Tagged human nature

Sick Man, Sick Land

           “All of the information medical professionals want to know, all the things that are happening, vital signs, what his clinical exam looks like, what does he look like as a patient, are we treating the actual patient or are we treating a political ideology or a title or an office, and without that information at your disposal it’s hard to think about what are the processes going forward, how are we keeping this evidence based, how are we keeping this patient centered, are we doing the best we can to manage this actual human, this actual person‘s disease and if we are, we need to be transparent with it.” Dr. Myron Rolle, former NFL player, now a Neurosurgery Resident playing defense on the front lines of COVID-19, Massachusetts General Hospital, discussing the White House handling of Donald Trump’s case

            “Do you think these rallies like the White House event a few weeks ago are likely to become superspreader events?” Jake Tapper, CNN

            “Yes, I really do, and the virus is the constant here, it is very contagious. You put people together for long periods of time, longer than 15 minutes, closely clustered, maskless, those are the ingredients for a superspreader event. The challenge has been there are so many newly infected people every day in this country, contact tracing has basically become a futile task. How do you contact trace 50,000 people every day? It would be an entire sector of our society dedicated to doing that. But what we did and we have some reporting on this, we were able to go back to these cities, Tulsa you mentioned, Phoenix, and then Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in the beginning of August. you know after people are exposed to the time they get hospitalized is typically a few weeks, right?… It’s hard to actually contact trace back to the event, but hospitalizations is a truer measure. In Tulsa as you mentioned Herman Cain [former presidential candidate and Trump supporter] may have been exposed at that event and subsequently died. But we know hospitalizations went up three-fold a few weeks after Tulsa. We know in Phoenix hospitalizations were about 2000 per day at the time of that rally and went to 3000… Oshkosh—hospitalizations went up 20 percent within that time period after the rally so, again, cause and effect is always gonna be challenging to draw but look what happened in all the cities a few weeks after. People got sick. Hospitalizations went up. Was it directly related to the rallies? We may never know. But in places where the virus is already spreading like this? It’s really challenging.” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN

            “The next 6 to 12 weeks are going to be the darkest of the entire pandemic.” Dr. Michael Osterholm, leading epidemiologist, Meet the Press, Sunday, 10/18

            “Its not like it’s a mystery anymore of how to beat this thing, it’s just a matter of implementing what we know.” Dr. Ashish Jha, leading epidemiologist, 10/19

 

Dear Students,

I am writing in a different mood from my usual fact-based, hyperlinked style. My mood, I have to say, has become more meditative, and even sad. I have not avoided politics completely in past updates, but now I have come to a point where it is impossible to discuss the health of Americans in this dangerous moment in history without taking a political stand. The behavior of our current president is severely damaging to the public’s health, more so every day.

Because of his arrogance and negligence, he himself was colonized by SARS-CoV2, as were his wife, his teenage son, and many of his closest associates. He invited the virus into his body in late September, either at the superspreader event celebrating his Supreme Court Justice pick on the 26th, or in the next few days of intensive, close, maskless debate practice.

His young aide Hope Hicks became ill on Thursday, October 1st, and was confirmed to have the virus too late to protect many, including the president. Whether she gave it to him or got it from him is impossible to say, because of consistent lying about the president’s frequency of testing, not to mention refusal to reveal the results. In the small hours as Thursday turned to Friday, it was announced that both he and the First Lady had tested positive.

Friday afternoon he was ‘coptered to Walter Reed Army Hospital and admitted. After a number of days of concealment and lying by his doctors—both of which are still going on—we learned that he had had a significant fever, that his blood oxygen had been below normal on at least two tests, although no numbers were offered except that it was below 94 and above the low 80s. Since he had serious lung symptoms and signs, it is inconceivable that he did not get a chest X-ray, a chest CT, and possibly other lung studies; however, the results of those studies were not shared with us.

Similarly, we were never told the reason for his impromptu visit to Walter Reed Hospital a year ago. Lies were told first about it being an early start to his annual physical, then about it being a follow-up. He and his doctor officially denied that he had been evaluated for transient ischemic attacks (temporary strokes), but he bragged about his performance on a cognitive test with a very low ceiling, meaning it was only intended to rule out big brain problems such as stroke and dementia.

