October 16, 2020

Lock 'em up!

            A provocative, contrarian position paper (somewhat ostentatiously and bizarrely entitled by its authors a “declaration”) is creating a stir by advocating “focused protection” as a means of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The strategy of “focused protection” as defined by the 3 principal architects of the “declaration” recommends 3 different approaches for 3 different segments of the population: for those at highest risk of death from Covid-19, individuals over 85, they recommend a lockdown; for those at moderately elevated risk, including those who are “retired” (aka people over age 65), they advocate a “safer at home” policy—delivery of groceries and other essentials, and staying home  except for socially distanced outdoor visits with friends or family; for those under 65, they suggest a resumption of normal activities. This algorithm, they argue, would allow the development of herd immunity in the general population by assuring that roughly 70 percent of them be allowed to contract the virus, leading to the end of the pandemic.

            Scathing critiques of this proposal are appearing daily. They discuss issues such as the failure to take into account the burdens of Covid-19 short of death (for example, the long-term sequelae that have increasingly  been reported) and the ethical and practical problems of effectively locking up all older people who live in congregate housing of any kind, not to mention the ethical and practical problems of vastly restricting the activities of everyone over age 65 who doesn’t live in congregate housing. These are legitimate concerns. I’m going to add to the growing list of critics by focusing on two others: the ageism of the proposal and, what is more surprising, the failure to recognize that a rare event that afflicts a large number of people produces a commensurately large number of casualties.

            First, ageism.  The authors of the proposal never explicitly acknowledge that the total population over age 65 in the US is now over 53 million people. This number doesn’t include the millions of people who are in the high-risk category, who would also be locked down, who are under age 65 but have important underlying health conditions. The authors seem to imagine that the most vulnerable individuals, those over age 85, account for most of the excess deaths and that all of them live in nursing homes. In fact, only 4 percent of the elderly population live in nursing homes, or about 1.3 million people. The authors also seem to assume that limiting contact by older individuals with the rest of the world will prevent them from becoming infected; they have apparently forgotten that the effectiveness of sequestration depends on the prevalence of the disease in the surrounding community: if all the nursing assistants and grocery delivery people are allowed to get sick, then their chance of transmitting the virus, even with relatively limited contact, will go up.

             Perhaps the lead authors of the paper, all of whom are under age 60, assume that everyone age 65 or older is superannuated. They should be reminded that fully half of the members of the US Senate are over age 65, as of course is the current president and his challenger. Not only do many older people work (16.4 percent, or 8.69 million), but the 65+ set account for a disproportionate share of consumer spending. How will the rest of society be able to “go about their business” without older people to come to their restaurants, stores, and performance venues? And parenthetically, if the 8.69 million people over age 65 who are still working are exhorted to behave just like their younger counterparts, i.e. to “go about their business,” and even assuming that most of these individuals are 65-74 (though this is not strictly true—14 percent of senators, for example, are over age 75), then the projection is that about 152,000 of this group would also die of Covid-19).

            Second, a small number multiplied by a very large number can be a large number. Let’s look at the segment of the population among whom the “declaration” suggests the virus should run rampant. Americans aged 55-64, like their younger counterparts, are advised to go about  unfettered by regulations. As of 2019, this group included 42.44 million people. If herd immunity is to be achieved, an estimated 70 percent of them would have to contract Covid-19, or 32.68 million people. Now here’s the tricky part. We need to know what fraction of people in a given age group are likely to die from Covid-19. The number that is commonly cited is the case fatality rate, or the fraction of people with documented infections who die. But what we really want to know is the infection fatality rate (IFR), or the fraction of people who have contracted Covid-19, whether they know it or not, whether they are symptomatic or not, who actually die from the disease. Computing that rate depends on accurately determining the prevalence of Covid infection in a particular population and the death rate in that group. The best measure I have seen for the IFR for people age 65-74 is 2.5; the IFR for the 75-84-year-old group is 8.5; and the IFR for the 85+-year-olds is 28.3.

