I'm fighting coronavirus on the front lines. And yet I've heard the pandemic called a 'hoax.'

As long as regular Americans are openly rejecting the advice of doctors, our problem is going to get much worse before it gets better.
Image: Joseph Pollino outside of a COVID-19 clinic.
Joseph Pollino outside a COVID-19 clinic.Courtesy of Joseph Pollino
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By Joseph Pollino, physician assistant

Only a few short months ago, which now seems like a lifetime, I was standing on a stage speaking on behalf of my graduating class of new physician assistants — thanking our families for their support, and wishing my new colleagues well. After a decade of working in emergency medicine as a deputy coroner, EMT/firefighter and ER technician, I decided my calling was to go into primary care. But just a few weeks after starting my specialty in geriatrics, I now find myself working in a newly formed COVID-19 clinic.

Just a few weeks after starting my specialty in geriatrics, I now find myself working in a newly formed COVID-19 clinic.

As each day goes by, the calls we receive and the amounts of patients we screen double — a rate that is unsustainable given our current resources. There also seems to be an exponential increase in fear and anxiety among the general public, and the health care professionals that they rely on — including myself. I have spent most of my adult life working around infectious diseases, including the MERS, H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks. I have never seen this level of concern and uncertainty within the medical community itself. We are worried not only for the safety of our patients, but also for the safety of our families and ourselves. This uncertainty is fueled by the fact we are dealing with a virus we know little about and a lack of testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

It is my view though, that the strongest contributing factor for the fear plaguing our nation — and our health care professionals — stems from the fact that we are relying on inconsistent and often inaccurate guidance from our leaders. This is not just a failure, but a betrayal to us all. And the ripple effects are trickling down across the country, resulting — much to the astonishment of clinicians like me — in something very much akin to gaslighting.

A few days ago, while many regions in the country were facing an unprecedented influx of patients in their hospitals, I was at our local senior center offering Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information pamphlets and answering questions about COVID-19. I stared at the dozens of elderly people, some my own patients, many with underlying chronic health issues, who were all living in close quarters and going about their normal routines. My initial thought was this is exactly the type of large gathering that absolutely should not be happening for a such a high-risk demographic. But my concerns were brushed aside by the center's administrators.

Just as alarming, however, was the attitude of the residents. While trying to hand out information sheets, the overwhelming response was blatant disregard. I heard multiple comments about coronavirus being some kind of “hoax” or “no worse than the flu.” One man even joked that he would take an information sheet — but only to use as a fire starter in his home. The dozen or so other seniors sitting close to him laughed.

In my deep red community in northern Nevada, this wasn’t so much shocking, as it was disheartening. I knew that this false confidence, based on inaccurate information, could cost some of these very people their lives. And as this realization hit me, I was overcome by sadness. I treat every patient with the same amount of care and compassion, no matter their personal political leanings. I believe in science and evidence-based medicine, two pillars of modern health care that opinion and personal political interest should have no effect on.

But then my sadness turned to anger — anger that more lives will be lost due to reckless malpractice by the persons and organizations these people relied on. Facts do matter, truth does matter, and in this case the organized and malicious disregard for the truth will not just be inconvenient, it will prove to be deadly.

Americans have grown up accustomed to believing that we are prepared for crisis in whatever form it may come. This virus has exposed a painful truth: we aren’t.

In the days since, I have come to a painful realization — these were not the only people who had exhibited a dangerous level of false confidence. Americans have grown up accustomed to believing that we can overcome all obstacles put in our path, that we are prepared for crisis in whatever form it may come. This virus has exposed a painful truth: we aren’t.

We do not know what the future holds in regard to this pandemic, but we do know with near certainty the worst is yet to come. What we on the frontlines need more than anything is the resources to protect ourselves, and adequate testing supplies to identify those who are infected. I am turning away countless patients with mild to moderate symptoms who should be tested, but per the CDC we have been instructed to save our limited tests for the severely ill and those at most risk of having poor outcomes.

At some point in the future, we can ask ourselves how the richest nation in the world succumbed to making homemade masks and using bandannas to protect our health care workers, but that time is not now. Now is the time to listen to medical experts, not pundits or even pastors. Only time will tell how deadly this pandemic will be, but one thing we know for sure: As long as regular Americans are openly rejecting the advice of health care providers as a “hoax,” our problem is going to get much worse before it gets better.