is complicated by post-infection symptoms due to viral damage during infection that takes a long time to heal, or to overactive and prolonged immune responses. The dreadful syndrome that has been hospitalizing and in some cases killing children (fortunately still a small number) is thought to be a post-viral hyper-inflammatory syndrome, perhaps a kind of autoimmune overreaction.

“The possible reinfection cases on the Roosevelt are more concerning to me than the South Korean ones, because conditions have been so controlled. The now 13 sailors who have retested positive did so after 14 days of quarantine and two consecutive negative tests. We haven’t been told whether any of the 13 have shown symptoms. Today it was announced that the Roosevelt will leave Guam and go back to sea—presumably, one hopes, without those 13. This will be an informative, I hope not dangerous, experiment, as the ship had over 1000 cases at one time not too long ago.

“I wish I had more definitive answers. Sometimes the best we can do is admit our ignorance, while pushing science forward to alleviate it.

“Stay safe, best wishes, and thanks again for your questions, Caroline.”

“Dr. K”

Eric A. Meyerowitz, MD; Aaron G. Richterman, MD, MPH,

A Quick Summary of the COVID-19 Literature So Far – Medscape – May 18, 2020.

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