The first medical information we got about him was a letter from his personal physician saying he would be the healthiest man ever to become president. Obviously that physician could not have made the comparison, and he admitted that Trump had dictated the letter to him. Later we found out that he had a cholesterol in the 260s, since brought down. He is also reported to have a common cardiac problem, which based on his cholesterol levels in the past and on his obesity, would most likely be coronary artery calcification.

That’s about all we know of his underlying conditions (other than age and body mass index) relevant to his recent case of COVID-19. Based on the medications he was given, it is widely agreed that his doctors at Walter Reed—some of the best in the world—were very concerned. The main medications were:

  1. An experimental antibody medication that the president refers to as Regeneron—the name of the company that makes it, since the drug does not yet have a name;
  2. Remdesivir, an antiviral medication that many (including me) have thought was very promising but which a new WHO study (published since Mr. Trump got it) has cast doubt on;
  3. Dexamethasone, a standard steroid treatment for inflammation in many diseases, proven to save lives in advanced COVID-19.

Mr. Trump got all three treatments within the first day or two of his symptomatic illness, very unusual for dexamethasone. His doctors were either extremely worried from the outset or they were giving him VIP treatment, not always beneficial to the VIP.

He was also given supplemental oxygen, only instituted because of low blood oxygen and/or difficulty breathing, and fever-lowering medications, including dexamethasone. We never heard anyone on his medical team mention those medications when they repeatedly announced that he was fever-free.

He was released from the hospital Monday evening. He did not speak spontaneously but he had made a few brief videos for public consumption. After climbing the White House steps he removed his mask, appeared to have difficulty breathing, and did not speak.

If his course of dexamethasone was usual, it would have lasted ten to fourteen days. We have not been told if or when his dexamethasone was tapered to zero. If he was indeed tapered and has not been taking it for the past week or so, then it is quite possible he had a mild case, less serious than most who are hospitalized.

Because so little is known about the monoclonal antibodies he took, we can’t be sure when his own antibody response would be expected to kick in, but 21-25 days is a reasonable expectation after the Regeneron antibodies clear. We do not know if or when he stopped taking dexamethasone.

These questions are important for two reasons: 1. Is he immune or even partly immune to reinfection? 2. Is he still potentially subject to self-attack by his own immune system, which happens in so many COVID-19 patients—including, probably, his wife, who yesterday dropped out of her first campaign event in months, reporting a persistent cough.

COVID-19 is a two- or three- phase disease in the serious cases. First, the virus does its nasty work on your lungs, but it usually remains in the cells lining the lungs and bronchi. In most cases it does not enter the bloodstream or affect other organs on its own. It tends to stay where you breathed it in. It can kill you in this phase, but often doesn’t.

Phase 2 is your immune system response. This produces an attack on the walls of blood vessels everywhere in your body. This, your own body’s response, is usually what damages your heart, kidneys, brain, blood vessels, and other organs. This is very often the cause of death, including in children. By the way, the same was true of the influenza of 1918-19, although most deaths were in young adults, who are relatively protected from COVID-19 death.

Phase 3, which we are learning occurs in more people than we thought, is what has been called the “long haul.” Long haulers have symptoms, probably due to the lasting effects of inflammation, for months after recovering from the main part of the illness. The virus is too new for us to know whether these months may turn into years.

When Former Governor Chris Christie, whose COVID-19 was almost certainly contracted while coaching the president for the debate, left the hospital after a more serious case than Mr. Trump’s, he said loudly and clearly that he had been wrong, that he had let his guard down, that he had underestimated the virus. He also said that everyone should take the virus very very seriously.

Mr. Trump said the opposite. He told us not to be afraid of the virus, that he had beaten it and we could too; we should refuse to let it dominate our lives. He said that he had been cured by “Regeneron,” a completely experimental treatment no ordinary patient can get. There is no cure for COVID-19 as yet. In the days that followed his discharge, Mr. Trump showed what are very widely recognized mental symptoms caused by dexamethasone: strangely elevated mood, disorganized thought processes, and hypomania.

