Coronavirus: Why You Must Not Believe Everything You Read on the Internet
Yesterday, a family member emailed me a link to an article urging me to read it to learn more about the Coronavirus and its spread. The email chain had been through several people, the original sender describing it as “mathematical/epidemiological projections” for the Coronavirus. One of those recipients forwarded the email to a number of undisclosed recipients touting it as an email “from a trusted friend who is a [sic]infectious disease nurse.”
That article is titled “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now. Politicians, Community Leaders and Business Leaders: What Should You Do and When” by Tomas Pueyo. It can be found here: https://medium.com/@tomaspueyo/coronavirus-act-today-or-people-will-die-f4d3d9cd99ca
My article, which is purely an opinion piece, is in response to Pueyo’s article and the email chain I received. My point is simply this: you cannot believe everything you see and read on the internet as fact. You cannot take everything at face value. I encourage you all to question information, dig deeper, think and evaluate for yourselves, and only rely on trusted and valid sources of information.
My response to that email chain was this:
Summary of my thoughts after reading Pueyo’s article.
The website is a collection of posts by authors writing opinion pieces. Anyone can be an author (evidenced here by my writing this very piece). The articles on this website are not peer reviewed and are not required to cite sources.
The article itself is nothing more than an opinion piece by Tomas Pueyo on the Coronavirus. When he cites his sources, which he infrequently does, they are from none other than himself, Tomas Pueyo, gathered from some other questionable websites. Further, Pueyo has no relevant background or education to provide any kind of authoritative opinion on topics pertaining to virology.
To be clear, Pueyo has every right to share an opinion piece, but he should provide a disclaimer that this is not his area of expertise and his “statistics” and conclusions are at best a thought exercise on one of many “what if” scenarios in the Coronavirus pandemic.
In the comments section, many others agree. Sadly, the rest of the comments applaud Pueyo and state they are sharing this information within their companies and social networks — this does nothing but propagate hysteria and promulgate “fake news.” I would encourage all to share COVID-19 information only from valid sources. All other commentary on this crisis should come with the caveat of “only an opinion piece.”
I am not an expert on the Coronavirus, nor do I have the time to become one by researching, gathering data, analyzing, obtaining a degree with a relevant scientific background, etc. I have no idea what the answer to the problem is, it’s not on me to figure out, and at the end of the day, my opinion doesn’t matter. All I can do is my part by practicing hygiene, avoiding the most vulnerable portions of the population, relying on trusted news sources and data, and most importantly not feeding into the mass hysteria.
The secondary problem resulting from the Coronavirus hysteria that Pueyo fails to mention is the economic consequences of mass hysteria. Because some people are sending Pueyo’s article out as truth (Pueyo even goes so far as to encourage people to use his own model to decide when to shut their businesses down), many people are seeing immediate very real consequences aside from COVID-19 infection, mainly the fallout from the crippling of the US economy. The low income working class can’t work, so they cant pay rent, can’t buy food. Some of these people that have jobs can’t work because they have no child care when school shuts down. Some low income children that rely on school for meals, now have limited access to food. There is an inconvenience for all levels of society, extending to upper middle class as well, when there is no food, no toiletries, and no basic supplies at the stores.
My experience speaking with people in the community just on Friday afternoon is as follows:
- A hourly paid nurse was on the verge of tears in the OR, not because of a medical fall out that the mass hysteria would have you believe is occurring at the hospitals, but because she had to cancel her family’s first trip to Disney next week due to the park closing. She was not upset at the missed opportunity (that can be postponed), but because a large portion of her trip (the hotel stay mainly) was non-refundable. She simply loses a large chunk of money that she saved. On top of that, she said that the night before she was mugged at the gas station (in her opinion, out of people’s desperation as a reaction to the Coronavirus hysteria).
- The hourly paid employee at Ulta manning the cash register told me she went to the store to buy baby wipes to change her baby’s diaper. There were none at the store— after the soap and hand sanitizer ran out in the mass hysteria, people began buying up all the baby wipes. She looked confused as to what her alternative for her child would be.
- Another nurse leaving her shift at the hospital for the night, mentioned she doesn’t have kids, but her sister does. We watched the news in the lounge regarding school closures and then discussed the need for childcare and what do you do when you have to work to provide for your child, but who will watch your child while you are at work all day and cannot work from home? Do you quit your job? Do you leave your child at home alone? Do you drop your child off at a some one else’s house — do you trust this person? How do you know your child won’t be exposed to the virus while in some one else’s care?
At this point, infection is unstoppable. We have to keep living our lives. There has to be some middle ground between everyone being responsible and taking appropriate precautions and the mass hysteria. Maybe different measures should have been taken by the US at the beginning and we were unprepared — I don’t know, I’m not an expert. All we can do moving forward is our best. One point I may agree with Pueyo on is that Taiwan and other Asian countries may have slowed the spread due to protocols put in place after grappling with SARS in the past. We can only hope the US can do the same, learn from this experience, and put in place appropriate protocols for any potential future infectious diseases with the hope that we never experience something truly devastating such as Ebola.
The last note — this is not the whole story. COVID-19 is a very complicated situation, with many variables at play. I don’t have the mental energy to fathom them all, and clearly Pueyo does not have the requisite experience or credentials to do so in order to provide an adequate well rounded evaluation of the situation and recommended resolution. My point is this — let’s rely on the real experts with relevant qualifications to guide us through the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the above has intrigued you then below you can see my thought progression and critique in real time as I read through Pueyo’s article:
The website is Medium.com — a platform for “independent voices.” Its purpose is to “help you find compelling ideas, knowledge, and perspectives.” One of the key words being “perspectives.
