The last movie I saw in the theatres was the World War I epic 1917. It masterfully showed what it would be like to “go over the top”, rushing out of the trenches and into a field of bullets and bombs. “Lions led by donkeys” was a phrase that described the bravery of the common solider compared to the ineptitude and indifference of the generals who sent them to their deaths. While I marveled at the bravery of these young men, I was grateful that I would never live through something like that.

Ron Desantis and friends

But in some ways, we are living through something like that. As pediatric cases, hospitalizations, and deaths reach their peak, politicians with an eye on higher office are not just sending children into dangerous environments, they are actively inhibiting every attempt to keep them safe. Governors like Ron Desantis seem determined to have as many children as possible contract the virus. He not only opposes school closures, but also mask and vaccine mandates. He has threatened to withhold funding to schools that implement mask mandates, even after this was ruled unlawful by a judge. He recently stood by and said nothing as a local government employee claimed that “the vaccine changes your RNA”. His actions make some sense given his beliefs: he doesn’t think the virus is dangerous to children, saying that “COVID, I view, is a very minor risk”.

Governor DeSantis is not operating in a vacuum. Doctors and epidemiologists at prestigious universities have influenced his decision to let children remain vulnerable to the virus. His problematic new Surgeon General was discussed here yesterday by Jann Bellamy. These doctors have repeatedly said that masks, lockdowns, and school closures are useless at best and counterproductive at worst. Other doctors gave him the false idea that pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 are misdiagnosed cases of RSV, an explanation offered in an attempt to minimize the impact of COVID-19 on children. Several of his advisors signed the infamous Great Barrington Declaration (discussed here by Dr. David Gorski), which advocated letting young, healthy people catch the virus to create herd immunity. As they put it:

The most compassionate approach that balances the risks and benefits of reaching herd immunity, is to allow those who are at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally to build up immunity to the virus through natural infection, while better protecting those who are at highest risk. We call this Focused Protection…Schools and universities should be open for in-person teaching. Extracurricular activities, such as sports, should be resumed. Young low-risk adults should work normally, rather than from home.

This all sounds nice, but its sophistication reminds me of my childhood plan to stop crime by “locking up all the bad guys”. I also wonder, did the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration and their young family members actually live out their suggested plan by trying to catch the virus to contribute to herd immunity? Did their financial sponsors?

The doctors who influenced Governor DeSantis don’t take care of patients with COVID-19. They have no plan to protect children and young adults as they reject the notion that the virus is a danger to them. Though they are active in the media, often appearing on TV, YouTube videos, and newspapers, they are completely sheltered from the consequences of their words. They’ll never work a night shift, intubate a dyspneic patient, deliver bad news to a grieving family, or transport a body to the morgue. Utterly lacking in practical experience, they pontificate on the virus as if were a game, a brand-building opportunity.

Instead of enumerating how the virus has harmed children, they hide behind irrelevant comparisons and false information in their ceaseless effort to undermine every attempt to protect them. An anti-mask article noted that “COVID-19 is less of a threat to children than accidents or the common flu”. It is true that accidents kill more children than COVID-19, however this is entirely irrelevant as to whether or not masks can protect them from a dangerous virus. Further, the claim that the flu is a greater threat than COVID-19 is simply wrong. In a year when COVID-19 killed hundreds of children, the flu claimed a single pediatric victim. The supposition that “the long-term harm to kids from masking is potentially enormous” is provided without evidence. Similarly, an article opposing vaccines for young people noted that “While anyone can get infected, the old have a thousand-fold higher mortality risk than the young”. This claim was repeated in an article opposing testing children to limit outbreaks. Again, it is true that COVID-19 is worse for old people. However this doesn’t mean it is harmless for young people, and it is entirely irrelevant as to whether or not the vaccine can protect adolescents from a dangerous virus.

Though the vast majority of children do well with COVID-19, not all do. Tens of thousands of children have been hospitalized, and between 25%33% of them need ICU level care. Even though the Delta variant doesn’t seem to cause worse outcomes for children, its increased infectivity means children are suffering more now than ever before. A recent CDC report found that “Weekly COVID-19–associated hospitalization rates among children and adolescents rose nearly five-fold during late June–mid-August 2021”. There have been over 4,661 cases of Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), and children with this condition are often extremely sick, needing ICU-level care. Over 500 children have died from the virus, including some teens without underlying conditions who died after the vaccine was available to them. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 102 children have died of COVID-19 since August 12th, 2021.

