A San Francisco television station’s story about an “endemic” phase to the COVID-19 pandemic alarmed disability experts and advocates.
The story, aired by KGO-TV on May 22 2023, features Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and specialist in infectious diseases at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF).
According to the station’s story:
Dr. Chin-Hong believes COVID is becoming predictable thanks to the amount of immunity in society as well as tools like treatment and vaccines.
On top of this, he thinks yearly vaccines may only be needed by the most vulnerable and people over 65.
“We as a society have to be prepared for as much as 100,000 to 250,000 people a year dying of those vulnerable groups,” Dr. Chin-Hong said. “But, in general for your average person, it will probably fizzle out.”
Laura Mauldin, an associate professor and disabilities studies scholar at the University of Connecticut, said that these types of comments contain a particularly insidious type of ableism.
“That’s a comment that lets people believe, or rely on the lie, that disability is atypical or rare when in fact it’s normal; it’s a natural part of life” she said.
She cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that were reported in The Atlantic in April 2023:
One in four Americans has a disability; one in 10 has diabetes; two in five have at least two chronic diseases. In a society where health issues are treated with intense privacy, these prevalence statistics, like the one-in-10 figure for long COVID, might also intuitively feel like overestimates.
“What [Dr. Chin-Hong’s] kind of statement does that says, ‘It’s only gonna be a problem for these vulnerable people,’ it implies that a) those people are acceptable losses and b) it implies that that’s not ‘us,'” Mauldin said. “It’s some imagined Other, as though it is not each of us or someone that we love.”
We reached out to UCSF to ask if Dr. Chin-Hong could clarify his remark; a spokesperson for the university responded by saying:
He said that most people, including those who are immunocompromised and elderly, are very well protected now with the tools we have. The main reason we will have deaths is because folks at risk ([greater than] 65 and IC) are not using the vaccine and/or Paxlovid.
Matthew Cortland, a senior fellow with the advocacy group Data For Progress, called this response “eugenicist victim blaming.”
“To blame immunocompromised and older Americans for the mass death decimating our communities is the vilest sort of Orwellian doublespeak imaginable,” Cortland told us. “The truth is, immunocompromised Americans are less safe now than we were a year ago.”
Cortland noted that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has specific guidelines for prescribing Paxlovid. The medication is also not approved for post-exposure prophylaxis use — which means it may not be taken for the period immediately following a possible infection; the FDA also withdrew authorization in January 2023 for Evusheld to be used in treatment, citing its lack of effectiveness in dealing with more recent COVID-19 variants. At that point, it was the only non-vaccine medication eligible for use by immunocompromised patients.
Both Cortland and Mauldin pointed to increasing and augmenting indoor ventilation and air filtration as ways to lower the spread of the virus.
“Likely voters support things like clean indoor air improvements, like clean indoor air mitigation — they support that,” Cortland said. “[Dr. Chin-Hong’s] premise is also false. He is setting up this lie in which there is nothing that we can do to prevent disabled, immunocompromised and elderly Americans from dying.”
When asked about the issues involving Evusheld and Paxlovid, UCSF replied with a separate statement:
Dr. Chin-Hong’s point is not to dismiss those at risk of risk of death due to COVID, but to reinforce what he has always said: staying up to date on vaccines provides ample support for the most vulnerable. Older people and the vast majority of those who are immuno-compromised respond extremely well to vaccines. For those patients who are unprotected by vaccines, a next-generation monoclonal antibody is being developed that will replace Evusheld.
He is concerned that not enough clinicians are prescribing Paxlovid and that those who have COVID are not testing and thus not receiving Paxlovid or remdesivir.
English news organization The Guardian reported on concerns over underprescription of Paxlovid in July 2022. “I think some clinicians have unfortunately written off Paxlovid as not a good option for patients who would very much benefit from it based on what is a misperception that it doesn’t work or doesn’t do a good job,” said epidemiology professor Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo of Brown University at the time. “I just worry that we are robbing people of an important tool.”
Dustin Dorsey, who reported KGO’s story, promoted it on Twitter, saying, “Some of the best news I’ve heard about COVID in a long time. I know a lot of people have thought this for awhile, but it means a bit more when I hear it from Dr. @PCH_SF. We’re finally out of the thick of it. Thank goodness!”
The story has already been republished on MSN and Yahoo News. But the idea that “the thick” of the pandemic might be over was discouraged in a May 23 2023 Bloomberg News report, which said that even as public health emergency declarations wane, COVID-19 is still killing “at least one person every four minutes.”
Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri, said that even if “the greatest desire in the world” is to put the disease out of mind, Americans cannot put their heads in the sand.
“Covid still infects and kills a lot of people. We have the means to reduce that burden,” Al-Aly said.
We contacted both Dorsey and KGO seeking further comment about the story. Neither has responded, but Dorsey deleted his tweet promoting the piece.