The author is Tomas Pueyo. He has a Masters in Engineering and an MBA. However, no background in biology, virology, or anything pertaining to the medical field. His current job is at Course Hero — an on-line learning platform creating a “community of students and educators.” Pueyo’s other articles on the site cover topics such as “The Rise of Skywalker,” “How to Write a Funny Speech,” “Building a Video App,” and “Building a Horoscope.”
In the words of Tomas Pueyo “let’s do this”…
Section 1 of Pueyo’s article:
The sources of these charts are “Tomas Pueyo” — this is based on data he has presumably gathered from the following sources:
- “Worldometer” which is “an independent company [with] no political, governmental, or corporate affiliation.” They provide “estimates” based on their “proprietary algorithm.” How this works? One can only wonder. Where is the data coming from? They list some “reputable organizations” but don’t say where for each specific estimate.
- “Github” — after a few minutes scanning the front page, it’s not clear what this even is or how it works.
One thing I do agree with Pueyo on — we don’t know the true number of cases. Some people do not get ill, only get mildly ill and recover, and will never be tested.
Using Pueyo’s own analysis, the death rate in Washington of 33% (3 diagnosed cases, 1 death) is actually a death rate of .001 (800 “true” cases, according to Pueyo’s own estimate, at the time of the 1 diagnosed death). Today, with 22 diagnosed deaths in Washington (according to the time Pueyo wrote the article) and “true cases” per Pueyo’s own model, the death rate is still at .001%.
France claims 1400 diagnosed cases and 30 deaths, with a diagnosed death rate .02%. Per Pueyo’s model he estimates true cases to be between 24,000 to 140,000. On the conservative end, this would make the death rate again .001%.
I would like to compare this to the death rate of the flu, but that is complicated. It ranges significantly based on age group. For this reason, it’s not fair to give an overall population death rate. Note that Pueyo doesn’t break up his data by age group at all.
So, Pueyo’s point seems to be — be afraid, be very afraid because there are more people out there running around with the virus than are officially diagnosed and way more than what we thought. He makes no mention of the drastic decrease in the percentage of deaths per people truly infected, assuming his model of “true infection” is accurate.
Section 2 of Pueyo’s article:
This whole section is again based on data gathered by Pueyo himself. The model for predicting death rates is also a model created by Pueyo. Claims such as “Countries that act fast reduce the number of deaths at least by 10x” are conclusions of Pueyo based on Pueyo’s own model.
Pueyo in his own words states “20% of cases require hospitalization, 5% of cases require the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and around 2.5% require very intensive help.” Where he got this data is unclear as there is no source. A chart copied from AHA webinar below directly contradicts those numbers by stating “cases requiring hospitalization = 5% … cases requiring ICU Care = 1–2% … cases requiring ventilatory support = 1%.”
Pueyo claims the US only has a total of 250 ECMO machines. At first glance, this seems low to me and Pueyo does not cite any source for this statement. A quick search took me to the ELSO (Extracorporeal Life Support Organization) website — ELSO.org. Their statistics list 836 centers worldwide , 291 of those being in the United States, with no mention as to whether such center only keep 1 machine on hand or multiple. I would like to see a valid source stating the true number of ECMO machines. As a side note, I do think that if Pueyo is going to claim that the limited number of ECMO machines are a concern and and he factors this into his conclusion, he should delve deeper into the treatment options of COVID-19, and why ECMO machines are critical to sustain a treatment response in the US. This is an unexplored avenue.
The point is, there are a lot of unexplored avenues, unanswered questions, and uncited sources in Pueyo’s “article.”
Remainder of Pueyo’s article:
Halfway through section 2, section 3, and the remainder of the piece (save the comments section), I did read thoroughly but zoned out in terms of providing any additional commentary as it was just more of the same. Pueyo’s point toward the end seems to be to “flatten the curve.” Now, this would make sense and I may tend to agree if Pueyo provided data and valid sources to support this as a necessary measure in the US. Maybe there is data out there for this, and if there is, Pueyo doesn’t cite it.
Pueyo uses Italy as an example of not having enough resources to treat those in dire need. He does not compare the population of Italy to the population of the US. He does not compare or address the hospital system, health care system, bed capacity, number of healthcare providers, etc. in Italy vs in the US. The only mention of any US health related resources are an uncited source of the number of ECMO ventilator machine and possible mask shortage (which is another topic I don’t think Pueyo has adequately addressed, but I do not delve into here). There are a lot of unanswered questions here.
Comments include “doesn’t look like article of someone who researches pandemics or statistics. Please take this article down because it just spreads false news.” I agree!
Others ask “where is the data for your sources and how did you gather this information?” Others question “who is Tom Pueyo and why should I follow his advice given the fact nothing in his bio shows he is qualified in these fields.” I agree!
Some say the website is irresponsible in sharing this article from someone with no background on such topics. I think the article just needs a disclaimer.
A restaurant worker who says if he stays home from work due to closing businesses, he doesn’t get paid, he won’t be able to pay for his rent. Very sad.
Others sharing concerns on crippling the economy and disrupting lives for something that will not stop the inevitable spread of the virus. A very valid concern.
Others comment that they have circulated this article within their companies and among their friends — perhaps they believe anything they read on the internet without validating sources. These people are simply feeding the hysteria.
Finally, Pueyo touts that his article has received over 28 million views and has been translated into 26 languages. Scary — I hope these people read Pueyo’s article in light of it being an opinion piece and again simply a thought exercise on one of many “what if” scenarios in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic.
I encourage you all to not take everything you see on the internet at face value. Anyone can write and publish anything on the internet under the guise of authority — as evidenced of me writing this very article. Not everything on the internet you see and read is true. Please watch out for fake news. It’s everywhere. Please qualify your sources and assign them a reliability value accordingly. You must question where your “news” is coming from, who is providing it, and what the sources are. Think for yourselves people.