Fortunately, the vaccine is working. The CDC found that “Hospitalization rates were 10 times higher among unvaccinated than among fully vaccinated adolescents”. Of course, you’ll never hear any bad news about the virus or good news about the vaccine for adolescents from these doctors. They don’t want these facts to be true, so they don’t acknowledge these facts.

“We have protected the vulnerable by vaccinating the older population”

Whether it’s just politics or a pure pride, someone like Governor DeSantis is incapable of self-reflection and admitting error. On August 1, 2021, Governor DeSantis created a “mission accomplished” moment when he quoted one of his medical advisors who said, “We have protected the vulnerable by vaccinating the older population”. Sadly, the vulnerable were not protected. Several weeks later after that Tweet was sent, mobile morgues would be needed to store the dead bodies. From July 4th to early September, over 7,000 people died in Florida, and over 17,000 people were hospitalized there at the end of August. According to the American Association of Retired People, “Florida led the nation in nursing home resident and staff deaths in the four weeks ending Aug. 22.” Nearly 70 children per day were being hospitalized during the recent peak, and some were sick enough to need life support. Some died (here, here, here, here). In total, 17 children under age 16-years of age have died of COVID-19 in Florida, and the death toll has more than doubled since August. Dr. Mobeen Rathore, a Florida pediatrician who actually treats sick children said:

Kids do get sick. Kids do get hospitalized. Kids do get sick and go to the ICU get intubated, be on a ventilator and even be on ECMO which is a heart lung machine, sort of a last ditch effort to support these children. Unfortunately children do die. In fact many of you probably heard the news, there’s a 17-year-old who died in St. Johns County just in the last few days so I think we have to be very sure and understand that kids can get serious illness. And I can tell you that in the almost 18 months ending in June we had three deaths in our area in children. That’s one death every six months. And just in July and August we had four deaths in children so that’s two deaths a month.

Things are also not going well for young adults, those considered at “minimal risk of death”. According to one nurse at a Florida hospital, ‘”It’s horrible. I’ve never bagged so many thirtysomething-year-olds, leaving behind young kids, pregnant wives.” Teachers are dying too. In Miami, 15 educators died over a 10-day period. No matter what happens in his state, Governor DeSantis will never admit error and reverse course.

Similarly, the doctors who are who advised Governor DeSantis seem incapable of self-reflection or admitting error. They have no plan to protect children other than to hide behind meaningless bromides that the virus is more dangerous for old people than children and false claims that the flu is more dangerous. Even as the Delta variant causes unprecedented harms in children, these doctors continue to minimize the virus. On a day when 1,544 Americans died of COVID-19 one said, “The emergency phase of the disease is over”. They continue to disparage vaccines in children, masks, testing, school closings, and basically any effort to keep children safe. As graduate student Mallory Harris pointed out, these doctors are reluctant to criticize these safety measures at their own schools. As she said,

Instead, they have used cable news, podcast appearances and social media to tell people outside the University that such public health measures are ill-advised. And they have gone to government officials elsewhere, most notably in Florida, to push them to strike down policies that align with Stanford’s. Especially from within the confines of a wealthy, elite university, there is a disconnect between staying silent about public health measures — and protecting yourself — while simultaneously critiquing those same measures — from which others stand to benefit.

“Distortions, misinformation, ad hominem attacks and outright slander”

As COVID-19 kills and hospitalizes more children and young adults than ever before, the signers of the Great Barrington Declaration have a clear message: they are the real victims here. Their grievances are twofold: people have said mean things about them and they don’t have a large enough platform. On a day when 534 Americans died of the virus, they complained “We did not expect a multi-pronged propaganda campaign that gravely distorted our arguments and smeared us”. In their view, there was “an aggressive media campaign against the Great Barrington Declaration. The propaganda campaign included multiple distortions, misinformation, ad hominem attacks and outright slander”. They frequently complain on social media about being the victims of “slander” and “censorship” (here, here, here, here, here, here). On a day when 994 American died, they wrote a widely-viewed editorial about how Facebook was “silencing” debate. To them, the removal of their Facebook page was “deeply sinister“. On a day when 615 Americans died of the virus, they wrote an editorial about “five prominent scientists who have faced the modern-day inquisition”, though none of these scientists were tortured. In this editorial, they defend people such as Dr. John Ioanaddis and his mathematically-impossible claim that the fatality rate of COVID-19 was “an order of magnitude lower than the conventional narrative implies”.

