This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion
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University Professor Asks for Lockdown Dissertation Defense
I have been told repeatedly by those who support the lockdown that because my PhD is not in medicine, I have no authority or training to question the lockdown recommendations. As a university graduate-advisor for masters and PhD students, however, I am meant to evaluate dissertation research. The way I do that is by asking the students a series of questions.
- What research question did you actually ask?
- What data do you believe answers that question?
- How did you obtain that data?
- How reliable is the data?
- Did you conduct experiments using control groups?
If the CDC or state governors were my students, I would ask them to show me the double-blind study which proves that riding with 3 people in an elevator is safe, but with 4 you can get coronavirus and die. I would also like to see the experiments they ran that proved restaurants at 25% capacity were safe, but not at 36%? Do we know for a fact that gatherings of 10 or more people in a private home are dangerous, but gatherings of 9 are not? What if 13 people show up for a barbecue in the suburbs? What if some guests hang out by the pool and some stay inside, evenly distributed throughout the living room and kitchen? Is this more dangerous than having 9 people in my basement apartment in Brooklyn? What if 15 people show up, but stay only 10 minutes? Is that more dangerous than 9 people staying for 5 hours? Presumedly, before arriving at their conclusions, they would have run through all of these various scenarios.
Another question I would like to ask is why can’t the virus get you on airplanes? The airlines are allowed to sell-out flights now. You stand in line one meter apart, practice social distancing before boarding but then sit three abreast with shared arm rests. And, is it really safer to sit so close that you are touching two people on a plane, breathing the recycled air of 360 passengers, than it would be on a boat outdoors with three people? Apparently, there must be data saying that boats are more dangerous because boat capacity has been limited to two people in some places.
If New York City Mayor DeBlasio were my student, I would ask him to show me proof that sitting in a bar drinking alcohol will cause you to catch coronavirus but if you order food, you do not. Governor Cuomo has recently said that chips were not “substantial” enough to ward off infection but a sandwich will do the trick. Is the virus-protection property of food based on mass, density, price, the lunar calendar, or some other factor? As compassionate humans, we have to ask how many Americans died during the human trials of sandwiches vs. chips when researchers intentionally exposed them to the coronavirus?
The public has the right to know how much tax-payer money was poured into the research that determined chips and beer equal coronavirus but with a hamburger and beer, you are safe. And with that, I would add another question: If someone orders a hamburger, eats it quickly, but then lingers at the table talking to a friend, are they still covered? Or, how frequently must they order another dish of food to keep the virus away?
Does the Epidemic Still Pose a Major Threat?
Pro-lockdown enthusiasts claim that the virus is deadly, posing a major threat to society. If the virus is so deadly, why are positive tests increasing exponentially while deaths and ICU cases have been in decline for weeks? The US now has over 4 million positive tests, but less than 20,000 people in an ICU. Again, I am not a doctor. Well, I am a doctor, but not that kind of doctor. As a PhD-advisor, I would ask my students, “If we define the lethality of a disease by the ratio of positive tests to deaths, then wouldn’t an increase in positive tests and a decline in deaths demonstrate a decline in lethality?”
Do the dramatic differences in lockdown rules from state to state represent scientifically proven differences in the behavior of the virus? Does the virus get you when you are three-in-a-boat in some states, but not in others? Does not-ordering food in a bar in New York kill you but when you sit on a plane touching two strangers anywhere in the US, you’ll be fine?
It has been determined that about 80% of coronavirus deaths occurred in those over the age of 65 and 91% of all those hospitalized had multiple co-morbidities. Even if you proved that the epidemic still poses a major threat, could we not have a voluntary lockdown, protecting the at-risk group? Is there scientific proof that advises against having those over 65 and those with underlying health issues self-isolating while the rest of the population goes about their business?
Is Lockdown Effective?