He soon returned to his most intense level of campaigning, making long speeches without difficulty breathing. The most likely explanation for this recovery is that he simply dodged the bullet—he had a mild, short case irrespective of his medications. The second is that he really was greatly helped by the trio of medicines he was given: the cocktail of two antibodies given to very few people in the world; the Remdesivir; and the dexamethasone started exceptionally early in his illness. As far as we know, no one has ever been given this combination of drugs with this timing.

A third, and I think distant, possibility, is that he is not yet over it. It is only 19 days since he entered the hospital. His treatment may have postponed his Phase 2, the autoimmune attack, rather than putting it permanently aside.

Mr. Trump’s public remarks about the virus since he had it are something like a worst case scenario for almost every public health expert and every family mourning a COVID death. He has stepped up his rhetoric minimizing the virus and he has held two to three likely super-spreader events per day for the last week, many in states that have rapidly rising case loads and hospitalizations. He continues to violate and ridicule the only preventive measures we have, or will have, between now and when we can be widely vaccinated, and he continues to lie relentlessly about when such vaccination is likely. He has caused, and will continue to cause, many thousands of needless deaths, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of survivors of the virus and of the loss of loved ones.

Which brings me to the question of the other kind of illness he may have.

For years now psychiatrists have been arguing over whether it is possible to give Mr. Trump a diagnosis from a distance. The American Psychiatric Association defends the Goldwater rule, which rejects such diagnoses of political or other public figures without examining them. This organization preemptively threatened sanctions against member psychiatrists who attempted to diagnose Mr. Trump without examining him personally.

Others, including a group led by Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist and ethicist at Yale Law School, have concluded that the well-established Duty to Warn applies to Mr. Trump. This duty holds that patient confidentiality may or must be violated when the doctor concludes that the patient poses a clear and present danger to others, based on what the doctor has learned.

Few psychiatrists would claim that they can glean more information in a face to face two-hour diagnostic interview with a new patient than they already have about Donald Trump in the public record, which, importantly, goes back through his adolescence and childhood. I have an MD but do not practice medicine and am not licensed to do so. I have a lifelong interest in psychiatry and neurology but I am not qualified in either, but neither do I have anything to fear from APA sanctions.

So I will not give you a diagnosis, but I will tell you the criteria for the diagnoses that are most frequently discussed as mental disorders Mr. Trump may have.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD, DSM-5 301.81):

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

  1. Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).
  2. Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.
  3. Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).
  4. Requires excessive admiration.
  5. Has a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).
  6. Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).
  7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.
  8. Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.
  9. Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD, DSM-5 301.7)

  1. A pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others, since age 15 years, as indicated by three (or more) of the following:
    1. Failure to conform to social norms concerning lawful behaviors, such as performing acts that are grounds for arrest.
    2. Deceitfulness, repeated lying, use of aliases, or conning others for pleasure or personal profit.
    3. Impulsivity or failure to plan.
    4. Irritability and aggressiveness, often with physical fights or assaults.
    5. Reckless disregard for the safety of self or others.
    6. Consistent irresponsibility, failure to sustain consistent work behavior, or honor monetary obligations.
    7. Lack of remorse, being indifferent to or rationalizing having hurt, mistreated, or stolen from another person.
  2. The individual is at least age 18 years.
  3. Evidence of conduct disorder typically with onset before age 15 years.
  4. The occurrence of antisocial behavior is not exclusively during schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

Not surprisingly, both of these disorders are far more common in men than in women. When a person meets the criteria for both disorders, the term malignant narcissism is sometimes applied, although it is not an official DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the APA, 5th edition) diagnosis. In neuropsychiatric terms, it seem reasonable to hypothesize that someone who meets the criteria for both disorders has a lower than average inhibitory capacity of the prefrontal cortex in relation to the impulses stemming from the amygdala.

When a man (and it would likely be a man) who meets even some of these criteria is in charge of the “land of the free,” he puts millions of people at risk. Objectively, his personal behavior resulted in his family, aides, staff, associates, and their families becoming infected with SARS-CoV2. Whether they mostly got it from him (quite possible) or got it from each other under conditions he created and insisted on, he caused them to be ill. His wife is still coughing, too sick to campaign with him. His friend and debate coach Chris Christie spent a week in the hospital with a much more severe case than Mr. Trump had, and after his release he publicly announced that he was wrong and publicly advised Americans to do the opposite of what their president is encouraging them to do.

