“I’m An Epidemiologist And…”: A Public Health Professional’s Response to Coronavirus Influencers
One of the benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that people no longer ask me if I work with skin and seem to actually know that epidemiology is the study of diseases. But does that mean they really understand what an epidemiologist is? No. Now it’s just understood that epidemiologists are experts and should be referred to during these times. It also appears that everyone thinks they can just casually become an epidemiologist by looking at a graph or throwing some numbers into Excel — and this, this is what is driving epidemiologists, virologists, physicians, and public health professionals mad.
What is an epidemiologist?
An epidemiologist is a public health professional that studies the patterns, trends, and causes of disease and injury in (mostly) humans. There are a wide range of what they focus on, ranging from infectious disease to chronic disease to social behaviors to policies to natural disasters to environmental health and so on. The overall focus is on what impacts people, causes poor health, and human rights.
How does epidemiology work?
One of the downfalls of this profession is that a lot of times we have to sit around and wait. Studying diseases and how they work is not easily done as a disease is ripping across the world. It’s difficult to know how something works the minute you become aware of it and takes time to figure out how to address it — it’s kind of like a large jigsaw puzzle and it takes time to put all the pieces together.
You’ve probably seen many different graphs and charts or read different tweets and instagram posts, all saying slightly different things, making different predictions and ultimately showing how grossly underprepared we were for COVID-19. One of the biggest issues is that many of these things were made by people that do not work in health and are not qualified sources of information.
I, like many other epidemiologists, have kept relatively quiet during the early months of the pandemic because I understand that we cannot responsibly make all these claims without more data. I’ve spent the last few months reading news and preparing to be able to answer questions or defer to those that are more qualified (based on question) — but something else came up that I was unprepared for: influencers.
Coronavirus influencers have flooded social media — tech bros are out here applying ML concepts to things that they shouldn’t be applied to, health bloggers are making ridiculous claims on how to make DIY health and protective items, hell, even the US President is out here spreading misinformation and invoking panic purchasing. All in attempt to answer questions to assuage our fears, because let’s face it, being uncertain and not knowing what is happening is scary. But that doesn’t mean we need to be filling the empty space with misinformation!
“You want to get the message out as fast as possible and correct it if it’s wrong,” he said. “You make decisions first and then you correct later.”
Let’s discuss why this is problematic. How many of you notice corrections in the newspaper? They happen all the time. Articles get retracted, journalist print corrections, and professionals get discredited — but who notices those things? Because I definitely don’t and I spend most of my time reading research papers where you’d think I am watching out for amendments or retractions.
Many people will read the first bit of information they’re provided with and go on to spread that information, widely across various platforms, and soon people see one thing and believe that’s true. The age of misinformation is extremely dangerous and is even more so during times where people’s lives are in each other’s hands.
So then what should we do?
Turn to public health professionals, health professionals, and other scientists and educators that work with these types of issues. These people spend years studying and working to understand how diseases work and how they impact human life.
Be patient! It’s okay to not have all the answers right away. We accept this in other aspects of our lives, we can learn to accept that in these times too. It is better to get accurate information than to constantly fill our minds with incorrect information — the type that leads to panic buying and hoarding.
Look at your sources. Are you getting your news from reliable sources like the CDC? WHO? Scientists that work in the field? Or are you getting it from a random celebrity on Instagram? A fitness blogger? Some guy that works in Silicon Valley but doesn’t work in the health sector? There are plenty of sources outside of the CDC and WHO that are reliable, you just have to make sure that they are qualified to be discussing these topics. (And Twitter just started rolling out verification for prominent epidemiologists!)
Want to chat?
Come chat with me and my podcast (Global Caveat) co-host, Susanna Park, on Tuesdays at 8pm EST and Thursdays at 1pm EST on Instagram LIVE. Throughout these confusing times, we will be hosting chats discussing different topics (like mental health, discrimination, and equality) and having sessions where you can ask us anything and talk through your thoughts.
Please check back for more! I will be writing pieces throughout these uncertain times.
Note: I am not an infectious disease epidemiologist. I am a social epidemiologist and an educator that works with global health, health behaviors, health policy, chronic disease, sexual and reproductive health, and digital health. I received my MPH in Epidemiology from NYU College of Global Public Health and have worked in health/medical sciences since 2011. Additionally, I hold degrees and certifications in biomedical engineering, physical therapy, computer science, and medical/human subject-based research.