Infectious Disease Experts On What Frustrates Them Most During COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on in the United States, infectious disease experts continue to work tirelessly in spite of their exhaustion and frustration.

“I am running a bit on fumes, but as they say, the fumes are really thick,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told The Atlantic in July. “It’s enough to keep me going. I wish we didn’t have a lot of those [political] distractions, which I think are noise that gets in the way. But I put that aside, try not to let it bother me, and just move ahead.”

While this global health crisis has affected countries around the world, the U.S. has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, with more than 5.4 million cases and 170,000 coronavirus-related deaths at the time of publication. Countries like Italy that have largely contained their outbreaks after an initial period of crisis are returning to a semblance of normalcy, while America is lagging woefully behind.

Here’s what infectious disease experts told us is frustrating them the most at this stage of the pandemic:

People are disobeying public health guidelines, putting themselves and others at risk.

The flagrant disregard for public health guidelines is troubling, experts say. 

“One thing that got me through the early part of the pandemic was the knowledge that everyone in the nation was behind us, that they appreciated all of our hard work and that they would all do their part to minimize the impact of this terrible infection on society.

I still think that most people do get it. But watching other parts of the country, in particular, suffer such terrible losses precisely because of willfully ignorant behavior — frankly, it is just too much for me to bear, and I am angry writing about it. If everyone would just follow the rules aggressively, then this problem would come under so much better control, lives would be safe, our economy would have a fighting chance.

Some people just do not seem to care. COVID-19 is not the enemy; it’s just a stupid viral particle. Our ignorance and selfish behavior, that is the enemy. I am so embarrassed for us as a nation. I know we can do better, but many days, watching the case numbers and body counts rise, I do lose faith in us. And, for an optimist like me, that is #SAD.” — Paul S. Pottinger, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine

There are incessant attacks on the experts themselves.

“It is very frustrating that, eight months into this pandemic, we still have attacks on experts being launched by politicians and members of the media. These attacks emanate from the president and trickle down to the average person and reveal a deep-seated evasion of the role of the mind, logic and evidence in solving complex problems. It is the minds of experts that will get us through this pandemic, and to attack them, not for any fault but for their virtue, is nihilistic.” — Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security

“Not wearing a mask is an act of selfishness, not personal freedom.”

– Lee W. Riley, infectious disease expert at the University of California, Berkeley

So many people are dying preventable deaths.

“Take this pandemic seriously. We are losing nearly 1,000 Americans a day to this virus. This is unacceptable and completely avoidable. Listen to the public health experts, practice social distancing, wear your face mask or face shield correctly, wash your hands on a regular basis and after being out in public.

Be open and receptive to valid, evidence-based research from public health experts. There is a lot of research being done in the U.S. and abroad to understand the virus, its impacts on humans — including risk factors, length and severity of infection, the role of asymptomatic patients — and our immune response to infection. Don’t be complacent, speak up when you see someone taking unnecessary risks.” ― Erin Sorrell, assistant research professor in Georgetown University’s department of microbiology and immunology

Government leaders are politicizing the crisis and setting a bad example.

“Starting with the White House and the president, there is no leadership and no attempt to set a good example to follow the guidelines of public health officials and infectious disease experts. Instead, the politicians fuel the epidemic by prioritizing their political ambitions and misguided personal beliefs.

Even more frustrating is that a large proportion of Americans support these politicians. They claim to practice personal freedom and do whatever they like, not understanding the real meaning of personal freedom. True American personal freedom is based on one important consideration — one is free to do whatever one likes as long as no one else gets hurt.

Demonstrators protest coronavirus-related health guidelines outside the Michigan Capitol on April 30, 2020, without wearing masks or social distancing. 

Demonstrators protest coronavirus-related health guidelines outside the Michigan Capitol on April 30, 2020, without wearing masks or social distancing. 

Not wearing a mask can actually kill someone else, someone close, a friend, a parent, a grandparent and even a child. Not wearing a mask is an act of selfishness, not personal freedom.

Good common-sense leadership can make a difference. It is not surprising that the two countries with the worst COVID-19 epidemic are the U.S and Brazil —two countries with leaders who share one thing in common — their personal ambition at the sacrifice of the health of their people.” ― Lee W. Riley, professor and head of the infectious diseases and vaccinology division at the University of California, Berkeley

There’s too much distrust around vaccines.

“Vaccine hesitancy and institutionalized racism will further hamper our ability to control the pandemic if not adequately addressed now. Despite their proven efficacy, vaccine hesitancy for routine childhood immunizations is already an issue in the U.S. Annual vaccinations for influenza hover around 60%.

Moreover, given the historical mistrust of the medical institution — e.g., Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment — amongst Black communities, I worry that vaccine uptake for a new COVID-19 vaccine will be even lower, and possibly not reach those who are most vulnerable, including persons of color. Gaps in vaccination coverage of these preventable illnesses could result in additional infectious disease outbreaks layered on top of this existing pandemic.” — Amanda Castel, professor of epidemiology at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.

“I know we can do better, but many days, watching the case numbers and body counts rise, I do lose faith in us.”

– Paul S. Pottinger, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine

There are huge delays in turnaround for test results.

“The inability to rapidly scale-up testing has crippled our ability to respond to the pandemic in a timely fashion. Testing is fundamental to our ability to rapidly identify persons infected with COVID-19, allow them to self-isolate and halt the spread of the virus.

With week-long delays between testing and receiving results, individuals often are not effectively quarantined while awaiting their test results, leading to increased viral transmission. We need to have rapid tests that are highly sensitive, easily accessible and administered, and provide results in minutes ― not weeks. Without this diagnostic capability, we will continue to see uncontrolled community spread of the virus.” ― Castel

People are not taking care of their health in other ways.

“The collateral damage of the fear of COVID-19 is having huge implications on people’s health. I see patients every day who have gotten much sicker because they were avoiding the doctor’s office and not communicating with their health care providers during the height of the pandemic. Right now, the doctor’s office is one of the safest places you can go because there are so many measures in place to reduce the risk of spread of this virus. If you’re comfortable going to the grocery store, you should feel comfortable going to the doctor.

Chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes are not going away because there is a pandemic, and they cause further damage to your body when they are not being adequately treated. It’s not just chronic conditions that I am concerned with, though. Everyone, even healthy people, should do all they can to stay healthy right now, and that includes getting your flu shot and staying up to date on your vaccines. If you avoid preventive care, you could find yourself in a much worse situation down the road.” — Sandra Kesh, infectious disease expert and deputy medical director at Westmed Medical Group

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.