The result has been, and will continue to be, what Dr. Sanjay Gupta explains above in his answer to Jake Tapper’s question. Yes, the President of the United States is continuing to hold one superspreader event after another, and yes, the President of the United States has caused and will cause at least scores of thousands of unnecessary deaths, which are the tip of the iceberg of American suffering.

A few hours ago, an analysis published by the Columbia University School of Public Health estimated that between 130,000 and 210,000 of the 223,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in the US to date had preventable deaths. Suppose we take the lower number and cut it in half to get to a rock-bottom minimum. That would leave 65,000 needless deaths so far, approximately the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

Or, consider how news outlets and people throughout the world react to the crash of a single jumbo jet that kills 350 passengers and crew; billions of people react with pity and grief, and eventually may get angry, trying to find out why the plane crashed and who perhaps should be held responsible. My very-lowball estimate of 65,000 preventable deaths so far is the equivalent of 186 jumbo jet crashes, or around one crash every day since the first US case.

As you know, I’m not enthusiastic about predictions, but the consensus model (thanks again to Dr. Craig Hadley) has us at around 5,000 cases a week right now, rising to around 5,500 over the next month. If protective measures are relaxed, we could go to over 7,000, or if they are more strongly applied, half that. If we stay between 5,000 and 5,500, we will have added 50,000 to 55,000 deaths by New Year’s Eve. I consider that a low estimate, but we could easily reduce it to 30,000 or less, or if we are reckless enough, increase it to 70,000 or more.

Thus with this very conservative model of models, we could save at least 40,000 lives by enhancing rather than relaxing protective measures. Taking into account the advent of flu season, the effect of winter driving people inside, and the holiday season creating larger-than-usual family gatherings, the maximum number of deaths, and therefore the potential number of saved lives, could be much greater.

This is without considering the impact of Mr. Trump’s more than daily superspreader events around the country for the last three weeks leading up to November 3rd. Mr. Trump’s behavioral role in causing the new wave of the pandemic we are in would be explained if it were possible to find in him traits 4 and 7 in the NPD criteria above, and/or traits 5 and 7 in the ASPD criteria. Speaking as a lay person who has access to all public information about Mr. Trump, I think it is legitimate to state that he has those four traits. This is not a diagnosis, but it is tantamount to finding that he is an effective ally of the virus in its spread through our people.

The chart, based on Johns Hopkins University data (not projections) suggests that we are well into the third wave of the US pandemic, with a steep rise in daily cases rivalling the maximum achieved nationally in July, and still very much on the upward swing. Thirty-one states have more cases this week than last, and only one, Hawaii, has fewer.

Hospitalizations (second chart), a much better measure, are already following suit, and many states, particularly in the Midwest and Great Plains, are beginning to see overflow crises comparable to what we saw in New York in March and April and in the southern states in July. Deaths will duly surge, although not as much as in the past, since fortunately we are saving more of those hospitalized.

What caused the third wave? Many factors. Dismally prepared college openings caused youth outbreaks which caused community spread. People let their guard down in crowded bars and restaurants. The President of the United States made fun of mask wearing and encouraged people to relax other precautions. Premature school openings were often reversed because of spikes in cases, not usually harmful to children but gravely threatening to teachers, staff, and families. And spread continued in and from nursing homes, prisons, and meat packing plants.

Good News

  1. While two major vaccine trials (AstraZenica, Johnson & Johnson) were halted because of adverse effects, including a death, two other major trials (Pfizer, Moderna) are progressing well and could request emergency use authorization from the FDA by early December. The FDA vaccine group is meeting today to discuss guidelines for approval.
  2. Although Remdesivir has proved disappointing in the most recent research, it has been successful in other studies, and it just became the first treatment approved by the FDA specifically for COVID-19.
  3. Another antiviral, now called EIDD-2801 has been extremely successful in a mouse model that carries transplanted human lung tissue. Unlike Remdesevir, it is an oral medication, and could be used as an outpatient treatment very early in the disease, or even prophylactically for those with known exposure. Human trials are under way.
  4. Antibody cocktails such as Mr. Trump received (part of his VIP treatment) are under study and may prove their efficacy in time, in ongoing trials.
  5. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, after an apparently near-death-experience with the virus—which he likely caught from or because of Mr. Trump—has become a strong advocate of taking the virus seriously and applying all known preventive measures.
  6. The best news is that we already have a hugely effective vaccination program: First Shot: Social Distancing; First Booster: Wear a Mask; Second Booster: Wash Your Hands; Follow-up Examination: TETRIS (Testing, Contact tracing, Isolation). This is the vaccination program that has utterly beaten the virus in quite a few other countries. Will we ever use it?

