• The 100th episode of Coronavirus in Context explores how much the world and our knowledge has changed in three short months.
  • U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams says George Floyd's death has caused pain and frustration for society and for him personally, and these stressors can impact our behaviors and physical and mental health.
  • There is a pandemic of misinformation, and also "confusion that has been intentionally infused into the discussion," says Adams.
  • When it comes to COVID, "the biggest thing we've learned is how much we don't know."

Video Transcript

JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. I've been interviewing people for the last few months, experts to help us put coronavirus in context. My first guess was three months ago, and it was Dr. Jerome Adams, the United States Surgeon General. Today is our 100th episode, so I've asked Dr. Adams to come back and join us and tell us how we're doing, as well as to answer questions about what the next few months might look like. Dr. Adams, thanks for joining me.

JEROME ADAMS: Thank you, John. It's amazing how much the world has changed, how much our knowledge has changed, how different of a place we are now than just three short months ago. I think people often lose sight of the fact that three months ago, we knew almost nothing about this disease. And it's hard to appreciate, even as we learn more each day, how much further along we are, in terms of being able to respond to it. JOHN WHYTE: And what do you think the biggest learning has been?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, it's hard to put your finger on one thing. I think the biggest thing that I've learned is how much we don't know. We call it a novel coronavirus, and it truly has proven itself to be novel, even amongst prior coronaviruses. One of the big things that we've learned that has impacted a lot of our policies and really caused a lot of confusion in recommendations is the high degree of asymptomatic spread that you have with SARS-CoV-2.

It might have affected everything from our recommendations on face coverings to who we choose to protect and decisions about whether or not people decide to go out and reopen and contact tracing. And so I think that we really do have to continue to approach this with a high degree of humility and understand that what we think we know today may not be what we're recommending, based off of, even a week from now or a month from now.

JOHN WHYTE: And we have to be flexible. I think sometimes the public sees it as confusion, but it's really a reflection of, as we've talked about, most data aren't black and white. It's gray. And often, we'll have to make changes based on information, so that might impact the role of facial masks or gloves or other aspects of public health initiatives. Would you agree with that as well?

JEROME ADAMS: I would absolutely agree. And I think it underscores the importance of knowing the trusted resources that you can go to for information. Coronavirus.gov is a website that's run by the CDC. I would recommend people go there frequently because the information is updated on a daily basis. Your state and local health department websites have up-to-date information about what is going on in your city and what the policies and recommendations are.

And then I would just also beg the public to really have patience and understand that, as you said, we're out there trying to give the best possible advice today based on the information we have today. But we also are approaching this with our own humility and recognizing that if the circumstances, the data, the information changes, we need to change those recommendations. And it doesn't mean that someone did something wrong a week ago or a month ago. It means that that was the best advice then, and the information has changed so we're revising our recommendations now.

JOHN WHYTE: Absolutely. And we've talked about how important it is to go to reputable sites to get information, to check the credibility of the people that are writing it. And you've expressed your frustration about, you know, seeing elements in social media about yours or this idea early on that people of color could not catch COVID-19. And it probably caused, you know, some challenges and problems for people.

JEROME ADAMS: Well, absolutely. Again, with a pandemic of virus, we also have a pandemic of misinformation out there. There is some confusion that is-- that you can really understand, again, based on how tricky this virus has been, but there's also confusion that's intentionally been infused into the discussion. One of the things that we actually talked to the Hispanic community about-- to the promontories about recently-- was how to recognize fraudulent companies and the fact that people are preying on individuals now because of fear of coronavirus.

And so I think it's important that, again, people have those trusted sources of information. People are also scared, and they're looking for answers. They're looking for medications. They're looking for treatments. They're looking for things that will ultimately protect them from the disease, in their minds. But it's important that if you listen to advice, that you're listening to a trusted advice and that you're not doing something that you haven't discussed with your healthcare provider.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's talk about what's happening in the world today. COVID-19 has been pushed a little off to the side, based on what's happening in terms of the protests, at times riots. Help us understand, what are people protesting about, in terms of social justice, in terms of equity, in terms of health disparity?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, thank you for that question, John. I really appreciate it. As a black man myself, I know that it's challenging to exist in a world where everything you do-- literally, everything you do, from decisions about the clothes you're going to wear-- should I wear a hoodie? Should I wear my uniform? How are people going to view me? To how fast I drive on-- on the road. If I go a little bit over, am I going to be at risk for being pulled over?

To the type of car I drive, is this car too flashy? To how I raise my kids, to where can I go to school? All of that is impacted by the color of my skin, even being Surgeon General of the United States. I am not allowed to just be the Surgeon General of the United States. I have to be the black Surgeon General of the United States, and so many people see me as a spokesperson for an entire race.

And so there is, from a medical and public health standpoint, a concept of allostasis. And allostasis really refers to the idea that stressors that you're facing in your day-to-day life ultimately are manifested in different-- different ways that your body deals with that stress. And that can be-- be anything from blood pressure changes to-- to kidney changes to-- to heart-- heart attacks, to higher rates of cancer. And what we've seen medically also plays out, quite frankly, in people from a mental health point of view. We know that people are frustrated, that you can only internalize pain, you can only internalize stress for so long--

JOHN WHYTE: Do you feel more stress and more pressure right now?

JEROME ADAMS: What's interesting is, again, that that's the concept allostasis and weathering. People tend to internalize it, and they don't even realize that their body is experiencing that stress and that it's building up until it starts to come out in negative ways. Pain that-- that is not allowed to heal often finds ways to come out. And oftentimes, those ways aren't productive. Some people self-medicate with alcohol, with tobacco. Some people yell and scream. Some people just are angry, and they don't understand why they're angry.

