The past week was more puzzling than my nearly two decades in medicine and business. A friend with a fever and sniffles asked what he should do. The answer was the same as always: Call your doctor. I saw a teenage girl wearing a surgical mask as she walked down a quiet, sunlit Miami street. Not far away, college students reveled in Spring Break madness, ignoring the threat at hand.
It’s clear the coronavirus has inspired a potent mix of intense fear and apathy.
Physicians feel the anxiety, but it isn’t crippling them. In hospital break rooms and private group chats, we remain faithful in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines calling for social distancing and vigorous hand washing — even as we wonder whether our hospitals have the capacity to handle an influx of patients. Doctors and clinicians continue to show up to treat patients, to do their roles with the same diligence they do every day.
Still, a lack of sound information has caused everything from public hysteria fueled by social media and barren supermarket shelves to ill-advised gatherings in parks and teenagers getting together to party. If the United States is to overcome the coronavirus, we must follow the lead of public health officials and physicians by embracing sober, evidence-based action over reactionary impulses.
The person doctors are listening to right now is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Having briefly trained under him there, I’m one of many doctors who, in times like these, looks to Fauci for evidence-based leadership. In physician circles, his résumé and staunch allegiance to facts through the political tenures of six presidents have earned him some celebrity. He’s steered the ship since the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and has seen us through viral foes like SARS, Ebola and Zika. He can keep the politicians honest and the people informed.
So can the data. As of March 19, the CDC reports 10,442 cases of COVID-19 and 150 deaths across all 50 states. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, estimates the mortality rate, which represents how many people die from a given disease, to be 3.4 percent, which dwarfs the 0.1 percent rate of the seasonal flu.
Physicians acknowledge that the number of COVID-19 cases will rise when testing becomes more prevalent, but we don’t fear this step toward greater knowledge. The mortality rate might even drop. But I worry that new testing data will drive some citizens to panic further, while others continue to ignore calls for social distancing.
No one fully understands what we’re up against, but the CDC has strategies for handling the outbreak. Long before the virus hit the United States, the agency released guidance on how communities and healthcare professionals should deal with pandemics, outlining surveillance, vaccine development and more. Now, federal health officials are working with state and local governments to respond to the coronavirus’ spread.
The CDC also issues guidelines for healthcare professionals, which most of us consider canon. That’s why we place our trust in the basics — personal hygiene and, if it’s available, personal protective equipment — even as we await testing data and the development of a vaccine. Sound, data-driven information enables physicians to say goodbye to our families and head off to work in settings where coronavirus infection seems all but inevitable.
Contrast that measured response with that of the public, which is split between buying every last roll of toilet paper and carrying on with their lives as if nothing has changed. (Some of my physician friends have even met with patients who demanded antibiotics, which are useless against COVID-19. That must stop.)
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But federal and state public health organizations, reputable news outlets and tech companies are working to stem the flow of misinformation and put actionable facts in people’s hands through awareness campaigns and free access to coronavirus reporting. If only the public would listen.
Right now, we’re dealing with a scattershot response in which American physicians go about their business as usual while their patients feel like society might soon crumble. As borders close and Broadway declares that the show mustn’t go on, some people refuse to isolate themselves, opting instead to spend time with friends or require their employees to work in the office. Our political leaders acknowledge science and data when they align with their plans. But statistics don’t lie — only those who interpret them do.
We doctors see illness and tragedy every day. But physicians are trained not to panic, even when we see people suffering. We understand that we can only work within the evidence and the guidelines, taking the appropriate action at the right time. If we can share that approach with the rest of American society before expanded testing unearths more COVID-19 cases, we might find the pandemic less daunting to beat.
The last thing anyone should do now is make decisions that feel good but fail to protect us.
Dr. Geeta Nayyar is a rheumatologist and a health technology executive based in Miami.