            But what about those who are 55-64? Their IFR is .75, so the authors of the “declaration” deem them safe. But if 32.68 million people in this age group contract Covid-19, and .75 percent of them die, then that means, by simple multiplication, that there will be 222,810 deaths in this group alone. A small number (.0075) times a large number (32.68 million) is a pretty big number when we’re talking about human lives. 

             For that matter, why stop with the 55-64-year-olds? Why not consider the 45-54-year-olds? They make up 40.88 million people. If 70 percent contract the virus (after which there should be herd immunity and the virus will vanish), that’s 28.16 million people. The IFR for this group is .068, which translates to 29,708 deaths. Is that acceptable?

            To determine what number of deaths is too many, some commentators have compared the numbers to flu deaths; others have compared them to automobile deaths. The fallacy is to assume that either you open society completely (to selected age cohorts) or you have a complete shut-down. That’s no more accurate than assuming that either people are allowed to drive cars and die in automobile accidents or they aren’t allowed to drive and no one dies. The reality for driving is that there are some mitigating steps we can take, such as seatbelt laws and speed limits on roads, which will significantly decrease the risk of death. In the case of Covid-19, mitigation means exactly what the majority of public health experts currently advocate: masks, social distancing, limiting the size of indoor gatherings, and substituting work at home for work in the office whenever possible. 

            When scientists band together to make an argument that is intended to influence public policy, they write a “position paper” or a “white paper” or an “open letter.” The “Great Barrington Declaration” reveals in its very name that it is something different. It is an ethical perspective masquerading as a technical brief. The authors claim their case for what to do in the setting of the pandemic arises logically from the data. In fact, their strategy, like all strategies for dealing with the outbreak, requires balancing personal freedom and the social good. The “declaration” implicitly assumes that the quality of life of older people is of no consequence and that a society has no special responsibility to its most vulnerable members. It dismisses the anticipated huge amount of death and disability among people under 65 by sleight of hand. Even if this policy could effectively be implemented—if allowing the virus to multiply unchecked would not overwhelm the health care system, causing people suffering from non-Covid conditions to suffer, if older people sheltering in place would remain uncontaminated as the disease becomes rampant in the workers who bring them their food and other services—this is not a policy that most Americans can endorse. The moral fiber of the American people may have been frayed in recent years, but it has not broken entirely.

October 05, 2020

Should Your Doctor Lie to You?


            The nation is riveted by President Trump's illness: whether we hate Trump or love him, we want to know how he is faring with Covid-19. We want to understand what this disease looks like in an elderly man with at least one chronic health condition. Unfortunately, what we have been told by the physicians involved in Trump's care has been marred by commissions, distortions, and downright lies.

            There is a long history of presidents wishing to mislead the public about their health and of their physicians colluding in the deception—Woodrow Wilson’s stroke was concealed, Franklin Roosevelt’s high blood pressure and heart problems were downplayed, and John F. Kennedy’s Addison’s disease and chronic back pain were not fully disclosed. But however objectionable we may find this public lack of transparency, President Trump’s personal physician has claimed a different reason for being less than forthcoming. He asserted that he had understated the seriousness of his patient’s condition because he “didn’t want to give any information that might steer the illness in another direction.” That is, Dr. Sean Conley didn’t want his patient to know that his low oxygen levels and high fever were worrisome, so he lied about his condition. Telling the truth, he was asserting, could harm his patient. But is that true?

            Truth-telling in medicine has been the subject of extensive ethical analysis and of clinical study. The bottom line is that while doctors used to routinely lie to their patients in the belief that they were protecting them, for the last 50 years the standard of care has been to keep patients informed to whatever extent they wish and, based on their accurate understanding of their situation, to engage them in decision-making about treatment.

            The change in practice occurred in the sixties and seventies: in 1961, when a questionnaire was administered to oncologists asking them if they told their patients that they had cancer, fully 90 percent of them said they did not. When the study was repeated in 1979, 97 percent of them said they would tell patients their diagnosis. The earlier view was based on the paternalistic belief that physicians always knew what was best for their patients and on the conviction that if patients knew they were seriously ill they would become depressed and possibly even suicidal. Between 1961, when the first study was conducted, and 1979, when the second study was carried out, western biomedical ethics came into its own as a field.

