We need to bring civility back to science and the COVID debate

Divisive mud-slinging does nothing to help us work through pandemic

IT HAS BEEN a year since we learned the news of an outbreak of breakthrough COVID-19 infections in vaccinated individuals who attended Fourth of July festivities in Provincetown. For me as a physician and health care epidemiologist, that date marks a turning point in the pandemic.  

The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was a black hole of despair for those of us working in hospitals. I never allowed myself to hope that a vaccine would be available less than a year after the emergence of the virus. I certainly never thought there would be one with such high efficacy. As vaccines went into arms and cases went into a consistent and dramatic free fall across most of the US from February to July of 2021, we did not even realize that we were on a roller coaster ride. But we were. We believed the worst was behind us. Masks flew off and other restrictions were lifted more gradually. Life was good. Better than good, in fact, because we now knew just how bad it could be. Then the P-town outbreak seemingly changed everything.  

For those who might not remember the details, Provincetown hadn’t logged a single COVID-19 case during the month of June 2021. Its vaccination rate was close to perfect. On the Fourth of July, the destination town, usually boasting 3,000 residents, grows to about 60,000, with visitors from all over the world. By the time the outbreak was over, over 1,000 cases were deemed to have been related to that rainy weekend, three quarters of them in fully vaccinated individuals. The culprit: the highly contagious and somewhat immune evasive delta variant. Shortly thereafter, the CDC director regretfully announced that masks were again recommended for all, regardless of vaccination status. 

From that moment on, experts largely divided themselves into two camps: those who wanted to bring back maximal non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to drive cases back down to the low lows we had enjoyed over the two prior summers (let’s call them the “max NPI” group), and those who announced that vaccines were still doing what we wanted them to do, which is to say they prevent severe disease. This second group contended that we could now tolerate some transmission of infection in the name of normalcy and freedom from restriction (let’s call them the “vax then relax” group). And this is when the real mud-slinging divisiveness began in earnest.

The “max NPI” scientists called the “vax then relax” scientists “covidiots” or “COVID minimizers,” accusing them of being funded by right-wing organizations. The “vax then relax” folks called the “max NPI” proponents “covidians” or “unhinged,” accusing them of profiteering (either financially or by virtue of their newfound notoriety as experts) by perpetuating the perception of a state of crisis. Both groups consistently brought forward research and epidemiologic data to prove their stance was correct. Masks either clearly worked, or they definitely didn’t. Schools were either incredibly dangerous or perfectly safe. As it turns out, data, always flawed, can always be manipulated to support one’s position.  

The truth is, with few exceptions, doctors and public health professionals all have the same goal: to keep or make people well. But you wouldn’t know it to hear them smear each other on social media, in podcasts, and in blogs. Even the most reputable experts will vary in their conclusions because of the different values they bring to their work, born of diverse cultural upbringings, unique life experiences, and dissimilar personal financial and social needs.  

So how do we stop the madness and bring civility back to science? First, professional societies and academic conference organizers need to serve as models for what respectful scientific discourse looks like. Earlier this month I was invited to participate in a pro-con debate at the International Workshop on COVID-19 Vaccines. I was assigned to take the “con” position on the proposition “vaccine mandates are key to fighting COVID-19.” The two presentations and the discussion that followed were informative and utterly courteous.

This coming fall, my professional society, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, is meeting in person with plenary speakers that include New York Times columnist David Leonhardt and Brown University economist Emily Oster, two critical thinkers who have challenged the groupthink throughout the pandemic and drawn intense criticism and ire from scientists. They also happen to be brilliant explainers. They’re worthy of listening to even if you disagree with them. We need more of that. 

Second, academic institutions must be supportive of faculty who choose to publicly express opinions which may seem to go against the current narrative. After all, history teaches us that some of the most impactful scientific discoveries were made by brilliant minds (such as Galileo and Semmelweis) who were willing to challenge the dogma despite strong opposition from academia.

I have colleagues at other institutions who tell me they have been warned by their employers to stay quiet about their opinions on controversial topics like vaccine mandates or masks if they go against the grain. And it’s not just hospitals and universities silencing dissenting opinion. Researchers who depend on grant funding, especially if it comes from the National Institutes of Health, as much of the US research funding does, have told me they keep their opinions to themselves for fear of having their grant proposals rejected or losing the ones they already have. 

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Third, we all need to stop tolerating public attacks, reputation bashing, and ad hominems. I have received personal emails, comments beneath my newspaper op-eds, and social media tags from members of the general public calling me names such as “eugenicist” for my opinions on the importance of reopening schools, and “murderer” for my position in favor of vaccinating children. It’s OK. I have a thick skin. When those types of comments come from other scientists, however, it’s much harder to take. The result for many who have had this experience is an inclination to stay silent, to not express one’s true opinion, to fall in line with herd mentality and squash creative or alternative thoughts. No one wants to risk losing their academic reputation or, for that matter, their friends. That is happening, and it results in tribalism that is not good for science, not good for public health policy, and not good for humanity.  

The Provincetown outbreak was a turning point in the pandemic. Let’s now turn the tides on the rift that has formed in the scientific community and bring us back toward a unified goal of health and wellbeing for all.  

Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician, is hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center and an associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine. She has served as an unpaid advisor to both the Massachusetts education commissioner and the governor.