DeSantis, Atlas, Gupta, Bhattacharya, and Kulldorff, All on One Stage

On March 18, 2021, Governor DeSantis brought together a host of heavy hitters – deeply knowledgable in their fields – to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on societies.

Governor Ron DeSantis
Sunetra Gupta, epidemiologist and professor of theoretical epidemiology, Oxford University (via Zoom)
Scott W. Atlas, MD, Robert Wesson Senior Fellow in health care policy at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, professor of medicine at Stanford University and research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research
Martin Kulldorff, PhD, biostatistician, epidemiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School

They discussed a number of topics. Excerpts from the roundtable are below but you can find the archive of the event here soon. Many thanks to Jennifer Cabrera for her rundown of the event.

On Lockdowns

Bhattacharya: “The lockdowns are the single biggest public health mistake in history.” 

Gupta: The costs of lockdowns should be “on the table” before any action is taken. “An imperfect lockdown is actually closer to a let-it-rip strategy than a focused protection strategy, which I believe is easier to implement.” 

Atlas: “Our country, more than any other country, was willing to sacrifice our children out of fear.” 

Bhattacharya: “The evidence is clear: the lockdowns have not stopped the spread of the disease in any measurable way… we’ve exposed working-class people to the disease at higher rates.” 

On Contact Tracing

Kulldorff: “To think that it can be used for a pandemic is naive… It’s worse than that: it’s counter-productive because it reduces trust in public health.” 

Atlas: “The point of testing is to save lives, not to document every infection in low-risk people.” 

On School Closures

Bhattacharya: “We should open every school in the United States immediately, with no restrictions.” 

Gupta: “Even if schools [were sources of infection], we should have gone down the road of focused protection” instead of closing schools. Gupta: Forcing kids to wear masks and social distance “is in direct violation of our social contract” 

Kulldorff: “Children should not wear face masks. They don’t need it for their own protection, and they don’t need it for protecting others, either.” 

On Masks

Bhattacharya: The former CDC director said masks were more effective than vaccines. “That wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.” 

Gupta re masking: “The most important thing is – does it have a cost?… the mask-wearing really has had a negative impact in all kinds of ways in exposing the vulnerable.” E.g., dedicated aisles for the vulnerable went away after masks. 

Atlas: “The empirical evidence from places that used mask mandates… there was no evidence that a mask mandate was effective in stopping the cases from spreading.” Efficacy of masks for respiratory viruses has never been shown. 

Atlas: “There is evidence that people in the U.S. have been wearing masks at very high rates, and the cases exploded.” 

Is there any basis for masks outdoors? Bhattacharya: “The answer is no.”

Atlas: “The WHO said specifically it’s bad to wear a mask during exercise… it’s not just unnecessary, it’s harmful.” If you’ve recovered from COVID, do you have immunity?

On Immunity

Bhattacharya: “There’s a vast array of evidence… that shows definitively that if you’ve had COVID and recovered… [you] have durable immunity.” Less severe if you get reinfected. Not forever, but “a while.” 

Kulldorff: “At this point, it’s very clear that natural immunity provides [better protection than] vaccines.” He adds that vaccines, of course, also provide immunity. 

Gupta: “Given that I would recommend most non-immune people not engage in masks and social distancing, you can [imagine my answer to whether immune people should do those things]” 

Gupta says we have evidence from other coronaviruses that you have long-term immunity, not from reinfection, but from serious disease and death. 

Atlas: “A complete rejection of decades of knowledge about biology and immunology… ” 

On Prioritization of Vaccines and At Risk Populations

Kulldorff: “We should prioritize vaccines for older people” because of their added risk. Also staff in nursing homes. 

Bhattacharya: “It’s absolutely immoral to use doses on people at lower risk.” 

Atlas: “There’s very good data in the nursing homes” that vaccines are making a big difference in deaths. 

Atlas: “An elementary school is a low-risk environment.” Little reason to prioritize kids or teachers for vaccinations. Vaccine passports.

Kulldorff: “It’s a bad idea… one of the basic principles of public health is trust. To demand vaccinations… increases the skepticism toward vaccines.” 

Bhattacharya: “A very large fraction of the population has already been infected and is immune.” No reason to vaccinate that population. Vax manufacturers excluded those people from efficacy metrics during trials. 

On Vaccine Passports

Bhattacharya: Working-class people are the most hesitant about vaccines. Vaccine passports will create a “new vaccine Jim Crow.” 

Gupta: Vaccine passports are “anathema.” Requiring a vaccine passport to enter the U.K. sends a bad message to the rest of the world. 

