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The House that Covid Built

This is the story that told of the people that spread the disease that was caused by the droplets from someone who ate the bat that got the virus that mutated… Where in this “nursery rhyme” chain do we point the finger of blame? We could single out the story-tellers who ring ongoing alarm bells, or the people-vectors who ignore the story-tellers…or even the virus itself for replicating? I don’t know about you, but as I mosey along in this new reality, I wonder if there’s ever a point where I’m to blame for my own dis-ease during this pandemic. So I decided to consult an expert for help in sorting through this coronavirus chaos, and reached out via Zoom to a friend who is an infectious disease doctor.

Dr. Chris Cirino has been a practicing medical doctor for over 20 years, with a specialty in infectious disease. He also serves as a public health official in Marion County, Oregon. I wanted to pick his brain — not about Covid-19 per se, but for guidance on how to digest the glut of information out there. While my own background in TV and Internet content helps me understand how the media can take us on a ride, I’m no expert in medicine, much less infectious diseases. We had a great discussion and here are my five key takeaways:

1. Learn to Spot Quality Information

While the infallible, all-knowing news source doesn’t exist (darn!) Dr. Cirino puts far more credence in news articles that point to more than a single study. He asserts, “When one study is being used as the principle basis for a determination, that’s a red flag to me that complete overview was not done.” Most times this means waiting to draw conclusions until further study. For example, the initial exciting story out of France offered promising news about the use of hydroxychloroquine in Covid-19 patients. Yet so far, subsequent studies have not found it to be effective (and possibly even harmful). When new discoveries about treatments come out, we might get our hopes up. But when a single study points to certain results, it’s simply a cue for further study. Per Dr. Chris, we shouldn’t base “a huge conclusion on something that is a scientific phenomenon, just on a study that has only maybe 20 or 50 people in it.” Bottom line: When possible groundbreaking news comes out, tuck it away. Be patient and wait for more studies.

Another tip is to rely on information with multiple scientists, or a group of researchers behind it. “When there’s a group of scientists together, there’s a lot more power in evaluating the studies. You’ve got the different insights from the researchers, and these are people who conduct research themselves so they can sometimes see through the fallacies of some of the studies,” says Dr. Cirino. He points to the CDC and WHO because they filter through data from many studies, and from a variety of researchers. Also, their robust websites allow the general public to go deeper if they wish.

Reporting by a single journalist might be harder to assess. What studies did they refer to? What is their background? In a perfect world, we’d be able to research the qualifications of every journalist and scientist behind a publication, but per Dr. Cirino, we can take some solace in knowing “the scientific background does require a rigor that is tested and is peer reviewed.” Bottom line: Look for sources with the checks and balances of multiple researchers behind it. Consider the qualifications of the author.

2. Choose From a Healthy Media Buffet