The truth about viral claims that going outdoors can “exterminate” Coronavirus and about the source of misinformation
Indefinite “lockdown” doesn’t appeal to experts more than anyone else, but it is what we need right now.
Articles claiming the outdoors can “exterminate” the Coronavirus have repeatedly made their way to my inbox, so I feel I must address the topic and shed a little light on misinformation absent from the public discussion.
If we forgive the word “exterminate” and replace it with “eradicate,” it’s still incorrect usage and poor risk communication. We’ve eradicated exactly one virus that infects humans, and overpromising gambles with the public’s trust. Lose it, and you’re able to help them even less.
The confusion for the public comes from epidemiologists implying their expertise by giving an opinion. Epidemiology is an approach. Familiarity with related fields is common, but expertise outside of one’s scope is exceedingly rare.
None of the epidemiologists quoted were experts in relevant fields — genomic epidemiology, for example, differs substantially from infectious disease epidemiology — but by citing their opinion, articles imply expertise.
The average reader doesn't know that an expert epidemiologist doesn’t necessarily indicate someone well-versed in infectious disease. Critically, the opinion of unqualified individuals should not outweigh that of the qualified expert consensus, so let’s unpack those virulent claims, shall we?
It’s true that herd immunity stops respiratory diseases like Influenza and true that warm weather helps to stop Influenza outbreaks. It’s still not relevant to a Coronavirus because the two viruses aren’t similar.
Confusingly, the article suggests that warm weather will help because it’s helpful against influenza, but then a suggestion that 80% of the population must be immune for herd immunity conflicts with what we know of the flu.
What percentage of people must be immune to protect the group relates to the contagiousness of the virus. The percentage is not universal. For measles, over 90% must be immune to stop the spread, but seasonal flu may require 50% or less. It’s unclear what justifies the assumptions.
Maybe you’re thinking: couldn’t the warm weather still help though? Anything is possible, but I’ll tell you why I’m not optimistic.
It’s a plausible idea. People suspected the original SARS might wane with warmer temperatures in April 2003. It did not.
SARS surged in the spring and summer months under loosened measures before it was eventually contained. That’s why Harvard wrote publicly to clarify after the administration suggested this would go away. The evidence doesn’t support this idea.
COVID-19 differs from influenza. The flu hits children hard and regularly requires hospitalization. We don’t see that with COVID-19.
Males tend to get influenza slightly more often than females, but if a female does catch it, she’s at a higher risk for serious sickness. We don’t see that with COVID-19.
Please know that I do not disregard your anxiety, your fear, or your anger. You have a right to feel theses. I feel them, too.
Scientists aren’t recommending this because they believe they know better than others. They advise it because they appreciate what we don’t know and how much remains uncertain.
If we ask what we can do in our communities instead of working against those who among us trying to help, we could have a future like Singapore, where society resembles normal life. Singaporean society worked together.
Citizens did not deny a credible threat. Volunteers became contact tracers, and police opted to help with containment. They multiplied their public health force rapidly by educating volunteers. Though it’s contained, they continue to expand capacity. They never underestimate this foe.
Singapore faced the threat united and are winning as a result, but there are those who do not want us to win our battle.
When we know where the virus is and where it has been, we have a chance to climb out of this together, but if we fail to unite, Singapore will remain a dream.