Pandemic and respiratory ills are taking a broad and terrible toll

fluill-150x150The coronavirus pandemic may not hold the iron grip it once held on newspaper front pages and lead stories on broadcast and online news outlets.

The infection, however, keeps inflicting major harms — taking a disproportionate and lethal toll now on older Americans, wreaking sustained havoc on the credibility of public health information and medical expertise, and debilitating as many as 15 million people with the perplexing problems of long Covid.

Hospitals across the country are warning the public that they are teetering on the brink of getting overwhelmed yet again as they battle a “tripledemic” — an unusually early wave of RSV cases, an early and virulent seasonal flu, and a rising and still challenging number of coronavirus illnesses.

While studies and increasing experience have shown the latest coronavirus booster, which is targeted to fight Omicron variants, is safe and effective, distressingly few numbers of regular folks, including older Americans, have gotten the shots. This has left a sizable and increasingly vulnerable segment of the population at high risk, the Washington Post reported:

“More than 300 people are still dying each day on average from Covid-19, most of them 65 or older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While that’s much lower than the 2,000 daily toll at the peak of the delta wave, it is still roughly two to three times the rate at which people die of the flu — renewing debate about what is an ‘acceptable loss.’ And while older Americans have consistently been the worst hit during the crisis, as evident in the scores of early nursing home deaths, that trend has become more pronounced. Today, nearly 9 in 10 Covid deaths are in people 65 or older — the highest rate ever, according to a Washington Post analysis of CDC data. Some epidemiologists and demographers predict the trend of older, sicker, and poorer people dying at disproportionate rates will continue, raising hard questions about the trade-offs Americans are making in pursuit of normalcy — and at whose expense. The situation mirrors the way some other infectious diseases, such as malaria and polio, rage in the developing world while they are largely ignored elsewhere.

In this country, public health officials and medical scientists have defended their more recent, more relaxed approaches to battling the pandemic, saying that efforts to keep up the most stringent anti-coronavirus measures in place was faltering. Americans have experienced pronounced pandemic fatigue, as shown by the abandonment or reluctance by so many to consider booster shots, face coverings, far better ventilation (especially in closed, indoor spaces), social distancing, and reductions in human contacts, especially now with holiday socializing.

The rollback in the pandemic battle has raised new concern as the world has watched with great wariness as people across China have rebelled in recent days against their dictatorial government’s Draconian “zero Covid” policies. With foreign policy analysts cautioning that even a regime with powerful controls on its people can destroy its mandate to rule with overzealous pandemic responses, U.S. news outlets have reported with alarm as to how the coronavirus has created in this country nightmares with free speech, disinformation, and a coarsening of the public dialogue.

The plague on accurate information

In California, lawmakers and doctors continue to wrangle over medical professionals’ responsibility to speak freely but also responsibly about the coronavirus, its appropriate and accepted treatment, and medical and scientific theories about it. State lawmakers recently passed a bill to punish California doctors through licensing authorities for spreading what Gov. Gavin Newsom has described as the “most egregious” instances of false information about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Two conservative doctors have filed a preemptive lawsuit to block this law, arguing it is murky and confusing and violates doctors’ constitutional free speech rights, as well as their professional responsibilities to share their expert opinions about care with patients.

The doctors’ lawsuits, the New York Times reported, “have become an extension of the broader cultural battle over the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to divide Americans along stark partisan lines. They [the suits] could also more broadly test what steps — if any — the government can take to combat the scourge of misinformation and disinformation, even in cases where it affects personal and public health.”

California officials have argued the law was necessitated by extreme, pandemic-related instances where doctors went public with what officials have called Covid disinformation, some of it designed to boost the reputation or profitability of medical practitioners, the newspaper reported:

“The law’s supporters argue that it was needed to protect patients from doctors who had fueled skepticism about vaccines and mask mandates or encouraged the use of drugs like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which have not proved to be effective against the coronavirus. Even so, lawmakers narrowed the legislation’s scope to include only direct conversations with patients. Posts on social media, opinion articles or other public statements doctors might make are not subject to the law.”

