Medical Examiner

I Hate to Defend Dr. Oz, But …

Dr. Oz folds his hands while speaking to an audience.
Here is Dr. Oz walking the runway at a fashion show. Fun! Rob Kim/Getty Images

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When Dr. Oz went on Fox news Thursday morning, he seemed to be awfully dismissive about the lives of America’s children.

Vox journalist Aaron Rupar tweeted the clip, with a wide-eyed emoji:

For those of you who quite reasonably do not care to hear the voice of Dr. Oz, here is what he actually said:

We need our mojo back. Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity. I just saw a nice piece in the Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2–3 percent in terms of total mortality. Any life is a life lost, but to get every child back into a school where they’re safely being educated, being fed, and making the most out of their lives … it might be a trade-off some folks would consider.

How concerning this is depends on what “total mortality” refers to. At least a few people interpreted Dr. Oz’s statements as “2–3 percent of the children and school staff die.” Podcast host Fernand R. Amandi did the math: With 56 million school kids in the States, that’s up to 1.7 million dead children. Imani Gandy of Rewire.News called his comments “ghoulish,” saying that “he should be stripped of his fucking license.”

Look, I do not think that Dr. Oz should be giving medical advice on television, period—much less making rounds on network television to pontificate on how we will exit the widest-spread public health crisis of our lifetimes thus far. If Oz has expertise at anything medical, it is as a heart surgeon, not an epidemiologist. As a science communicator, he fails on every front except getting people to listen to him. For a quick example: He has routinely encouraged viewers to buy supplements made from “miracle flowers” “to bust your body fat for good.”

But on the schools thing … he’s not entirely wrong here. Or at least, he’s not advocating throwing our nation’s youth to the novel coronavirus.

Let’s take a look at what the Lancet paper that Oz referenced on air actually says, as a couple journalists suggested people slow down and do:

Recent modelling studies of COVID-19 predict that school closures alone would prevent only 2–4% of deaths, much less than other social distancing interventions. Policy makers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures for COVID-19, and that combinations of social distancing measures should be considered.

First, it’s clear that the paper is not arguing that closing schools prevents a specific fraction of children from dying but a fraction of overall deaths from the coronavirus, as MarketWatch has also pointed out. Taking the White House’s projections from last month of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths even with social distancing measures, let’s assume that we’d add on 4 percent on top of that upper bound. (Yes, quibbling over 4 percent on an estimate that itself varies by more than 200 percent is deranged, but bear with me!) Oz seems to be suggesting school closures in exchange for about 10,000 deaths, nowhere near 1 million, and not of children, who rarely die from the virus but could nonetheless be carriers.

It’s also true that opening up schools comes with a slew of benefits: Parents who perform essential jobs have a source of child care, kids who rely on free lunch programs get to eat, and kids who are at risk of not getting an education get to be back in school. You can argue that’s still not a worthwhile hypothetical trade-off, you could even argue that it’s a terrible one. But you can’t argue Oz is a kid killer or that saying this “might be a trade-off some folks would consider,” emphasis mine, is morally bankrupt. (OK, yes, he also called schools a “very appetizing opportunity” and that is a gross way to put it.)

But Oz did make one major mistake here: He fails to mention that we actually do not know really what opening up schools would do. The Lancet paper was a review of other studies, and the authors themselves acknowledge that the quality of the evidence it draws on is rather poor. None of the included studies that are directly about the novel coronavirus are peer-reviewed. All the published data that authors looked at had to do with SARS, which is another kind of coronavirus but one that quite obviously played out fundamentally differently. “We identified a remarkable dearth of policy-relevant data on the implementation of school social distancing during coronavirus outbreaks,” the authors write. Their paper isn’t really a starting point for policy—it’s a starting point for more science. More data might come, for example, from antibody testing, which, as journalist Gretchen Vogel notes in Science, could help us figure out how likely kids are to carry the virus and therefore how strictly they should keep up social distancing measures.

We are going to have to make a lot of calculations in the coming months that are ghoulish, even the ones that are also morally correct. By closing the country and costing so many people their livelihoods, we already have. Oz’s real mistake here wasn’t sort of suggesting that we should send kids to die. It was a mistake he makes often: confidently selling us an idea that isn’t exactly backed by science.

For more on the impact of COVID-19, listen to Thursday’s What Next.