A friend called last week to tell me about a doctor with a big Facebook following. Her concern? This doctor, Steven Hotze, MD, popular for his Houston-based wellness clinic, his books, and his many media appearances, says that people should not worry about COVID-19 because it’s no worse than the flu.
Here’s an excerpt from a March 25 Facebook post, which as of Wednesday garnered 653 likes and 433 shares:
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” This is the message about the coronavirus COVID-19 that the Chicken Little wannabes, the government health care bureaucrats, Fake News media, conventional doctors and politicians, are frantically broadcasting to the gullible public.
You get the idea. Many will write this man off simply because of the hyperpartisan language he uses to capture his audience. However, those who are drawn in may read on and be impressed by the facts, figures, and references that Hotze wields as he makes his argument.
(I expect that few will read the entire post as it logs in at 5,000-plus words – more than five times longer than this blog post.)
Hotze compares COVID-19 cases to the flu, citing statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
Compare these 33,404 presumed cases of coronavirus to the CDC’s estimates that there have been upwards of 54,000,000 cases of the flu in the U.S between October 1, 2019 – March 14, 2020.
Further, he complains about government-recommended public health measures:
We have never had wholesale closure of businesses and schools, and cancellations of events because of the annual flu…
These claims are factually true and terribly misleading at the same time. For one thing, Hotze cites the number of documented COVID-19 cases – which as of Wednesday stood at 397,000. The actual number of people with the coronavirus is believe to be much higher, but we can’t know the number for sure because of scant testing.
Further, the flu season is winding down while coronavirus cases continue to climb. I don’t think any public health expert believes the numbers of COVID-19 cases won’t continue to rise. Hotze also fails to mention that the coronavirus spreads more easily than the flu and is far more likely to result in hospitalizations and deaths. As a result, as we’re now seeing that COVID-19, unlike the flu, has the ability to overwhelm our health care system.
And we don’t engage in extreme social distancing measures with the flu because we have a vaccine and enough hospital beds to care for those who get seriously ill. (Public health experts do ask students and workers to stay home if they have symptoms of illness.)
Still, the references, statistics, and sheer length of the post give it an air of authority. My friend is rightly concerned that some readers will find Hotze to be credible because he’s a licensed medical doctor. In the tsunami of news and Facebook posts on how to protect yourself and your loved ones from COVID-19, we are told to beware bad information. We are told to rely on reliable sources, such as the CDC and the World Health Organization. We are told to make sure we are listening to doctors and public health officials.
And yet, here’s a doctor, citing statistics from a trusted institution, who is saying the coronavirus threat is no big deal.
All this might be less concerning if Hotze wasn’t helping to orchestrate a court challenge to a stay-at-home order by the Harris County executive.
Hotze is seeking to benefit from coronavirus fear as well. In his Facebook post entitled, “How we should live in a world with the coronavirus,” he recommends a vitamin and probiotic regimen to help you “strengthen your immune system and increase your energy level.” And guess what? You can order it directly from his website, at a cost of $ 125 for a 30-day supply.
“It sure seems like grifters are going to grift regardless of how incredibly distasteful that might be given the situation,” says Yoni Freedhoff, MD, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottowa who was a contributor to HealthNewsReview.org.
Indeed, Hotze is not the only doctor exploiting the crisis. Several news organizations including The New York Times have chronicled the deceptive practices of Vladimir Zelenko, MD, a family doctor who has downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and is treating patients with an unproven three-drug cocktail that includes hydroxychloroquine, the antimalarial drug that has been hyped by right-wing media and President Trump.
Then there’s Mehmet Oz, MD, who has appeared numerous times on Fox News shows in recent weeks mischaracterizing the evidence for that same drug. The Times’ Frank Bruni pointed out in an op-ed that Oz is “not a virologist. Not an epidemiologist. His actual specialty — cardiothoracic surgery — isn’t the most immediately relevant to the coronavirus. But his real specialty is using medicine as a means to maximum public exposure.”
These three MDs may be just the tip of the iceberg. A chilling thought.
They are playing into Trump’s false narratives about the pandemic.
“We want simple solutions to complex problems,” Freedhoff says, perhaps even moreso when the stakes are so high. “And as a consequence of that, some people are taking advantage by suggesting there are simple solutions to these complex problems.”
So what’s a desperate public to do? Beware these red flags: partisan and hyperbolic language and hawking of unproven treatments that seem too good to be true. Seek solid advice from longtime public health institutions: the CDC and the World Health Organization. Understand that because this disease is novel, information is rapidly changing and often tenuous – uncertainties that can be exploited for fame and fortune.