Social media, of course, have become a global nightmare with their capacity to spread information — accurate, as well as false and even malicious — like wildfire, especially as the technology companies that operate these outlets decline to moderate content that others post.

Only with the real, rising, and rapid threat of violence against or demonstrable harm to people have social media sites acted. Sites otherwise have allowed far extremist views — racist, anti-Semitic, and hateful toward women, gays, and others — to proliferate online in startling fashion. Billionaire Elon Musk, who bought Twitter, has argued that free speech trumps most content controls, and he has allowed an array of individuals espousing extreme views to return to his site. He also has decided that Twitter will end earlier efforts to vet and remove coronavirus disinformation.

This could be a regrettable decision if the tripledemic forces doctors, hospitals, and public health officials to take steps to safeguard communities from infectious threats. The unchecked spread of inaccurate, false, and harmful information also imperils those who are battling long Covid, experts say.

Long Covid’s information gulf

They are expressing increased concern — that medical scientists are not developing effective, evidence-based treatments fast enough to assist those with this little-understood condition. Patients are turning, instead, to unreliable information sources, especially online, and are self-experimenting with an array of unproven, too often sketchy means of care — taking pure oxygen, “nutraceuticals,” stem cells, and “blood washing” — for long Covid-related symptoms. These include brain fog, fatigue, unexplained pain, and wracking tremors.

Not good. We all must battle a potential tripledemic, as we have the pandemic.

A crucial way for grownups to better protect kids, of course, is to get them vaccinated, doctors say. Shots are a safe and effective way to safeguard youngsters and all the rest of us from the coronavirus and the flu.

The vaccines, to be sure, are not foolproof. But they have shown marked success in preventing those who get them from infectious diseases’ most dire outcomes, including costly hospitalizations and death. Skeptics (cynics, actually) will game-out scenarios that pooh-pooh vaccines, especially by pretending to deploy purported higher math and statistics to argue, nah, the shots don’t do all that much, so why get ‘em? Well, they are widely available, covered by insurance or federal programs, and they have proven safe in use with billions of people around the globe. The boobs who say, for example, that the vaccines have less than a 50% efficacy, well, follow-up question, please: Why do you buy lotto tickets with vanishingly low odds while snubbing a safeguard with astonishingly higher chances of success?

In my practice, I not only see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the  clear benefits they can reap by staying healthy and far away from the U.S. health care system. It is, according to research conducted in pre-coronavirus pandemic times, fraught with medical errorpreventable hospital acquired illnesses and deaths, and misdiagnoses.

If you have been fortunate enough to avoid grim experiences with the coronavirus, why take risks with the flu, RSV, or even the common cold at a time, again, when medical services will be stressed and health workers, already exhausted, will be under great strain?

Talk to your doctors and pediatricians. Get yourself and those you love, especially the kids, vaccinated against preventable, contagious diseases. If you or those you know and love get sick, please stay home. Encourage all you know to practice the basic hygienic measures that folks so recently obsessed about, including hand washing and covering the mouth and nose when sneezing and coughing. If you or your loved ones have underlying, existing health conditions, don’t hesitate to keep wearing face masks; they’re rarer these days but they haven’t disappeared and may be more prevalent as temperatures fall.

RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. But the disease annually also is blamed for 2.1 million outpatient (non-hospitalization) visits among children younger than 5 years old, 58,000 hospitalizations among children younger than 5 years old, 177,000 hospitalizations among adults 65 years and older, 14,000 deaths among adults 65 years and older, and 100–300 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.

As for the flu, federal officials say, it kills more than 50,000 people on average each year. The flu and its related lung and heart complications hospitalizes on average 200,000 patients annually, studies indicate.

Just a reminder: The coronavirus has killed close to 1.1 million Americans and infected almost 99 million of us. Those figures likely are underestimates. The disease’s pernicious effects persist, too, hospitalizing 29,000 patients daily on average.

We have much work to do to ensure our individual and collective health, especially by taking all the savvy steps we can to finally quell the pandemic and to ensure that other fast-spreading and more common contagions do not inflict excessive harms.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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