Ex-WH medical advisor: US COVID-19 response led to expert distrust – Business Insider
Dr. Saralyn Mark, a former White House medical advisor, said the US response and politicization of the virus has contributed to rampant misinformation amid the ongoing pandemic — from unproven coronavirus “cures” to disagreements on wearing masks.
Mark, a physician who formerly advised the Office on Women’s Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, has worked in public health preparedness and engaged in every domestic health crisis since 1995.
She told Business Insider that cogent messages relayed at the onset of any outbreak are crucial, and they must be coordinated and consistent with facts to ensure the best reception.
“When that does not happen, the public will fill in the blanks with their own messages,” Mark said. “… Sometimes, they’re just basically incorrect, or sometimes, they’re completely denied, and you just ignore what’s there and go on and do your own thing, which can be equally dangerous.”
Mark said the polarization can be remedied, with “effective leadership to bring everyone together, honoring each other’s needs and their fears and their concerns,” she said.
As the coronavirus pandemic stretches into its sixth month, the White House has still failed to come to a consensus on a proper response to the ongoing health crisis — from disagreements on unproven coronavirus “cures” to wearing a mask in public spaces.
Misinformation runs rampant through the country, as prominent figures have been touting unproven drugs to fight COVID-19, despite a lack of evidence. Some people also remain dubious of the benefits of wearing a mask to mitigate the spread of the virus against the recommendations of experts.
While a number of factors may have contributed to the polarized perspective of the coronavirus, a former senior White House medical advisor pinpoints the fault of disinformation on the uncoordinated US response.
Dr. Saralyn Mark, a physician who formerly advised the Office on Women’s Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, has worked in public health preparedness and engaged in every domestic health crisis since 1995. She served under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
She told Business Insider that cogent messages relayed at the onset of any outbreak are crucial and that messengers — from health experts, medical workers at the front lines, political figures, and even members of the public — must be coordinated and consistent with facts to ensure the best reception.
“When that does not happen, the public will fill in the blanks with their own messages,” Mark said. “… Sometimes, they’re just basically incorrect, or sometimes, they’re completely denied and [the public] just ignores what’s there and goes on and do your own thing, which can be equally dangerous.”
She applied the dangers of uncoordinated messaging to the promotion of dubious coronavirus treatments, saying that, even as more information comes out disproving a certain drug, it won’t be easy to “infiltrate the public’s mindset that there are risks here.”
“The challenge we have here is when you come out and you’re touted as the miracle drug, of course, everyone wants to take it. They’re terrified,” she told Business Insider. “And what also happens is that you begin to distrust the messenger, and that’s what makes it so confusing today.”
Alongside rumors of potential coronavirus “cures,” Mark said the same “distrust” pertains to the polarized viewpoints on the importance of masks.
At the beginning of the pandemic, health experts initially didn’t advise on using masks, including the World Health Organization, as not much evidence pointed towards its efficacy in mitigating the spread of the virus.
Top US infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said he advised the public not to wear masks at the beginning of the pandemic in hopes of deterring hoarding of masks as PPE shortages left healthcare and hospital workers at risk.
But as more details on the virus emerged relating to aerosol transmission of the virus, wearing masks became a sweeping suggestion to lower the transmission of the virus.
“So now we’re coming back out saying, ‘Hey, you can protect others. You can protect yourself,'” Mark said. “But what gets wired into someone’s mind, especially early on when they’re really afraid, is that it doesn’t work for you.”
Mark told Business Insider that the public disagreement on masks has “basically” formed a “civil war” between two camps — “some who say, ‘No, it goes against my civil liberties. I don’t have to do this,’ … and the other camp saying, ‘I’m angry at you for not wanting to protect me and my loved ones.'”
“You have to have effective leadership to bring everyone together, honoring each other’s needs and their fears and their concerns,” she said.
The fall introduces two more variables to the ongoing pandemic: the annual flu season and the 2020 election. Mark emphasized the dangerous politicized nature of the coronavirus and encouraged Americans to urge running politicians to inform “for the common good, not to just win an election.”
“When it [the virus] becomes politicized, that makes it a double whammy in the sense of, ‘Am I being told the truth or is it being used for political gain?'” Mark said. “And that is so hard to penetrate through that. That, to me, is a travesty of justice, because people’s lives are on the line, and they’re going to die, and there are ways to prevent this.”
After the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March, the US and other countries entered lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus. Stories of hope permeated the news, with people urging others to “flatten the curve” of infections and to stay home and remain optimistic.
“When we were dealing with the early days of the pandemic and saw a lot of fear, people are willing to do anything you tell them to try to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Mark said, adding that continuing that altruistic behavior needs to be inspired once again as “life’s become more challenging.”
“Unfortunately, sometimes it takes for everyone to be impacted, and when it’s a universal moment that we all share, that’s when then you tend to get that ‘united we stand,'” Mark said, adding that she hopes that “it doesn’t have to get to that point.”
The former White House medical advisor said she found it “very frustrating” for her and “all of us in public health” to see their “time-tested” advice not being “able to get these messages out into the public and have it really resonate.”
“They’re not that stringent. We’re not asking people to wear full PPE and biohazard suits,” she said. “We’re trying to get people to realize that we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
“I know it is actually terrifying because lifestyles are changing — there’s a new normality,” Mark continued. “We all want to go back to the way it was before coronavirus hit our shores, but we can’t. And if we think we can, we’re going to be causing more harm for ourselves.
“We have to accept it and adapt and find a way where we can all do it together.”