The herd that wasn’t Beware of COVID misinformation

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By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

First clue: Victor Davis Hanson is not a scientist. On March 31, the National Review published a column by Victor Davis Hanson entitled “Coronavirus: The California Herd.” In the article, Hanson theorizes that California, the “bluest of states” is not seeing public health officials’ dire death toll predictions become reality because of one possible thing: California residents already have “herd immunity.” In spite of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s prediction that half of the state could eventually be infected — a whopping 25 million people — here we were, on March 31, and California “only” had 8,155 cases of coronavirus, after registering its first infection on Jan. 26.

By contrast, New York registered its first case on March 1, but by March 31 it had 75,795 confirmed COVID cases and 1,550 deaths.

Surely, there is something going on in California, and Hanson sounded confident he had figured it out. Remember the “bad” flu season we had last year? Well, what if that “bad flu” was not flu at all, but COVID? Given the state’s “unprecedented air access to China” it could be possible that Californians were exposed to the virus early on and developed immunity to it. Sounds plausible. Anything that promotes openness at a time when we are shutting down is a welcome respite. At a time when some of our esteemed leaders were referring to coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” anything that would cast Chinese presence on our soil in a positive light would be fantastic, another reason to celebrate inclusion and openness.

Second clue: Hanson is a military historian.

Hanson, the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution — and a 1975 graduate of UC Santa Cruz, according to his bio — specializes in military history. He has penned several books on the topic, notably “The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny” (a salute to ancient Greek general Epaminondas, Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, and George S. Patton), “The Savior Generals: How Five Great Commanders Saved Wars That Were Lost — From Ancient Greece to Iraq,” and “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won.”

Hanson is also a frequent Fox News contributor and, as unabashed defender of President Donald Trump, he also authored “The Case for Trump,” described as “the true story of how Donald Trump has become one of the most successful presidents in history — and why America needs him now more than ever.”

So, how does a military historian become an expert on pandemics? Not sure, but a few days after Hanson’s opinion piece ran in the National Review, KSBW interviewed him so he could explain a study being coordinated by Stanford Medicine. The study is analyzing blood samples drawn from 3,200 individuals on April 3 and 4 to give scientists a clue of how many people in Santa Clara County may have already been infected without realizing it. The Mercury News ran a story about the study here. 

The KSBW piece went viral. It was posted on Michael Savage’s website, and it was re-quoted in other outlets such as the Sacramento Bee, the Patch, Red State,, and who knows how many other news outlets. The idea that Californians — and perhaps others — had already been exposed to the virus is appealing on so many levels. If that were the case, it would mean that Californians have already survived the nasty creature without having to shut down schools or seeing a scary medical curve the size of a camel’s hump. It would mean that we could all return to life as we knew it before March and we would all be okay.

Enter Jane C. Hu, science journalist who lives in Seattle and writes about science, technology and the outdoors. Hu has been writing about COVID-19 and its effects on society for the last month, and she must have smelled something funny about that story because she did what no other reporter dared do. She actually called Stanford scientists to get an explanation about their study, and quoted several other experts from different universities in the world in the piece she wrote titled “No, you did not get COVID-19 in the Fall of 2019.” 

“As a science journalist, I’ve been closely following the spread of coronavirus, and I knew that geneticists had strong evidence it arrived in January/February, so I was surprised to see that an institution like Stanford was backing this fall 2019 theory,” Hu wrote to me in a private message. “I wasn’t familiar with Victor Davis Hanson (and) when I saw this theory attributed to him, I decided to check out his work.”

Third clue: Conservative America is itching to “open” the country.

It’s not a secret that certain segments of our population — read: conservatives — have been reluctant to adopt “shelter-in-place” as the only way we have right now to control the virus. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was taken to task in social media for insinuating that old people should be willing to sacrifice themselves to protect the country. Fox news host Steven Hilton warned that the cure — shutting down the economy — would be killing “the patient,” meaning the U.S. economy – a phrase that President Trump has been eager to repeat. Even liberals went the “shelter-in-place” route reluctantly. Gov. Gavin Newsom, widely praised for enacting the first statewide lockdown in the United States, did so a few days after seven Bay Area counties led the way. Gov. Cuomo ordered New Yorkers to stay home a day later.

Understandably so: with less than a month of being “shut down,” unemployment in the U.S. is already reaching Great Depression levels. In the week ending March 21, 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment for the first time. The following week, an additional 6.6 million workers filed for first-time unemployment benefits. Experts agree unemployment will continue to climb in the weeks to follow, as the effects of coronavirus continue to spread not just nationally, but throughout the world. With so much economic uncertainty, wanting to return to our previous normal is not only understandable, but expected.

But it would be a big mistake. Going back to the normal way we did business before SIP could risk the population to higher rates of infection, which would mean straining our local health care system. That, experts believe, would also hamper economic recovery in the long run. We are lucky to see the curve has flattened in California, so we may be able to return to our routines in the next few weeks, but who knows? We’re all going to be jittery for a long time to come.

The moral of the story: check your sources. “Fake news” is getting very sophisticated these days, and all it takes now is to have an overworked, underpaid, rushed reporter jump to conclusions and reach out to an overeager media personality to create an incorrect narrative. KSBW created a story that sounded appealing; and overworked reporters all over the country — and some conservative outlets — rushed to conclusions supporting a story they found appealing. See? No need to close down California: residents have been immune to the virus all along. That’s why their curve is so flat. So let’s get back to work!

This may just be the beginning. After the pandemic is over, there will be a big rush to return to “normal”, with much effort being put by those to profit the most, which will make us all vulnerable. As Julio Vincent Gambuto put it in this piece, “The need for comfort will be real, and it will be strong. And every brand in America will come to your rescue, dear consumer, to help take away that darkness and get life back to the way it was before the crisis. I urge you to be well aware of what is coming.”

So be aware, vigilant, and questioning. Don’t fall for any crazy theory floating out there, including this one. You see, I’m not a scientist either.

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.