Do the right thing, be patient, this will pass, live to brag about how you didn’t get it and didn’t give it to anyone else, stay safe,

Dr. K

PS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter. With thanks to Prof. Craig Hadley, I also strongly recommend this COVID-19 Forecast Hub, which aggregates the data from dozens of mathematical models, and this integrative model based on machine learning, which has outperformed most others in its projections.

TETRIS Is Dead. So Is the CDC. And the FDA. And 188,000 Americans.

            “We are not anywhere near done with this and I think we have more days ahead of us than we have behind us.”

            Ashish Jha, MD, Harvard School of Public Health, August 28

            “The problem here is the credibility of the FDA is crumbling before our eyes. This is an agency that so many of us in the scientific world have looked up to, trusted it, we know that they have these really rigorous scientific protocols, but that’s all changed this year.”

                        Seema Yasmin, MD, Stanford University, September 2

            “Obviously there are places around the world that have been able to control this. What I’m starting to feel is the existential threat is the human behavior. I’m discouraged and frustrated… Other countries are essentially vaccinated right now, not because they have a vaccine, but because they did these things, they are back to normal. They reduced their death rates into the dozens or hundreds, not the hundreds of thousands.”

                        Sanjay Gupta, MD, Emory University, September 4

Dear Students,

You remember what TETRIS is, right?

TEsting. Contact TRacing. ISolation.

Those are the “these things” Dr. Gupta is referring to above, along with mask wearing and social distancing, that have enabled other advanced countries with large populations to have hundreds of deaths from COVID-19, while we have hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Good News:

  1. Many other countries have got this under control, and they are immediately using TETRIS to bring any new breakouts under control. Per capita hospitalizations and deaths are a tiny fraction of what they are here now, and that gap will only widen as they prevent and control their second wave—which we won’t have because never controlled the first wave, only smushed it down and smeared it, and that only a little. Our second wave will come on top of an enduring first wave.
  2. Cases per week have gone steadily down in the U.S. for at least a month, and that is good news if real. As you know I was skeptical of case rates when they were going up because politicians were saying daily that the rise was only because of more testing. Now when we know testing is going down, because it was badmouthed by politicians and the CDC recommended doing less of it. You don’t hear politicians saying one reason for the decline in case rates is less testing. Deaths, being a lagging indicator, have gone down only slightly. Also, the southern states are doing somewhat better while the midwest is having its big first wave, and the northeast is rising but from very low levels.
  3. Vaccine development is proceeding around the world. Phase III testing is going slowly and will be difficult to interpret because of marked underrecruitment of minority people, who are way overrepresented among the cases, hospitalizations, and illnesses.
  4. Finally, the sum total of well-designed research has shown that steroid treatment (like dexamethasone) reduces deaths in patients severely ill with the virus. Death rate for 1,700 people across 12 countries was 32% with steroid treatment and 40% with placebo. That amounts to saving 1 in 5 very sick COVID-19 patients who would otherwise have died.
  5. There is a lot of talk about, and even some progress in, cheap rapid testing, but the deployment of these tests has been slow due to manufacturing bottlenecks and general badmouthing of testing by politicians. Nevertheless as these tests become more available, we should make progress against our U.S. pandemic (near the world’s worst), but that would require a revival of TETRIS and a modification of behavior based on test results.
  6. The CDC has issued a mandate against evictions until January 1, as a public health measure. But the CDC does not have a police department and it will leave enforcement to local authorities. There are many exceptions that would still allow people to be evicted, and after January 1 all those protected will owe all back rent. Perhaps there will be another Congressional stimulus package by then to soften that blow.

