Re: “Health leader is hero for our times,” (TNT, 8/9).
I read this recent letter to the editor that provided a glowing review of Dr. Anthony Chen, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
As a public health physician, I would like to offer a counter argument. I’m not sure his review should be so glowing..
Dr. Chen has failed in his duty to appropriately communicate risk to the public. Instead, he communicates anecdotal stories that do more to promote fear than encourage action.
On July 30, he tweeted an Apple news article that stated “A granddaughter contracted coronavirus at a party, then killed her grandfather by giving him the disease.”
He provided no discussion on overall population data regarding transmission patterns from grandchildren to grandparents. And worse, he did not provide historical context.
It is well understood in medical circles that prior to COVID-19, other seemingly “harmless” viruses (think common cold) can result in death from respiratory failure in the medically frail.
On July 22, he tweeted an Apple news story regarding the increase of COVID-19 cases after Israel opened schools.
Again, no context was provided on how this compared to published, peer-reviewed studies regarding in-person school impacts on community transmission, and even more important, the effects on morbidity and mortality of the overall population.
This is simply not the work of a professional. His actions do not showcase a public health leader searching for the truth. Rather, he is using his appointed position to convince himself and everyone else that he is on the right side of the COVID debate.
If you are living, you are at risk of dying. Nothing you (or I) can do can make your risk of mortality 0.00%. A large role of the public health system is to help people understand that risk and to give them the tools to mitigate it.
Public health systems cannot eliminate risk. When communicating with the general public, Dr. Chen would be wise to remember this. Providing fear-inducing anecdotal stories to the public does not accomplish this goal.
Furthermore, it will likely not get you the buy-in you need when recommending (now mandating) distance learning. It is harder to accept Dr. Chen’s recommendations (now requirements) when unaccompanied by a discussion on the data analysis that went into them.
Instead of focusing endlessly on case counts, Dr. Chen should focus on trends in population morbidity and mortality. Is not that the end goal? I am pretty confident the media will do their share in providing the anecdotal stories and never-ending stream of case counts.
More honest risk communication from public health professionals at the local, state and federal levels back in March would likely have prevented the politicization of COVID-19 by both sides, leading to a more nuanced policy approach with more collective and sustained buy-in.
Not only may this have saved us money and prosperity, it would likely have also saved us lives.
Dr. Stephanie S. Smith of Tacoma is an occupational medicine physician, board certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine. Prior to providing consulting services in Tacoma, she served as deputy chief of Public Health in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.