The COVID-19 Fallout: Collateral Damage and Loss of Trust

Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff on what he deems 'the biggest public health fiasco in history'
By Thought Leaders
Thought Leaders
Thought Leaders
August 27, 2021 Updated: August 27, 2021

Dr. Martin Kulldorff is a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a biostatistician and epidemiologist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He helped develop the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s system for monitoring potential vaccine risks and is also one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, which argued for “focused protection” of the most vulnerable, instead of lockdowns.

Recently on “American Thought Leaders,” host Jan Jekielek interviewed Kulldorff on vaccine passports, the Delta variant, and the COVID-19 “public health fiasco.” Below is an excerpt from the interview:

Jan Jekielek: We’re about a year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve had lockdowns. We’ve had an emergence out of lockdowns right now in places like New York. We were getting closer to some kind of semblance of normality, and now we have the Delta variant and there’s discussion of lockdowns again.

You’ve described the global COVID response as, and I’ll quote you here, “The biggest public health fiasco in history.” That feels like a big statement to make. Tell me more.

Dr. Martin Kulldorff: I think it is, without a doubt. There are two aspects of that. One is, while anybody can get infected by COVID, there’s more than a thousand-fold difference in the risk for death between the oldest and the youngest. So with the naive belief that these lockdowns would protect everybody—which now, obviously, we know that didn’t work—a lot of people got COVID, and a lot of people died.

But there was this naive belief that they would protect the older people. Because of that, we did not implement basic public health measures to actually do what was necessary to protect those older, high-risk people. And because of that, many of them died unnecessarily from COVID. The other aspect of it is the collateral damage from these lockdowns.

For example, children didn’t go to school. The children are at a miniscule risk from this disease in terms of mortality. They can get infected for sure, but the risk from COVID for children is less than the risk from annual influenza, which is already very low for children. So for them, this is not a risky thing. And one example is Sweden.

From the first wave in the spring of 2020, Sweden was the only Western country that did not close down all the schools. So schools and daycares were open for children ages 1 to 15. Among the 1.8 million children in Sweden during this first wave, there were exactly zero deaths from COVID. And that was without using masks, without social distancing, and without any testing. If a child was sick, they were told to stay home. That was it.

Cardiovascular disease outcomes and heart disease have been bad during this pandemic because people don’t go to the hospitals. The health care that they need is just not available, like for diabetes patients, for example.

Cancer has actually gone down in 2020 and 2021, but that’s not because there is less cancer. It’s just that we’re not detecting them. And if we’re not detecting them, we’re not treating them either. This is nothing that shows up in the statistics this year, except to a very small extent. But let’s say women who didn’t get their cervical cancer screening might now die three or four years from now, instead of living another 15, 20 years.

This has really been an awful response to the pandemic, which goes against the basic principles of public health that we have followed for many decades. So it’s very unfortunate.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting. You would think that the basic principles of public health would be implemented and enforced in this situation. So why has that not been done?

Dr. Kulldorff: That is a very good question. To be honest, I don’t know the answer. To me, as a public health scientist, it’s stunning that we suddenly threw out these principles we have used for decades to deal with public health issues. One is, public health is about all health outcomes. It’s not just about one disease like COVID. You can’t just focus on COVID and then ignore everything else. That goes against how we do public health.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that people are being forced to take a vaccine. I don’t know of anyone in the U.S. actually being forced to take it directly. Tell me what you mean when you say that.

Dr. Kulldorff: There’s a push both for vaccine passports and vaccine mandates. If people want to have a job and stay at the job, they are required to take the vaccine or they’ll be fired. If they want to study at university, many universities are requiring vaccines for all the students.

So there are these vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. In New York City, for example, now they’re requiring restaurants to require vaccinations for people who go to the restaurants.

That is a very coercive way to get people to vaccinate. And that’s very bad for public health. One question is, “Why do you coerce people who are immune or people who are young, who have a very small risk, when the vaccines are much more needed for older people in other places?” So that’s an ethical aspect of it. I think it is very unethical to do so.

Mr. Jekielek: Jumping into these collateral damages, you mentioned the mental health costs. I remember reading the statistic, which I’ve said a number of times in interviews, in this one study 25 percent of teenagers had suicidal ideation, 1 in 4. I didn’t even know what to think about that. Can you expand on the mental health collateral costs?

Dr. Kulldorff: Yes, that’s very tragic. The normal number was like 4 or 5 percent and now it’s 25 percent. So that’s very tragic. And we have had a lot of mental health consequences. There’s also been opioid overdoses that have increased now. Of course, a lot of that is not very measurable, because a lot of it is hidden.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve received all this conflicting information from public health authorities. And in some cases, the guidance didn’t seem to have much to do with public health policy. There is a general distrust that I’ve been hearing all over the place, the general feeling that there isn’t trust in these agencies that are responsible for these things, from the WHO, all the way down. You say trust is so critical. So what happens now?

Dr. Kulldorff: It’s not a surprise that the trust has plummeted for public health agencies and public health officials because of these mixed messages, and also things like not taking a natural immunity from having had COVID disease into account and still forcing people to vaccinate.

So it’s very understandable that the trust has come down. Both within the scientific community and the public health community, we have a lot of work to do to regain that trust. It’s going to take a long time, but it is important to do that and to try to regain that trust.

The only way to do it is, one, to be very honest and straight with people; two, to trust the public; and three, to actually listen to the public and not just make public health policy based on the “Zoom class,” who can work from home—people like scientists and journalists and their neighbors.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity by Jeff Minick

Thought Leaders
Thought Leaders