Right now, we under-- we've had a-- a fuse lit with the killing of George Floyd, and it's really brought to the forefront a lot of that frustration that people have kept bottled up for a long time. It's painful. For me, personally, it's painful, for my-- for my family and my kids, it's painful to have to talk to my teenage boys about how they are-- or may be at risk, based on their dad's color of skin and based on their color skin.

And so really, as surgeon general and as a physician, what I want people to understand is it's OK to not be OK. We need to give people ways to express their concern and their emotions and their pain. We need to give them the space to grieve and to vent. And we also have to try to balance that, though, with the need to protect property and to protect lives from-- from violence and from COVID-19. And so those are tough trade-offs, but we're working with communities to try to give people that space to be heard and to help them understand there's a meaningful change occurring, but to give them the knowledge and to support them to be able to protect their health.

JOHN WHYTE: And you've been talking about the importance of first amendment rights but also, at the same time, what are potential unintended consequences. And it's been reported in the news over the past 24 to 48 hours that many COVID testing sites have closed, particularly in those communities with disproportionate impact, or we see people without wearing masks, you know, without physical distancing. Can you talk a little bit about these unintended consequences where we're trying to balance being able to make statements while, at the same time, potentially exposing yourself to greater risk, particularly in communities that are disproportionately impact? In some areas, 60% of the cases are in people of color, 60% of the deaths are in people of color. So how do we balance these, Dr. Adams?

JEROME ADAMS: Well, you brought up several key points, and I just want to-- to quickly give it context. We've long known, for-- for well over 100 years, that people of color are at higher risk for an array of medical diseases, whether it's high blood pressure, cancer, mental health issues. And that is not just a biological predisposition in many cases. It's a social predisposition, and-- and it includes housing. It includes transportation. It includes economic opportunity. And it also includes individual and structural racism.

And so it is not a surprise to-- to see disparities in who is susceptible to COVID and who is susceptible to complications from COVID. And we've seen that play out. African-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics in particular are both more likely to be exposed to COVID and more likely to suffer complications from COVID, up to and including death.

This is now being combined with, again, a civil unrest that is putting people who are already vulnerable, in communities that are already vulnerable, in a situation where they are even more predisposed to COVID for the reasons that you mentioned. The disease spreads person to person. And so if you are in a crowd of people protesting, you are going to be more likely to be exposed to COVID and spread COVID than if you're not. If you're yelling and screaming, we know that you're going to be more likely to spread COVID asymptomatically than if you weren't in that situation. So the very process of-- of-- of protesting puts people at higher risk.

And I really worry about the long-term impact, but I don't want people to hear me say that they shouldn't be expressing their first amendment rights. Really, it's incumbent upon the leaders of this country to provide opportunities for people to feel heard in a way that doesn't cause harm to them or their communities. And that's one of the things that I'm focused on. We talked to governors just recently, and we asked them, please make sure you're handing out face masks at protests. Please make sure people who are protesting know where to get tested in the future. Please make sure people who are protesting understand that if they have a vulnerable person at home, they should be especially attuned to precautions like good hygiene and wearing face coverings and maintaining six feet of distance and should even consider self-quarantining or not going around their vulnerable family member or friend for 14 days after they've been to a protest.

JOHN WHYTE: Should they consider getting a COVID test, diagnostic test? You had mentioned that, some persons might want to consider that?

JEROME ADAMS: What we want those individuals to do is to understand where they can get testing in their state. And it's also incumbent upon the leaders-- I talked to public health and community leaders yesterday and said, please make sure everyone in your community knows where they can get a test and the criteria that you have in your communities to get a test. And if you have symptoms, certainly, you should go in and get a test. But some states and some communities are actually offering tests for people who are asymptomatic who've been at a protest simply because there is a higher likelihood they've been around someone who may have been exposed to COVID.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Adams, I want to thank you for all that you're doing to help keep our country safe. I know it's a challenging job, so thank you.

JEROME ADAMS: Thank you. And-- and again, what I would just tell folks is to be safe, to really try to think about your fellow neighbors. Love each other. Reach out to people who are hurting, and that's whether we're talking about coronavirus or whether we're talking about people who are really struggling with a lot of the social inequity and the-- and the civil unrest that's going on in our country right now. Sometimes just asking someone how they're doing can really lift them up, can really help them feel heard.

And please know that, as surgeon general, my initiative, whether it's maternal mortality or hypertension control or promoting the opioid epidemic, are really geared towards identifying vulnerable communities, people who've been forgotten about, and trying to decrease the disparities out there. And one of the things that keeps me up at night about COVID is that I really do worry that disparities, in many ways, could be worsened after we-- we-- after we help resolve our acute COVID situation.

We've seen vaccination rates go down. We've seen many women forgo prenatal care. We've seen many people not go in for regular checkups that they would normally get that would pick up cancers or risk factors for diabetes. And so please reach out to your healthcare provider. Please understand that there are many disparities that exist, and the way that we address them is by working together. And please know that you've got a Surgeon General of the United States who's passionate about these issues and who wants to make sure that your voice is heard and wants to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be able to live a long and healthy life.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Dr. Adams, you are our first guest, our 100th guest, and hopefully we can check in with you as our 200th guest when we get to that point.

JEROME ADAMS: I'd love that.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching Coronavirus in Context.