            Physicians and medical ethicists increasingly recognized that there was often no single optimal course of treatment: several different possible approaches might be possible, each with its own likelihood of benefit and each with its own risks; which approach was “right” for a given patient depended on that person’s preferences and values. One person with a particular type of cancer might wish to undergo treatment with chemotherapy that had a high probability of resulting in serious side effects in exchange for a small chance of life-prolongation; another individual with the same disease might opt for a different treatment that was less likely to cause severe side effects but that offered a smaller chance of life-prolongation. Whenever the choice of treatment depended on values as well as technical expertise, the patient had to be included in the decision-making along with the physician. The principle of beneficence, or doing good, and the principle of non-maleficence, or not doing harm, co-existed with the principle of autonomy, or the right of patient self-determination. 

            Choosing the right treatment for a particular patient, in many cases, required that the patient know the truth about his diagnosis. Without knowing the facts, he couldn’t possibly participate in a conversation with his physician about treatment options. Moreover, growing evidence indicated that when patients are engaged in their own health care, they do not become morbidly depressed or overtly suicidal; on the contrary, health outcomes improve. 

            The regrettable example set by the president’s personal physician notwithstanding, you should expect honesty from your doctor. Yes, you should expect that your doctor will have the communications skills necessary to impart bad news sensitively. Trust is at the core of the doctor-patient relationship, and trust cannot be built on a lie.

October 04, 2020

Why Trump is Bad for Your Health


            For years, older people have been more likely to vote than have their younger counterparts: in the 2016 election, 71 percent of Americans age 65 and older voted, compared to only 46 percent of those ages 18-29. They are likely to exert a major effect on the election again in 2020, especially in those swing states with large older populations such as Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. 

            Four years ago, 53 percent of voters over age 65 voted for Donald Trump, compared to 44 percent for Hilary Clinton. Whatever these voters thought in 2016, older individuals today should know that Trump is bad for the elderly. He's especially bad for their health.

            Among the most explicit and egregious ways that Trump has adversely affected the health and health care of older Americans is his failure to lead the country effectively in the coronavirus era. His unwillingness to develop and implement a coherent national strategy and his refusal to accept the science underlying public health recommendations have contributed to the high incidence of COVID-19 and the correspondingly high death rate from the disease—and people over the age of 65 account for 80 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. 

            In addition, the Trump administration has pursued a vigorous policy of seeking to privatize Medicare, the popular and successful source of health care insurance for the vast majority of older people. For example, Trump issued an executive order in October, 2019 entitled “Protecting and Improving Medicare for Our Nation’s Seniors” which, far from either protecting or improving Medicare, aims to bolster private Medicare Advantage plans (a popular choice for some well elderly) to the detriment of fee-for-service Medicare (the long-preferred option for frail older people) while dismantling safeguards on access and shifting costs to beneficiaries. 

            Then there are the more indirect effects of Trump’s policies on the health of our oldest citizens: dramatically curtailing immigration means cutting off the major source of personal care attendants and nursing aides. These are the people who take care of older individuals who need help bathing, dressing, feeding themselves, walking, and going to the bathroom—both in nursing homes and in their own homes. Deregulation is translating into more polluted air and water, worsening existing conditions such as emphysema and asthma. Rolling back steps to control climate change is contributing to relentless global warming, which is not some abstract future problem but a reality today—and it is frail older people who have suffered disproportionately from hyperthermia and death during the recent heat waves and from the fires that have been ravaging the western US.

            The future under Trump would bring new threats to the health of older Americans. The budget that Trump has proposed for 2021 would significantly cut Medicaid, the federal/state program that is the main funder of nursing homes, where 1.4 million dependent older people live. The budget would also cut SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits—the food stamps nd other nutritional support for millions of older adults. 

            Purely in terms of self-interest, older Americans should be terrified of four more years of Trump. And, as the NY Times argued two years ago, “senior power is the sleeping giant of American politics.” With the latest estimates from the US Department of the Census indicating that the 52 million Americans over age 65 comprise 16.5 percent of the population, gray power is here; it’s time to exercise it.