Have you actually done a proper experiment to prove that lockdowns work? This would entail monitoring one city on lockdown, another not on lockdown, and a third where residents were told they were on lockdown but the lockdown was not enforced. Afterwards, you would have had to gather data on infection and death rates in the three cities. If you had, did you manage to isolate all other variables, determining that differences in infection and death rates were determined by whether or not the city was under lockdown?
A single data point that needs to be considered is that the US has more coronavirus cases than other countries that did not close schools. Another data point, which speaks against the necessity of lockdown, is that Sweden, South Korea, and Tajikistan did not do a lockdown and yet deaths have been extremely low. South Korea is particularly interesting because, at one point, it was considered a coronavirus hotspot. In the end, they have had about 300 deaths over a period of six months. When a student draws a conclusion based on data, I always ask if there are outliers to the data set and why the student felt they should not be included. Similarly, I would love to hear why lockdown enthusiasts dismiss these three cases.
The pro-lockdown camps argue that 80% of deaths have been over the age of 65 and 20% were under 65. They feel that data supports the notion that the country needs to be on lockdown to protect young, healthy people. I keep hearing the phrase “young, healthy people” in spite of data that says 91% of all hospitalized coronavirus cases had multiple co-morbidities. Irrespective of pre-existing health conditions in the under 65 deaths, there were only 30,000 of them. Thirty thousand deaths of people under 65 over a period of 6 months in a population of 330,000,000 does not seem unusual.
While coronavirus death numbers have been widely reported and worried over, we need to also look at deaths from all causes for the same time period in 2019 and see if 2020 had excess deaths. March 21 was the first time that total deaths in the US exceeded total deaths for the same time period in 2019. The excess deaths increased continually, peaking on April 11, and have been in steady decline since then. As of July, they stand around 4% above normal. One can see the number of ICU admissions are dropping, so one would expect excess deaths to continue to drop even further and the mortality rates to normalize.
Can We Just Isolate the Sick?
If we examine the history of medicine/public health, we will generally find that, in spite of the many contagious and viral infections that kill people, societies usually isolate the sick and vulnerable while allowing others to go about their business. E-Coli, influenza A-B, staph, and pneumonia are all diseases which are both contagious and potentially deadly and yet the way we deal with them is by isolating the sick and the vulnerable only. Does solid scientific proof exist that the only way to address the coronavirus, specifically, is to place the entire society on lockdown?
If a student made the claim that positive tests had increased, I would then ask, “Increased from when? Which two time-periods are you comparing?” And, because my students are exceptional, they would most likely explain that they were comparing March and July or any two periods during the outbreak. My students would be prepared to show me two time periods. Many people who claim that cases are increasing do not define two time periods. Next, I would ask, “Did we do the same number of tests in March that we did in July?” And my student would have to say, “No.” In fact, we are doing more tests on a daily basis in July than we did in the month of March. And so, I would ask if the apparent increase in positive cases could not be attributed to increased testing.
A similar, but necessary follow-up question would be “Do we know for a fact that so few people had the disease in March?” In other words, on March 31, there were 140,000 cases detected. On July 23, there were 3.868,524 cases. But we did not test the whole population in either month. So, we don’t know if widespread testing in March would have yielded 5 million cases or 100 million or 141,000 cases. Do we actually know for a fact that the number of infections is increasing? Even if the number of infections can be proven to be increasing, is the number of positive tests a significant data point? ICU and deaths are dropping steadily. There are only 20,000 people in ICU. This number of cases is among the nearly 4 million positive cases and seems a very small number.
To determine if widespread positive tests for Covid-19 proves that the disease presents a particular threat to public health and needs to be treated differently than other illnesses, I would ask, “What other illnesses have we tested the healthy population for on a similar scale?” We would need to know if it is normal that a significant percentage of the population tests positive for a disease before we can know whether or not the high rates of positive tests signal an unusual problem. It looks to me as though the pro-lockdown camp would fail their dissertation and have to repeat the course.