DeSantis: “In Florida, we’re not doing any vaccine passport.” May also “have a role to play” in prohibiting private vaccine requirements. 

Atlas: “This panic-driven fear of getting this virus… there’s a defined group that has a high risk… we keep forgetting that… There’s a moral, ethical question here if you’re going to say young children should be vaccinated for a virus they have no problem with.” 

On Variants

Gupta on variants: Turn back to existing body of knowledge about viruses. “These are small, incremental… changes.” New variants can take over, but that doesn’t mean they’re more dangerous or that immunity won’t hold against them.

On Asymptomatic Spread

Bhattacharya on asymptomatic spread: “There are a lot of people who are asymptomatic who have evidence of the virus… The best evidence that I know [is from a meta-analysis] that looks at disease spread in the household… “If you have an asymptomatic person who has the disease, they spread to a person in their own home 7 out of 1000 times.” (From JAMA study conducted at UF) 

Kulldorff: Whether spread is asymptomatic or symptomatic, lockdowns are the wrong strategy. Focused protection is best. 

On COVID Models

Bhattacharya: “People were looking at China and at Italy… and they drew the wrong lessons from them… Instead of standard public health principles,” made models based on inaccurate information. 

Bhattacharya: Models have been “imprecise at best and misleading at worst.” 

Gupta: “Equally baffled” why Imperial College models were used to drive policy. Coronavirus models are well-established, but relying on them for policy is “problematic.” Assumptions must be validated. 

On the Media’s Role During the Pandemic

Bhattacharya: “The media has induced panic…” Recommends that the media consult a broader array of scientists. “Panic has induced its own harm… has actually harmed the health of the population… will be very difficult to undo.” 

Kulldorff: “Media has focused on a small group of scientists… herd thinking… scientists who go against the media have been assaulted by the media… scientists do not wish to speak up because [of the nonsense]” 

Kulldorff: Media has a tendency to build things up as worse than they are, similar to snowstorm reporting. “We should provide accurate information and neither overblow or dismiss the problem.” 

Gupta: “Media has been atrocious… willful distortion of the basic data… Deaths… media will say, well, actually, it could be a lot higher [but won’t say] well, actually, it could be a lot lower.” 

On Censorship

Gupta: “I can’t understand how the fourth estate… could have participated in this way in this tragedy.” 

Atlas: “What happened in the town square of today, which is social media… was overt censorship… ” YouTube videos pulled down, tweets censored. “This is really harmful… not just the power of govt but the power of the media to control what is even said.” 

Atlas: “The media is reckless when they incite fear like that. There is a responsibility of the media that has been abandoned in this.” 

Kulldorff: “Fear has been used as a tool to generate lockdowns,” but lockdowns also generate fear. 

DeSantis: “A case is someone that’s actually sick, not someone with remnants of the virus.” 

On the Impact of Lockdowns

Kulldorff: “Lockdowns… are a departure from the basic principles of public health… Doctors are trained to focus on a particular disease, but in public health, we can’t do that and… ignore the collateral damage from lockdowns.” 

Kulldorff: “Lockdowns were successful in protecting [people who can work from home] while [people who have to work in-person were exposed to the virus].” Against public health principles. 

Kulldorff: “This belief that lockdowns were going to protect everyone, including the old, was misguided and naive…” In some places, testing was prioritized for children and college students instead of nursing homes. 

Bhattacharya: “[Lockdowns were] an enormous departure [from previous public health practice].” Inducing panic, lying to the public about the efficacy of various mitigations, moralizing behavior, stigmatizing disease, all bad public health practices. 

Gupta: “Even the purpose of lockdown mutated… it was originally to keep the virus from spreading out [of an area]… From that it mutated to keep it out, which is quite nationalistic… then it mutated to let’s use lockdown to suppress the infection.. came from nowhere.” 

DeSantis: “Coercive measures… have failed. The proper role of public health is to give guidance… people should be able to make their own decisions… That’s the appropriate role for government going forward.” 

On Colleges Returning to the Classroom

DeSantis: “I told the colleges, don’t police these kids’ social lives… How many [college students] have been admitted to hospital? Very few… [treating them like they’re] in a prison, is very damaging…” Too many classes are remote. 

DeSantis: “If the legislature needs to do something, if I need to do something, we will… Blue-collar people have been working the whole time…” so lectures can be given in person. 

DeSantis: Vaccine passports at the state level: “totally off the table.” Private vaccine passports will negatively impact people, he’ll have to discuss with others what the State can do to stop those. 

DeSantis: “You can’t just start tearing down society and think there’s not going to be effects from that”