McDonald Commentary: Questions and Comments Prompt Search for COVID-19 Answers

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The COVID-19 pandemic is a creation of the media. COVID-19 was created in a lab. Vaccines don’t work. Masks don’t work. They died of comorbidities, not COVID-19. Hospitals earn kickbacks by saying someone died of COVID-19.

These are all comments I’ve read on Facebook beneath news stories about COVID-19, the vaccines and mask mandates. I shake my head, wondering where they’re finding such information that they insist is correct, but then I hear similar accounts from people I interact with in person.

Even elected and appointed local officials tout unfounded conspiracy theories and COVID-19 remedies debunked by the nation’s top scientists. Can they all be right and epidemiologists from the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control be wrong?

So, I decided to ask local officials. I received detailed responses from Dr. Rob McElhaney of Mary’s Corner Medical Clinic, the first to start testing for COVID-19 locally; Dr. Kevin Caserta, chief medical officer for Providence Centralia and Providence St. Peter hospitals; JP Anderson, director of Lewis County Public Health and Social Services; and a state Department of Health representative. I never heard back from Valley View Health Center or Richard DeBolt, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, which hosted a meeting earlier this month to discuss COVID-19.

Do hospitals and clinics receive more money if they list a death as COVID-19 rather than the flu, pneumonia, or something else?

The rumor may stem from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). According to a May 6, 2020, Reuters fact-checking article, while the nation remained in a state of emergency, the CARES Act allowed New York hospitals to receive 20% more in reimbursement for Medicare and uninsured patients diagnosed with COVID-19 because of increased costs incurred in caring for people with an infectious disease.

“I am not aware of any financial incentives offered to hospitals and clinics specific to COVID deaths,” Anderson said.

Dr. McElhaney said hospitals and physicians are paid differently by both the government and private payers. Outpatient providers are paid by procedure code and not by diagnosis code, he said. Whether he’s treating patients with COVID-19, heart attack, ear infections or wounds, what matters is the complexity of the evaluation and management.

“It boils down to the fact that no outpatient physician gets paid more based on whether they diagnose a patient with COVID or not,” McElhaney said.

He noted that hospitals make most of their money from surgeries and procedures rather than taking care of sick people. Hospitals that do joint replacements, open heart surgeries, endoscopies and plastic, back or other surgeries earn much more money than one that simply takes care of people with pneumonia, infectious shock, seizures, pulmonary embolisms, strokes and other ailments.

“I would be shocked if hospitals are making more taking care of COVID patients than what they make when there is not a pandemic,” McElhaney said.

They aren’t, according to Dr. Caserta with Providence St. Peter and Centralia hospitals.

“Hospitals do not receive money based on the cause of death,” he said. “We do not do the final determination of death; that is done by the coroner. The COVID-19 pandemic has actually resulted in a significant financial hardship for our hospitals as the cost of overtime, extra shift bonuses and supplies are significantly higher, and we are postponing large numbers of elective procedures as we shift resources to care for COVID-19 patients.”

“The medical profession as a whole is not profiting from COVID (except maybe the morgues),” McElhaney said. “I don’t doubt that Pfizer, Moderna and JNJ are profiting, but to try and implicate them in a broader conspiracy suggesting they helped create COVID somehow so they can profit is in the same category as believing the earth is flat.”

Do all the people who have died in Providence St. Peter and Providence Centralia hospitals from COVID-19 have comorbidities/underlying health conditions?

“Most but not all people who die from COVID are either over 65 or have comorbidities,” McElhaney acknowledged. “That being said, I knew a 75-year-old with no health problems and an overweight 35-year-old who both died.”

It’s sad to see some people look at COVID-19 as a kind of evolutionary penalty for those inferior to themselves, he said.

“People are dying who don’t have to,” McElhaney said. “Anyone who believes they are safe can usually find a … relative or close friend who would be considered high risk.”

Caserta and Anderson both noted that not everyone who died of COVID-19 suffered from underlying health conditions.

“We have had very healthy people die of COVID-19,” Caserta said. “Personally, I have a friend who was very healthy and exercised regularly die before the vaccine was available. Unfortunately, with the delta variant, we are seeing a much younger population hospitalized and even die from COVID-19.”

How many of the people who died of COVID-19 at Providence St. Peter and Providence Centralia since June 1 were vaccinated?

People vaccinated against COVID-19 have died, but “about 95% of our COVID-19 deaths have been to individuals who were unvaccinated,” Caserta said.

“I know it is possible to die from COVID after being vaccinated, but of the deaths I’ve personally been touched by, none of the individuals were vaccinated,” McElhaney said.

He noted that Providence posts weekly COVID-19 updates on the number of hospitalizations, patients in intensive care units, and deaths.