Bad News

  1. The latest models from IHME and Johns Hopkins agree on where we are now, and the graph shows three projections as to where we are going, depending on one of threee assumptions. The most likely scenario (dark blue line) shows where we will be on January 1 if we keep on doing what we’re doing: 300,000 deaths total, and adding about 3,000 deaths a day. If we had universal mask use, that total would be around 230,000 and the daily deaths would stay under a thousand for a while in the fall before doubling or tripling again with the cold weather (more time indoors) and the flu season giving many both viruses. If we continue to have easing of social distancing mandates, we are expected to have 600,000 total deaths and almost 12,000 cases a day by years end. You will hear some politicians say that these projections have been wrong throughout in overestimating the future damage. This is a lie. Except for the very beginning when nobody knew anything, the IHME reference scenario has been too optimistic. Testing is going down or staying at low levels in most states, contact tracing is beyond inadequate, and isolation is accordingly moot.
  2. We’ve learned that infected people are most likely to infect others during the first week or ten days of significant viral load, which is why superspreader events attended by healthy people are the major U.S. source of viral spread right now. These are most likely to be indoor, largely unmasked, crowded events. Viruses linger in the air for hours in many such spaces. These superspreader events have included Mardi Gras, church services in Arkansas and elsewhere, funerals in Georgia and Ohio, and a Boston meeting of executives at Biogen, a large molecular technology company, among many others. The Sturgis motorcycle rally in South Dakota in early August has resulted in at least 70 cases so far (it’s difficult of course to track folks from an event like that). These are in addition to the well known virus petri dishes known as cruise ships, prisons, nursing homes, meatpacking plants, choir practices, and now colleges and universities. Luck matters, since one person can be a key superspreader, and neither you nor they know which one in the crowd they may be.
  3. In the past month or two there has been a wave of oh-so-careful openings of colleges and universities, and now there is a national wave of even faster closings. (See my update predicting this and explaining why it was inevitable.) Despite evidence of universities acting to cover up coronavirus cases, we know that there have been outbreaks at many, and they are rapidly spreading the virus to the local communities. As of September 3, “More than 100 colleges have reported at least 100 cases over the course of the pandemic, including dozens that have seen spikes in recent weeks as dorms have reopened and classes have started. Many of the metro areas with the most cases per capita in recent days — including Auburn, Ala.; Ames, Iowa; and Statesboro, Ga. — have hundreds of cases at universities.” Thousands upon thousands of students are now being sent home, where they will bring virus to their communities. (See my update on “Bye-Bye Grannie.”)
  4. “Sloppy coronavirus immunity” is a term that has been used to describe the handful of documented cases of people getting the virus twice (it also applies to other coronaviruses, like the common cold). At least one of the reinfected patients caught a different strain, so as you know viral evolution will play a role. It should also apply to the question of how effective any immunity from a future vaccine will be, and how long it will last. Vaccine refusal in the U.S. has been at high levels for decades, and this vaccine will be no exception, unless the rushing of it and the prior erosion of public trust swells the ranks of anti-vaxxers to unprecedented levels (especially if, as is likely, it requires two shots). Imagine a COVID-19 vaccine that gives us about the same level of protection as the seasonal flu vaccine (~50%), lasts about as long (<1 year), and is accepted by 50% of the population. So we’d have seasonal protection for a quarter of the population, have to repeat the shots every year, and we’d still have to have over a hundred million more cases and hundreds of thousands more deaths to get to herd immunity.
  5. Harold Varmus, a Nobel Laureate and former National Institutes of Health head, and Rajiv Shah, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, published an article on August 31 called, “It Has Come to This: Ignore the CDC.” Their statement is based on the latest of a series of false, incompetent, and frankly craven pronouncements of “advice” issued or changed by the political appointee at the top of that organization, obviously in response to pressure from those who appointed him, non-doctors and non-scientists all. When Stanford’s Dr. Seema Yasmin said (above), “the credibility of the FDA is crumbling before our eyes,” she was likewise referring to the latest of multiple instances of knuckling under by the political appointee directing that organization. This would be (together with the CDC) following orders from non-doctors and non-scientists in the White House to order states to prepare for widespread distribution of a vaccine by November 1 or sooner. These non-experts say that it is purely coincidental that this is two days before our national election on November 3. The vaccine will be deployed with great fanfare on the basis of far-from-complete Phase III trials, it will put minority people at greatest risk, and there will no time to find out what damage is done by this half-baked but highly touted vaccine before people vote.
  6. The principal advisor on the pandemic in the White House is now Scott Atlas, MD, a neuroradiologist and health policy wonk at Stanford’s right-wing Hoover Institution. Dr. Atlas has no qualifications in infectious disease, epidemiology, or virology, but he is happy to parrot the long-standing White House views playing down the virus. He has denied reports by several reliable sources that he argues openly in Task Force meetings with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx (the real experts) and he has more than hinted that he favors “herd immunity” as a strategy, which would entail far more American deaths than the huge numbers projected above. Like an overpopulated herd of deer, we would be culled.

