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During the weekend of March 7 and 8, when documented U.S. COVID-19 cases numbered not even in the hundreds, much less the hundreds of thousands, SiriusXM Satellite Radio promoted Doctor Radio, an entire channel dedicated to discussing the coronavirus. On that weekend, Dr. Marc Siegel of the NYU Langone Medical Center was the dominant voice on the channel, of which he is the medical director, and the talk was about how viruses work, how viruses spread, and what the public could do. No facts were misstated, and the question in the air was, how much should people worry? The answer was, in summary, “a bit.” Siegel enthusiastically agreed with Paul A. Offit, a professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who said of the novel coronavirus: “People are treating this like it’s a viral apocalypse, and I don’t see it. I don’t understand.”
I was never blasé about the virus, but after listening to Doctor Radio for a few hours that weekend, I felt reassured. I figured that these were highly credentialed medical experts, and I was impressed by their titles and affiliations. But out of curiosity, and wondering if I could book Siegel for The Gist, I researched him a little and learned more about his background.
Siegel, who has contributed to Slate, is a Fox News contributor. He frequently appears on Fox & Friends and Tucker Carlson Tonight. He has written three books about pandemics, all of which reach the same broad conclusion: Americans are overly concerned with the ill effects of pandemics, and the fear of viruses is often worse than the viruses themselves.
In 2005, Siegel wrote False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear—you can see that book propped up over his shoulder when he does remote appearances on Fox News. In it he writes: “One reason for the potential panic out of proportion to the risk is that it is almost impossible to predict when this pandemic might occur. The event occurs only about once in fifty years, but the more we see it discussed in the media, the more we personalize the uncertainty, convincing ourselves irrationally that every year will be the year.” He wrote 2006’s Bird Flu “out of my concern with which the ease such potent doses of bird flu jargon can cause public alarms to be sounded.” In his 2009 book, Swine Flu, Siegel emphasized the importance of “learning to understand why the likelihood of the worst case coming to pass is awfully low.”
On March 4, Siegel appeared on former Trump administration official Sebastian Gorka’s radio program, in which he praised the president’s handling of the burgeoning crisis but singled out Nancy Messonnier, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, for criticism. Siegel said: “The messaging with the exception of one slip by Nancy Messonnier who said this is going to disrupt your community and mine—the ‘if but when’ sentence—has been very strong. It’s the politicization that is building the fear. The hysteria is coming from trying to knock the president and his team.”
Reading Siegel’s extensive writing on past pandemics, a picture emerges of an analyst who has poured so many professional and reputational resources into proving how often we overreact to potential pandemics that he quite dangerously underreacted to an actual pandemic. (Slate reached out to Siegel for comment multiple times but has not heard back.)
On Feb. 20, Siegel went on Fox Business and Lou Dobbs asked, “So are you impressed by the number of Americans who’ve got that much confidence in the Trump administration?” Siegel replied, “Absolutely, Lou. I think that the task force that the president put together and his leadership on this has been tremendous.”
As the virus spread, Siegel doubled down on his positive review of the White House’s handling of the virus and its messaging on the risk of the pandemic.
Messonnier was proved right, in contrast to Siegel, who ended the interview with the words “Stop rushing to the worst-case scenario. We’re not going to get there.”
In my own life, it was becoming clear during the second week of March that I was going to have to make a decision about whether my son should continue to go to public school, since New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was lagging behind the decisions made by other, less affected cities. In the “keep them going” camp was a March 10 op-ed in the New York Times and that initial Doctor Radio coverage led by Siegel. The programming I heard on SiriusXM radio back in early March had established itself in my mind as the sensible, nonhysterical, board-certified argument. And yet so much of the medical establishment was challenging this view of the virus being more hype than harm.
A March 14 Siegel segment with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro convinced me that I had to take the virus much more seriously than even an associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center was taking it.
Pirro read a viewer question asking: “We have been told that the upcoming warm weather in the the U.S. will kill the virus as [it] can’t take warm weather, warm temperatures. So why is it spreading now in tropical areas where it’s hot every day and every night?”
First of all, it is not spreading in places like Africa right now. South America, there’s not a lot of cases. There isn’t a lot of cases in Australia right now. There’s about 200. We’re seeing it mostly in areas where it’s not their summer right now, but to answer his question, high humidity and heat and a lot of ultraviolet light are conditions that most viruses, respiratory viruses, most, including coronaviruses, do not do well in. So we’re hoping for a seasonal change here when we get to the warmer weather.
Four weeks later, even amid inadequate testing, Brazil has registered more than 22,000 cases and more than 1,200 deaths, Australia has more than 6,000 cases, and tropical countries like Malaysia and the Philippines are each nearing 5,000 cases. There are more than 14,000 cases on the African continent.
Pirro asked a second question: “Is it OK to have family visit my 73-year-old healthy mom at her home?” Siegel replied: “I would say so. Provided that they’re careful, and that they’re not sick, and that they do the kind of social distancing we’re talking about here.”
Pirro followed up: “Can they hug Grandma?” To which Siegel responded: “Well, let’s do an elbow bump with grandma. But sure. I mean, the point is, let’s not go completely overboard. You get to see Grandma, if she’s healthy, she doesn’t have emphysema. she’s healthy, you’re healthy, you don’t go there sick, you don’t cough on her.”
This is not in alignment with the best practices expressed by most experts, and it contradicts the advice issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Finally, when Pirro asked if it was safe to go to the gym, Siegel said it was fine, adding, “I’m still going to the gym.”
By this point, I had stopped going to the gym. Reading the guidance from medical experts, I had concluded that the gym was an unnecessary risk. In fact, the next day the mayors of New York and Los Angeles issued an order to shut down gyms (although de Blasio did infamously sneak in one last workout).
On March 25, in a segment of Bill Hemmer Reports described in its web write-up as “Dr. Siegel calls out mathematical modeling of coronavirus spread,” Siegel said, “Maybe, just maybe, we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel”
On that day there were a little more than 80,000 confirmed cases in the United States. Now there are almost 560,000.
Siegel has consistently been the media-facing medical expert least worried about stopping community spread and most concerned with economic considerations. His recommendations about masks, gloves, and distancing have lagged behind those of other experts and the CDC. He treated panic as if it were the pandemic and the pandemic as if it were a false sense of panic. As recently as April 6, he advised Fox & Friends, “The general public can get adequate protection by washing their hands, by changing their clothes, by taking hot showers, by using … masks if they are in close confines with other people.”
It is one thing for Fox News to employ, and occasionally part ways with, talk show hosts whose job it is to filter reality through a pro-Trump lens for their audience. That may be journalistic malpractice, but there is no licensing board for journalists. Physicians, on the other hand, must maintain membership in professional organizations, adhere to ethical standards, and take oaths. To offer a view of reality that so often departs from the best advice offered by the most informed experts in the field of medicine is worse than careless punditry, Trumpist doctrine, or the kind of gonzo performance art misinformation that Fox is often known for. To aggressively defend President Donald Trump’s agenda and worldview in the field of right-wing punditry earns the speaker points and cachet. In the field of medicine, it’s a dangerous dereliction of professional duty, a harmful contradiction to the very notion of public health.
For more from Mike Pesca, listen to The Gist.