Was New York’s Spring 2020 COVID Wave an Illusion?

The headlines have been dire since the start of the pandemic. “Horrifying video shows corpses of NYC coronavirus victims being forklifted into a refrigerated truck used as a makeshift morgue,” one said. “The bodies of 750 Covid-19 victims are kept in refrigerated trucks in New York City”, said another. There are many videos and photos documenting all of this. Prisoners were asked to dig graves. Children who have lost a parent describe their loss. Myself and countless healthcare workers have written about what we have seen. The battle analogy was common. One travel nurse, who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, estimated that she had seen 3,000 people die of COVID. “It doesn’t even compare to war,” he said, adding, “I’d rather die any other way than die of the coronavirus”. A doctor at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens said,

If you watch a war movie with people shooting from all sides, it almost felt like that. One after the next after the next, you won’t even catch what’s about to happen.

Many health care workers themselves contracted COVID and not all of them, including my friends, survived. This plaque now sits outside Bellevue Hospital commemorating the workers who died during that first wave.

I say all this to make an important but simple point. You don’t need hard data to know that COVID hit New York City badly in the spring of 2020. Of course, variations of this will soon be seen around the world. New York City hit hard and early, but our experience didn’t turn out that much of an outlier, sadly. Hospitals continue to be flooded even after vaccines are available.

However, astute internet sleuths, safe on their couches, claim to have discovered something remarkable: None of this actually happened. I myself and thousands of others have hallucinated or even been told the whole thing happened. I refer to an article by Dr. Jessica Hockett, an educational psychologist, titled “New York City Hospital Spring 2020 More Questions About Covid,” which was recently posted on the anti-vaccine site, the Brownstone Institute. It claimed that “New York City hospital emergency departments were not at breaking point in the spring of 2020. In fact, they were relatively empty and the number of visits dropped by 50%.” This startling conclusion was based on five “observations”.

  1. NYC emergency departments are not overwhelmed by people with Covid-19. (This is false).
  2. NYC emergency room respiratory visit spike may be panic-driven. (This is false).
  3. Most people who visited NYC emergency rooms between March 2020 and June 2021 for respiratory symptoms were not hospitalized. (Many were hospitalized).
  4. Many patients counted as Covid hospitalizations in spring 2020 were not admitted with a Covid-like illness (CLI). (This is false).
  5. The relationship between deaths of hospitalized patients with Covid on death certificates and those hospitalized for having Covid is unclear. (This is false).
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The article (falsely) concludes that doctors may be deadlier than viruses. It states,

No wonder Michael Sanger, Moral skepticAnd other analysts (including myself) say it’s ventilator misuse, protocol-induced staff shortages, isolation, treatment failures, similar factors that have resulted in thousands of spring 2020 deaths. iatrogenic Deaths in New York City and Elsewhere.

Dr. Eric Barnett, an internist at Columbia University, deconstructed five of Ms. Hockett’s “observations” on Twitter. That’s its full quote price thread.

This is complete rubbish, coming from a non-clinician who has never once treated a patient, let alone treated patients at the heart of a global pandemic. So allow me, a NYC hospitalist, to break down this “analysis”. A brief look at this “analysis” shows that he relied heavily on medical billing codes during the pandemic. Not an accurate reflection of what we were actually seeing in the hospital as I’ll get to later. But let me address each of his claims one by one.

His first claim: NYC emergency departments are not overwhelmed by people with Covid-19. This is objectively false. Our ERs were over capacity for weeks during the initial outbreak. We had critically ill, ICU level patients admitted to our ED and this had not happened before. He supports the claim that “only 3% of people who came to EDs in New York City hospitals in March 2020” is because we had very little testing in March 2020! The test we conducted was reserved for people traveling from mainland China. When we confirmed a test it took a week to get the BC back there was only one lab that ran PCR. We had to test patients for the flu and other resp viruses. When they were negative we gave them a presumptive dx of C19 (with clinical presentation supporting the diagnosis). Funny you didn’t see many lab confirm C19 at that time as our EDs didn’t overrun BC. On a personal note, we lost an ED physician to suicide due to the devastation he witnessed. It is highly disrespectful to make a recommendation.

