They wear scrubs. They sound scientific. And the message from two Bakersfield doctors is exactly what many Americans who want to stay at home want to hear: COVID-19 is no worse than influenza, the mortality rate is low and we all have to go back to work and school.
Drs. And Erickson and Artin Massihi, who have urgent care centers in the region, have held a press conference this month to issue their conclusions about the results of the 5,213 COVID-19 tests they have conducted at their centers and test sites. They claim the results show that the virus has spread further in the area, is undetectable, and thus harmless.
But public health experts quickly dismiss doctors’ findings as misdirected and filled with statistical errors – and examples of the kind of misleading information that they are forced to waste valuable time on disputes.
Doctors should never assume that the patients they tested – who came for the COVID-19 test or who sought immediate treatment for their symptoms in the middle of a pandemic – represented the general population, said Dr. Carl Bergstrom, a Washington University biologist who specializes in modeling infectious diseases. He likened their extrapolation to “estimating the average height of Americans from players on the NBA field.” And the most credible study of COVID-19 mortality rates, in fact, is far higher than that presented by doctors.
“They use ridiculous methods to get results that make absolutely no sense,” Bergstrom said.
However, early media coverage became viral. A local television report about the Bakersfield doctor’s press conference gathered more than 4.3 million views on YouTube. Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, who wanted to reopen the Fremont plant last week, praised the doctors to more than 33 million Twitter followers. Also, last week the doctors got a conservative national audience for their views on Fox News, appearing on the Laura Ingraham show.
In a rare statement late Monday night, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine stated they “firmly condemn opinions issued recently by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Messihi. This frivolous and untested reflection does not apply to the medical community and is incompatible with the current science and epidemiology of COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it seems that the two men released biased and unreviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard to public health. “
Doctors have established Bakersfield’s personal COVID-19 test site and carried out about half of all tests conducted in the area. They did not respond to CalMatters’ request to comment Monday.
Misinformation develops in a pandemic, and public health officials in California and elsewhere cannot follow suit.
“This pandemic has been highly politicized in this country so the evidence, no matter how poor, will increase if it benefits one party or another,” said Bergstrom, who is also one of the first experts to criticize the study of doctors on Twitter. . “We always hope that this crisis will not come, but if it happens we will all be together. It is a big surprise for all of us to carry out epidemiological infectious diseases. It is truly extraordinary to have to deal with this misinformation that spreads for political purposes and ways that interfere with an adequate public health response. “
California state senator Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said lawmakers who support the reopening of the state have not cited the Bakersfield doctor’s conclusion as justification for doing so. But if they do, they will “be on a fairly weak ground,” he said.
The doctors “basically hypnotized a lot of data and were not transparent about their methods. And they really play on the fact that they are doctors. I think that’s quite dishonest of them. “Pan said.” So we have to push back to whatever media are promoting this information. They really do this as a way to attract attention. “
A Kern District public health spokesman told reporters that officials did not support the doctor’s call to reopen the region. Other epidemiologists echo that sentiment.
But already Bakersfield doctors – who are touting their support for President Donald Trump and refusing to wear masks in public – have become heroes on conservative social platforms and media outlets, with some commentators calling them “brave.” Others who support continuing to take refuge in places describe doctors as independent promoters whose urgent care center chain would benefit from reopening. Non-COVID medical visits plummeted during the pandemic, jeopardizing the practice of many doctors.
“As struggling business owners, their economic frustration can be understood. But that cannot be misunderstood. People trust doctors, “Michigan emergency room doctor Rob Davidson wrote on Twitter. “When they tell Fox viewers to ignore recommendations from real experts, many will trust them … The impact of rejecting scientific-proven recommendations in return for these erroneous ideas will flood the health system and cost many lives. While reopening the economy might be good for their Urgent Care Center (SIC), it will kill medical workers on the real front lines. “
Another highly publicized study of antibody test results by Stanford and USC researchers was also criticized for bias in sampling and for the poor reliability of the tests used. Researchers have suggested that the true spread of COVID-19 in the community is far higher than expected and the resulting mortality rate is low. But once again, politicians and media who support the reopening of the state immediately cite them as supporting evidence.
CalMatters.org is a non-profit, non-partisan media venture that explains California policy and politics.