On a day when 533 Americans died of the virus, these doctors felt compelled to speak out against what they felt was a real tragedy – YouTube removed a video of their “roundtable” discussion with Governor DeSantis. One complained, “There’s nothing more dangerous than being able to censor what is said in a country, because then you are simply not ever going to even hear the truth. And you are entering into a phase of countries that we used to criticize severely like the USSR, like communist China…I mean, this is almost the end of our civilization if we have this sort of censorship, I’m afraid”. Seldom have “censored” individuals been both so omnipresent in the media and empowered with the ability to directly influence politicians at the highest level.

Though these doctors can’t take it, they can dish it out. They have made their opposition to masks very well-known with offensive tweets, calling masks “retarded” and analogous to the Taliban’s treatment of women. Another said masks were a form of “child abuse” based on a “fantastic” study by an anti-vaccine activist that has now been retracted.

Others lob juvenile insults at people like Dr. Fauci who suggested that vaccinated people should still take basic precautions not to contract the virus. Similarly, the government of New Zealand is criticized for enforcing its lockdown, even though that country has suffered as many COVID-19 deaths the entire pandemic as the state of Florida suffers in a few hours, and citizens there have overall enjoyed many fewer interruptions to their daily living.

Healthcare workers have been victims

To be clear, healthcare workers have been victims this pandemic. I remember the fear early in the pandemic of caring for COVID-19 patients. Early on, there was not enough PPE and healthcare workers had to convert trash bags into protective gowns. Thousands of healthcare workers have died of the virus, including friends and teachers of mine (here and here). Countless others have been sickened by the virus, though they survived.

Healthcare workers have suffered greatly in less direct ways. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the top vaccine official in the Tennessee, was fired for promoting vaccines. Dr. Rick Bright, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, was fired from for doubting the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine. Other public health officials have faced “angry and armed protesters at their personal residences, vandalism, and harassing telephone calls and social media posts, some threatening bodily harm and necessitating private security details”. More recently, anti-vaxxers have taken to protesting outside hospitals. Pediatricians and educators have been threatened for trying to keep children safe. One man in Tennessee told healthcare workers at a school board meeting, “You can leave freely, but we will find you, and we know who you are”. The threats of violence are real and growing.

I hope none of the doctors who influenced Governor DeSantis experienced any of this. I’m glad they haven’t been fired. I hope they never feared contracting the virus at work and bringing it home to their family. It’s nice that one of these doctors is “looking forward to teaching in person this fall and said he will happily meet with students, as Stanford is requiring vaccinations for everyone on campus.” I’m glad the vaccine mandates he opposes allow him to feel safe at work. I don’t want any of these doctors to die like the teachers in Miami. Other, less-protected teachers, have quit because they don’t feel safe. I don’t blame them. I further hope these doctors don’t quit because of the stress they experienced at work during this pandemic. Even before this latest, preventable wave, many doctors and healthcare workers who actually treat COVID-19 patients left their profession. The burnout has only worsened with time. I really hope no one has threatened these doctors or protested outside their offices or homes. Sadly, target of their ire Dr. Fauci has needed security for himself and his family. Given the enormous suffering it caused them, I sincerely hope the removal of their YouTube video or Facebook page remains the worst thing these doctors experience this pandemic.

Lions led by donkeys, 2021

While children with COVID-19 obviously have a much higher chance of a good outcome than a young man on a World War I battlefield, lions are again being led by donkeys. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I don’t know the names of any World War I generals, though I am sure I’m not alone. We’ve mostly forgotten the names of those donkeys. We should make sure that the politicians and academics who send unprotected children into classrooms filled with COVID-19 are remembered for more than their unparalleled capacity for self-pity, inglorious oppression fantasies, and juvenile trolling of public officials who need bodyguards for the sin of trying to protect young people from a dangerous virus.

Author

  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.

Posted by Jonathan Howard

Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines since long before COVID-19.