Doctors object to downplaying of coronavirus for political reasons

The coronavirus disease COVID-19 was first reported from Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019.

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – A group of doctors in this Northeast Oklahoma city is expressing concern after hearing politicians compare the infections and spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus to influenza.

During a telephone town hall March 2, Oklahoma District 2 Congressman Markwayne Mullin, a Republican, said he is not trying to downplay the seriousness of the virus, but he claimed news outlets have not told the whole story. He compared the number of coronavirus cases to flu cases in the U.S., "to put things in perspective." In his weekly newsletter, Mullin said “the current flu season poses more of a threat to Americans than coronavirus.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general, has been giving regular updates on the COVID-19 situation.

"Globally, about 3.4 percent of reported COVID-19 cases have died. By comparison, seasonal flu generally kills far fewer than 1 percent of those infected," Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing the same day as Mullin's town hall.

Gail Harris is a semi-retired internist and geriatric physician who described herself as “a citizen of Tahlequah who has medical training, reads the newspaper, and has concerns for citizens.” 

“I want to urge people to get medical advice from medical professionals, infectious control nurses or the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. Do not get medical advice from politicians," Harris said.

She's concerned that the general public is not getting accurate information from government officials or politicians.

“Overall, there is a low risk for the general population. [But] comparing it to the flu is not helping,” said Harris. “It is spread through droplets or some surfaces, but it’s not comparable.”

While some populations – such as the elderly or those with chronic or respiratory diseases – may have a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Harris said everyone should keep up to date with new information and use common-sense precautions.

“It is a real disease, a real illness. No one is immune because it’s new,” said Harris. “China had a true epidemic that blew up. They had to take harsh measures.”

She said people should look at the CDC website for updated recommendations.

“Advice changes because conditions change. There is no need to have it filtered through politicians,” said Harris. “Do not repeat inaccurate information. People deserve to have facts from a real source, not from a third or fourth party with their own spin on it.”

When Harris heard the story of a Tahlequah resident’s journey home from China, she said decisions have to be made on a case-by-case basis, and she was pleased the health department went to his house to see him.

Another physician who objects to governments and politicians putting a spin on COVID-19 is Ed Moroney. While he only works a few days a month right now, Moroney has experience researching and working with infectious diseases and vaccines, including during his time in the U.S. Army.

“Coronaviruses have been identified for a long time. They are what originally caused the common cold,” said Moroney, who lives in Tahlequah. “The problem is things have become politicalized. Politicians are making decisions without science.”

He said governments suppressed information from scientists and doctors at the beginning of the outbreak.

“The Chinese have lost confidence in the government,” he said. “In this country, the scientists, mostly from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, were the ones talking. Now you can’t say anything; it has to be cleared through [Vice President Mike] Pence, who has no background in science.”

Moroney said the process to make a new type of influenza vaccine takes four to six months after samples have been collected from around the world in places with outbreaks.

“For this coronavirus, they have nothing at this point. They are saying they could have a vaccine in six weeks, but they’ll never be able to do that,” said Moroney. “Projections by scientists is that it may be not this summer, but a year from this summer."

One big problem, according to Moroney, is not enough tests for COVID-19 are available.

“Part of the reason is the government-led emergency preparation committee that was set up was disbanded by the president. There is no one with that experience to do it,” he said.

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