What I want to believe about Covid-19

by Brian on September 13, 2020

in Cancer,Covid-19,In the News,Politics

We were recently invited to a friend’s birthday party in Jerusalem. We decided not to go – corona fears. 

Making the decision not to attend was far from a simple one and, for some time afterward, I couldn’t stop second-guessing myself. Was it really necessary to stay home? 

After all, the whole party took place outdoors, where Covid-19 has been shown to be less contagious than indoor events. There were far fewer people invited than would be at a typical Israeli celebration. From what I heard afterward, while face masks were not universally or properly worn at all times, they were still in the majority. 

It’s gotten so confusing. What’s safe and what’s not safe anymore? 

The truth is, we have been socializing outdoors, too. My wife, Jody, and I have sat on the beach with friends, hiked in the hills of Jerusalem without masks, eaten al fresco in restaurants. We even stayed overnight in a hotel – albeit one with separate cottages and only after they had seriously disinfected the room for hours. 

Are we taking unnecessary risks? Or has our understanding of this virus changed over the six months since it upended the world? Do the “rules” from March remain the same in September? 

Mind you, I’m not someone who will argue that we can’t trust the authorities because they have been inconsistent – you know, first, we were told not to wear masks, then yes; early on, it was wipe down groceries and packages, oh wait, that was never really necessary. 

This back-and-forth is entirely reasonable – that’s how science works. We learn as we go and adjust accordingly, discarding initial hypotheses as new data comes in.

And yet, as our understanding grows, it can get pretty complicated. A study published in The BMJ last week included a grid of low-, medium- and hike-risk activities. There were 72 different squares organized into eight quadrants: indoors/outdoors, face masks or not, good or poor ventilation and whether a venue has high or low occupancy.

As science-centric as my thinking is, I am finding myself increasingly drawn towards theories I want to believe are true, even when the data isn’t completely there yet. 

I’m not talking about outright hoaxes like preventing Covid-19 by injecting bleach or gargling with saltwater. But the news is filled with hopeful preprints – preliminary published research that has not yet been peer reviewed but that, if true, might make it possible for us to worry less.

Doctors at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, for example, are having success with a coronavirus drug developed by Israeli biopharmaceutical startup Kamada made from blood plasma donated by recovered Covid-19 patients. 

“The response was, in my eyes, almost a miracle,” Zeev Rothstein, the hospital’s director, said. 

I want to believe this is true.

It’s now being reported that patients with some of the most severe Covid-19 symptoms had particularly low levels of Vitamin D. I immediately scanned dozens of my past blood tests to find out my own levels of the vitamin – I was within a normal range. 

I want to believe that will help.

I want to believe Ben-Gurion University Prof. Mark Last’s statistical model that “herd immunity” in Israel (which would slow, although not stop, the spread of the virus) will be achieved when only one in six Israelis have been infected and that, if confirmed cases represent only a tenth of the actual number of infections in the country, we’re not far from that point now.  

Indeed, by that estimation, I could be one of the million or so Israelis who have already caught the virus. I want to believe that the five weeks of fever I had in January was actually Covid-19 and not just the flu, and that I’m now on the other side.

If not, I want to believe the new study out of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and Rambam Medical Center in Haifa that suggests, contrary to what we’d assumed for months, that not only are cancer patients not at any more risk than the general population, but that changes to the immune system as a result of chemo and immunotherapy treatments may actually confer protection from the most serious Covid-19 side effects. (The study, unfortunately, does not apply for hematological malignancies, only for solid tumors, I’ve since learned.)

Perhaps most of all, I want to believe the research that links Covid-19 illness with “viral load.” This theory suggests that scrupulously wearing a face mask (as I do) reduces the amount of virus particles you inhale so that, if you do get sick, it will be with milder or even no symptoms. It worked with hamsters whose cages were separated by surgical masks. (No, the hamsters didn’t have to wear masks themselves.) 

Believing these gives me comfort. It doesn’t make me any more lax in my precautions, but it does help me cope with imagining how we’re going to get through the coming months, in particular a winter where outdoor socializing and activities are less accessible. 

The biggest problem with writing anything about this pandemic, of course, is that the news changes so quickly. Half of what I referenced in this article might be totally debunked by the time it appears in print. Or data could be released proving it beyond a doubt. 

So, knowing everything we do now, should we have gone to our friend’s party? If there’s one thing I’m sure about, it’s that there’s no room for regret. I want to believe – and I do believe – that the decisions we have made up to this point have been the right ones.

I first wrote about what I want to believe for The Jerusalem Post.

Grid of risky activities from The BMJ.

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