5. Government officials need to trust and believe in science—and communicate that science clearly to the public.
The human tendency to try to make sense of chaos in a crisis gave COVID-19 conspiracy theories an enduring stronghold. Perhaps the most pervasive myth of all was that hydroxychloroquine sulfate (HCQ), which is used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, could be a miracle cure for COVID-19.
The belief that HCQ could treat and even prevent COVID-19 spread like wildfire among Americans thanks to mixed messaging from leadership including former president Trump himself—who said last May that he was taking the drug preemptively to avoid getting COVID-19. At the height of the hype, many Americans were reportedly self-medicating with a combination of HCQ and the antibiotic azithromycin in an attempt to prevent infection, resulting in multiple deaths and hospitalizations. Like any drug, HCQ has risks, especially if it’s not taken under the supervision of a doctor: It can block how electricity is conducted in the heart, leading to sedation, coma, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, and cardiac arrest.
At first, there were certainly reasons to be hopeful about HCQ. “Many places were touting HCQ because data from experiments in the lab suggested it could serve a dual purpose of dampening the immune response and working against the virus,” says Dr. Kim. With a lack of data and treatment options, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration granted emergency-use authorization (EUA) of chloroquine phosphate and HCQ last March to treat hospitalized COVID-19 patients when involving them in a clinical study isn’t feasible. By June the EUA was revoked when data showed the drug was not only ineffective but could lead to serious heart-rhythm problems. But that didn’t stop some politicians and even health officials from continuing to guarantee that HCQ was an effective COVID-19 treatment.
“We know what works in the lab doesn’t always work in people,” Dr. Kim says. Even doctors struggle to make treatment decisions during a pandemic—which is why caution and consistency in public health communication are critical.
Dr. Kim, who was also a member of the NIH’s COVID-19 Treatment Guidelines Panel, led a group of epidemiologists, infectious disease physicians, cardiologists, neurologists, hepatologists, oncologists, and rheumatologists from Mass General in regular meetings to analyze a dizzying flood of information on COVID-19, then create, update, and post the hospital’s treatment guidelines online. “There’s a firehose of information, with hundreds of papers coming out every day. We were just trying to make sense of it all,” he says.
Across the country, Dr. Kim says, other hospitals have similar procedures to share and learn from their peers. This communication and collaboration helped experts to come up with methodologies that have truly improved how we manage the virus. “A silver lining has emerged of interdisciplinary cooperation and forging of local, regional, national, and international relationships that I hope will be built on after COVID-19 and prepare us for the next pandemic,” says Dr. Kim.
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