More testing could stoke coronavirus stigma in California. What can we do about it?

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An increase in COVID-19 testing might lead to social stigma, says UC Davis’ Dr. Michael Wilkes. Photo credit: Pxhere.

A shortage of coronavirus tests is a challenge in California. Even health care providers are facing roadblocks in getting checked out. The state is expecting more tests to be available over the next few weeks. But that raises other issues. Who can, or should, know their test results?

Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, addresses this on today’s Daily Dose. 

He says patients should be the first to know their status, followed by patients’ family members, roommates, and people they physically work with.

History lesson: How one healthy woman infected 120 people

Wilkes points to the case of Mary Mallon, the famous Irish cook who eventually earned the nickname of Typhoid Mary.  At the turn of the 20th century, Mallon cooked for eight wealthy families in and around New York. Despite being perfectly healthy, she spread typhoid fever to at least 120 people. 

As Wilkes explains, she never understood how she was spreading the disease. She kept herself clean and prepared the food. Mallon was eventually confined to an isolated island by the New York City Department of Health. She died alone.

Today, people who test positive for COVID-19 are also afraid of being treated as a leper, Wilkes says. 

“That's because humans’ primitive response to fear and the unknown is usually irrational, and is often driven by our emotions rather than clear thinking. Those that are infected, I think, are subject to lots of stigma.”  

Misperceiving the outbreak 

Fear and worry play a role in how people perceive the outbreak, Wilkes says. “We tend to hear only the news that supports and augments our own sort of theories and thinking. We draw conclusions without evidence.”

He refers to how people considered Chinese restaurants unsafe, and they thought New Yorkers were infected and had to be stopped from entering other neighborhoods. Hospital and airport workers have also faced scrutiny, Wilkes says. 

“People do stupid things, and they think they're protecting themselves and their family. They forget that once this is all over – and it will be over – we're still going to need to work together and live together.”  

How can we address contagion concerns while treating people with decency and compassion? 

“Human nature drives us to blame the victim. And we assume that surely someone who's been infected must've done something wrong, or that they are careless.” 

During times of crisis, and people begin to get anxious, a form of groupthink can take hold, he says, which can augment each other’s irrational thinking. 

But he reminds the public that COVID-19 is a ubiquitous virus, not a group of people. 

When those in positions of power or privilege announce they’re infected, like Tom Hanks or Boris Johnson, it helps the average person to conceptualize COVID-19, Wilkes says.

“These infections are about regular people … the people, obviously, who get these infections are good, decent people. They've done nothing wrong, and those are important lessons to de-stigmatize this for the general public.” 




Chery Glaser