“I recognize some believe these stats are all lies, but they’re quite consistent with those published at OHSU (Oregon Health & Science University) and across the country,” McElhaney said. “Then again, I’m sure some believe there is a broader conspiracy involving Bill Gates, the federal government, all medical and pharmaceutic companies and all but a few of the chosen ones who are going to expose the massive plot.”

In Lewis County, six of the 78 deaths from COVID-19 since Jan. 1 have been among vaccinated people, with one other death under investigation, according to county health officials. That means more than 90% of those who died were unvaccinated. Of those who died, two were in their 30s, one in their 40s, nine in their 50s, 13 in their 60s, 31 in their 70s, nine in their 80s, and 13 in their 90s.

Do you believe this is a manmade flu?

“COVID-19 and the flu are not the same disease,” said Katie Pope, COVID-19 public information officer with the state Department of Health. “They are caused by different viruses (influenza and coronavirus). However, both influenza virus and coronaviruses are known to mutate frequently.”

McElhaney said he doesn’t believe COVID-19 is manmade.

“It is too similar to a previously known bat virus and not unique,” he said. “It is possible that a mutation of the known virus was created in a lab, but I personally think that’s unlikely.”

It’s much more likely that the virus found in bats mutated naturally, he said.

Anderson said the origins of COVID-19 doesn’t affect his role or how health officials address the pandemic on the local level.

Caserta agreed.

“My focus is on our patients and caregivers,” he said. “I want to thank everyone in our community who are joining us in our efforts to control the pandemic by doing everything they can to help prevent the spread of the virus including masking, social distancing and getting vaccinated.”

Caserta explained that COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2, which can trigger respiratory tract infections affecting the upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) or lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs). It’s one of seven types of coronaviruses. Most cause cold-like symptoms, but others cause severe diseases like the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

“The scary thing about COVID-19 is how quickly it can spread AND how quickly an otherwise healthy person can decompensate — become very sick and even die in a very short time,” Caserta said. “COVID-19 spreads the same way other coronaviruses do, mainly through person-to-person contact.”

Why do you suppose people question the numbers so much with COVID-19 when they didn’t with other fatal illnesses?

“COVID-19 was something that none of us, even folks with emergency response and communicable disease outbreaks training and experience, could really imagine happening the way it did,” Anderson said. “It’s been shocking for everyone, and I think hard to imagine how this could ever happen.”

Caserta pointed to the vast amount of misinformation circulating about COVID-19.

“As a physician, I would encourage everyone to do what they can to stop this disease: get vaccinated, wear a mask, social distance, and practice good hand hygiene,” he said. “I have been vaccinated myself, and so have my wife and children.”

“There has been a lot more misinformation spreading with COVID-19 than with other diseases in the past, although we have seen some level of misinformation about nearly every other vaccine-preventable disease as well,” Pope said. “For someone who may not have thought a lot about communicable diseases before the pandemic, it can be very difficult to sort out what’s true from what’s not. That’s why we offer simplified, easy-to-understand information and data about the virus and the vaccine at www.coronavirus.wa.gov.”

“I suspect if HIV or Ebola were new today that there would be similar conspiracies involving the origin of these viruses,” McElhaney said.

He noted that misinformation has plenty of outlets to spread nowadays.

“When I was young, I recall four sources of media that quickly disseminated information and influenced individuals’ beliefs regarding the status of the world around them: ABC, CBS, NBC and your local newspaper.”

Today, people can access tens of thousands of sources of information — some fact, some fiction and some in between. So-called influencers become cult heroes after they post blogs with their opinions often stated as fact or cite pseudoscience, which may start with facts and trail off into unproven conjecture they label as fact.

“COVID has created so much physical, financial, emotional and social trauma that many have dug into a set mind-frame and aren’t willing to entertain an alternative reality as to what they believe,” McElhaney said. “They seek only sources that support their set belief (however farfetched and biased those sources may be).”

He said people confirm their beliefs by looking at one person they know with only a mild case of COVID-19, then extrapolate that because of that one experience, the pandemic is exaggerated and untrue. Or if someone else was quite sick and improved after taking ivermectin, then the medicine made them better. If a person who was vaccinated contracts COVID-19, then vaccinations don’t work.

“Unfortunately, I believe the skepticism we see with COVID is only the start of a technologically driven double-edged sword,” McElhaney said. “Thanks to the internet and the rapid spread of scientific information, I believe that in our lifetime we will see genetic treatments and immunologic cure of disease we could only dream about today (think Alzheimer’s, various cancers, HIV…). We will also see media-driven social discord that could make 2021 look like child’s play.

“Personally, I am much more optimistic about our medical and health future than I am about our social future.”

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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