I must say it surprised me to see the expression on Dr. Gupta’s face and hear him say he is “discouraged and frustrated.” I am too, and that’s why it’s been so long since my last update. Frankly, I expected more from him. He’s one of my greatest heros—a top-flight brain surgeon and medical school professor, the most inspired and gifted medical broadcast journalist who ever lived, and, I’m proud to say, our colleague at Emory.

My expectations for him were totally unfair. Unlike me, he has rubbed his nose in this stinking situation all day every day for eight months. Also unlike me, he probably has not had a dark view of human nature lasting a lifetime, based on a different branch of science—behavioral biology. So yes, he has a right to see the “existential threat” in “human behavior,” and he has more right than me to feel discouraged and frustrated, having worked his heart out 24/7 to prevent things from getting anywhere near this bad. Which it wouldn’t have if people had listened to him. It will still save many lives if people start listening now.

Mardi Gras: outbreaks. Memorial Day Weekend: big outbreaks. July 4th weekend: ditto.

So we’re in the Labor Day Weekend now.

What do I think is going to happen?

What do you think is going to happen?

Stay safe,

Dr. K

PPS: Please don’t rely just on me. The best resource on what is happening specifically in the state of Georgia is Dr. Amber Schmidtke’s Daily Digest. More generally, I recommend the following: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; for the science of viruses, especially the new coronavirus, This Week in Virology (TWiV) podcast; Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s podcast, Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for the current numbers: Johns Hopkins University (JHU); Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME); Our World in Data (OWiD); The New York TimesCoronavirus Resource Center (NYT). For uncannily accurate warnings, follow @Laurie_Garrett on Twitter.

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

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

Triumph of the (Teenage) Human Spirit

Resilience is sometimes astounding, and we need to acknowledge it.

school-group-wearing-red-c-uA boy, in flames, is running, screaming, across the parking lot of his school on an otherwise ordinary morning. The image evokes Vietnam or Bosnia, but it is Charleston, South Carolina, Wednesday, December 8. The school happens to be the number-one ranked Academic Magnet High School in the United States, and it shares a campus with a highly regarded School of the Arts. The burning boy is running toward the magnet school’s front doors. Read more

Psychological States As Ancient Adaptations

Depressed? Anxious? Happy? Resilient? Thank a hunter-gatherer in your past.

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Depression is a kind of withdrawal. Although it can be severe or long enough to hurt your reproductive options and even endanger your life, it is sometimes a symptom that gets you out of harm’s way. Read more

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Religious summit finds happiness in relationships and even in suffering.

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The Social Network, 10,000 BP

Do 21st-century networks hark back to the distant past?

Picture a fire in an otherwise pitch-dark cave, or outside on a still plain on a moonless, starry night. Drop the temperature a bit, perhaps, and add the distant wail of a coyote or some wild dogs. Now add the most important ingredient: four or seven or ten people sitting around the fire talking, Read more

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Obesity is unnatural, but it’s natural to try for it.

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Now, I don’t care what you call it or Read more

Human Nature in High Places

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And then, what fool surveying the huge variety of human personalities, needs, and tastes would dream of trying to characterize all that as one thing? Well, some fool might, but not the philosophers, evolutionists, historians and political leaders who have long used the phrase. They’ve always meant something complex, varied, and big-but not limitless.

 Barack Obama, for instance. Read more