Claim No. 2: Spike in NYC Emergency Room Respiratory Visits May Cause Panic. He supports this claim by saying “But most emergency room visitors with respiratory symptoms are not diagnosed with Covid. Huh.” I’ll refer you to my point about the lack of testing above. The rate of p/w acute hypoxemic respiratory failure was so high that we had to train non-PAM faculty on how to administer vents, HFNC and BPAP. Scarce if ventilators ran out. We have held policy meetings on the possibility of resource allocation. This is not a normal one.

Point 3: The majority of people who visited NYC emergency rooms for respiratory symptoms between 2020 and June 2021 were not hospitalized We literally had to convert non-clinical spaces like our lobby into patient care units. We had to convert a football field into a patient ward. Hospital capacity in our state needs to expand by 50% to accommodate admissions. Our traditional hospitalist census is about 100-110 patients, which reaches 250 during the worst surge. Save me this excuse. He supports this by saying that “40% of peak hospital admissions (CLIs) to respiratory emergency departments for covid-like illnesses” were not admitted to respiratory illnesses. If they were not hypoxic, they could not be admitted. Because our hospital was over capacity and we could not admit every person with respiratory symptoms. It’s called triage, you should see it. Only the sickest Covid patients were admitted to hospital.

Claim 4: Many patients counted as Covid hospitalizations in spring 2020 were not admitted with a Covid-like illness (CLI). Data indicates that from mid-March to April 2020, about 40% of patients diagnosed with Covid-19 were not admitted with a Covid-like illness. This happens when you rely solely on medical billing codes instead of talking to actual HCWs. NYS issued immunity from record keeping liability during worst of pandemic. Medical coding did not accurately reflect reality. Medical record keeping responsibilities” include, but are not limited to, the need to maintain medical records that accurately reflect the assessment and treatment of patients, or the need to assign diagnostic codes, or create or maintain other records for billing purposes.” We document when a patient comes in with Covid, but don’t always list the other symptoms they have. Medical billing and coding has taken a backseat to admitting and treating our patients, running codes, updating families, and trying to keep our patients alive.

Claim 5: Death certificates obscure the relationship between deaths of hospitalized patients with Covid and those who were hospitalized due to having Covid. It’s funny too. There is clear evidence of an increase in the death toll at the peak of the epidemic. We needed morgue trucks to accommodate the overflow of patients dying from this disease. He attributed these deaths to iatrogenic causes, without any evidence to back it up. It is clear that he has never cared for a seriously ill covid patient. My guess is that he never had to call a family member to tell them their loved one had died despite our best efforts. He doesn’t have to live with the pain of making that call. He never lays awake at night wondering if his patients will still be there in the morning. This is pure gaslighting at a time when healthcare workers are burning out and leaving the profession in record numbers. If Jessica would like to join me on rounds this fall/winter during our respiratory virus surge, I would be happy to accommodate her.

Something tells me Mrs. Hockett will decline this invitation.

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However, we once again have the opportunity to see harmful medical myths being created in real time. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, sheltered disinformation agents will successfully convince many Americans that the threat of Covid was always overblown. Their message can be summarized as: Don’t believe the newspapers. Do not believe the video or photographs. Don’t believe official death statistics. Don’t trust thousands of healthcare workers. Don’t trust grave diggers. Don’t trust people who have lost multiple family members. We told you that covid wouldn’t be as bad in spring 2020 and we were right. Frontline doctors were always to blame.

Asking for “proof” that New York City has been hit hard by Covid makes as much sense as asking for “proof” that New York City is in the first place. George Orwell understood this all too well.

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  • Dr. Jonathan Howard is a neurologist and psychiatrist based in New York City who has been interested in vaccines long before COVID-19.

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