Anecdotal, Preliminary, Trending, and Incomplete

by: Jack Johnson, Destinations International

This is where we are.  And it is an uncomfortable place to be.

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When I was in high school, I had a chemistry teacher named Mr. Brillhart who taught me a fair amount about chemistry and a whole lot more about how to think. One of the things I remember learning from him was that all the ideas we have, all the knowledge and the like - everything we know, falls into three main buckets. The first bucket, and probably the smallest bucket, was everything we know to be true. The second bucket, a larger one, was everything we know to be false. And the third one, perhaps the largest bucket of all, was everything we have not yet proved false. A lot of these clearly fall into the I don’t know category, and many of these are probably assumed to be false, but most of them are things that we too often classify as true when in reality, they are just a theory, an idea that makes sense, answers questions, and explains things, but still are, in reality, just things not proved false.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been asked to follow the science. And I agree with that approach. It is the most rational and safest approach to take. But it is also important to remember that almost everything we “know” about the coronavirus and how to respond to it falls into that last bucket. They are things that we think are true, things that we think are important, things that we think are probably correct, but in reality, they are only ideas that we have not yet proved false. They are based on anecdotal information, preliminary results, trending data lines and evidence that is incomplete. And what we know is constantly evolving as new information comes in.

What we do know is that the coronavirus can make you mildly sick. Or it can make you very sick. Or it can kill you. It can also be asymptomatic. Those are true.  Who falls in each of those categories? We have ideas, but a lot of that is stuff we haven’t proved false, not necessarily true.  One exception, people with immune deficiencies are candidates for the worst results. If that is not true it is pretty darn close.

We also know that while it is easy to kill the virus when it is hanging out on the surface of something like a door handle, a countertop, or a hand (70% plus alcohol cleaner will do the job!), the virus likes to travel through the air. So, while it is important to keep washing those hands and wiping down surfaces, that will only get you so far.

We know the virus spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and very small particles that contain the virus. These droplets and particles can be breathed in by other people or land on their eyes, noses, or mouth. In some circumstances, they may contaminate surfaces they touch. We know masks help prevent the spread of infection.  The better the mask, the better the results.  Mouth and nose coverings are very effective in helping you not transmit the virus to others. Coverings of the mouth, nose, and eyes are effective in helping you not become infected with virus. That said, only 100% coverage, 100% of the time achieves 100% no contagious results. The rest is just varying degrees of increased safety.

Another thing we know to be true is that the virus mutates.  The more it spreads the more opportunities it has to mutate. It was a theory in the beginning, but now we know it is true. Some mutations are minor.  Some hurt the virus. But some make it worse for us. New variants of the virus are rapidly spreading. These coronavirus variants need to be studied, because they may be more transmissible, may cause more severe disease, or may reduce the efficacy of current vaccines. That is a theory in most cases. Here are some variants that we have or possibly have coming our way.

  • Delta - Preliminary information suggests that Delta is up to 115% more transmissible. It is still unknown if it causes more severe disease. Preliminary data suggests that vaccines are still effective in reducing the severity of the virus in most people.  The one thing we know is true is that it can reinfect people who already had COVID or infect those who have had the vaccine (I have two cases of that in my own family). Illness can occur.  Death is possible. Current trends (and they are significant trends) suggest that those who have been vaccinated are more likely to fair better in fighting the virus than unvaccinated people. But it is not a guarantee.
  • Beta - Preliminary information suggests that Beta is 50% more transmissible than the original. It is unknown if it causes more severe disease. Preliminary or incomplete data suggests that some vaccines are less effective against this variant. What is true is that it can reinfect people who already had COVID or infect those who had a vaccine.
  • Gamma - Believed to be more transmissible than the original, but more research needed. Unknown if it causes more severe disease. Preliminary or incomplete data suggests that some vaccines are less effective against this variant, and it is believed to reinfect people who already had COVID.
  • Iota/Eta - Unknown if it is more or less transmissible, if it causes more severe disease. The reining theory or educated guess is that vaccines are likely still effective, and it may be able to reinfect people who already had COVID.  Or in other words, more research needed.
  • Kappa - Believed to be more transmissible than the original, but more research needed. Unknown if it causes more severe disease. Good news, preliminary or incomplete data suggests that vaccines are still effective against this variant, but it is believed to reinfect people who already had COVID. More research needed.
  • Epsilon - Preliminary information suggests that Epsilon is 20% more transmissible than the original, may cause more severe disease, but more research is needed, vaccines are likely still effective, and it may be able to reinfect people who already had COVID. More research needed.

Research and data surrounding all these variants and others is continuously being collected and conducted.  That’s great.  But most studies are still preliminary, not been rigorously reviewed and often present conflicting results.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that I support everyone who can get vaccinated. It is a smart move. An unselfish move. But it is not a silver bullet.

As I said before, we have been asked to follow the science. But what no one told us was that putting science on a fast track, by raising the curtain and putting so much anecdotal, preliminary, trending, and incomplete information out there, having so many different people speaking to the science would be so confusing.  They didn’t tell us that mistakes would be made - failure to consider that asymptomatic people could be carriers until it was obvious, an emphasis on 6 feet of distance, when it is the air flow, ventilation and masks that matter more, the over emphasis on cleaning surfaces when it is primarily an airborne virus, the failure to consider that 30% of the population might not get vaccinated or wear masks, etc. – and that would confuse things, particularly when mistakes go unacknowledged. That we would see that science can be as messy as most processes in life are. No one told us that we were in for a long-haul process that would involve shifts and changes in behavior as more was discovered, as situations changed, and knowledge was gained and as the truth would be so very slowly uncovered. No one explained that we would be testing theories and most of what was discussed or released would be things that were not necessarily true, but our best guess, ideas that makes sense – but in reality, are things not yet proved false.

Scientific discovery is time consuming, trial and error, confusing and debatable.  It takes time to find the truth. And much of the time, ironically, we need a little faith, and we go with an idea that makes sense, answers questions, and explains things, but still in reality, is an idea that is probably true, just not proved false.

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This is where we are.  And it is an uncomfortable place to be.

And it may still get worse before it gets better. But I think we need to admit, scientists and politicians included, that very little of what we know right now is absolutely true or absolutely false, but in the grey area in-between. We need to admit that our path going forward will be filled with stops and starts, turns and U-turns, and disagreements on the best paths to choose. We need to admit that there will be a need for constant refinements and occasionally there will be outright errors and we need to acknowledge them. We need to admit that the meaning of information and data gleaned will be debatable and we need to admit that some of the information out there is not information and is incorrect. We will need to reduce our level of certainty and allow some more doubt. And if we do all that, then maybe, just maybe, we will get through this with our humanity intact.

Maybe, just maybe, this whole episode can bring us more together instead of the continuing digging in of heals on one side or the other. And maybe then, this whole episode may have been worthwhile.

About the Author

Jack JohnsonChief Advocacy OfficerDestinations International

About the Author

Jack manages the overall public policy operations at Destinations International including member advocacy education and training, development of destination tools and best practices, coalition work with peer organizations, industry research and related public affairs activities.

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