Doctor’s Strange Love with Twitter or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Follow the Scientific Community During the Pandemic

Medical professionals and researchers have flocked to open digital platforms, such as Twitter, in recent years to share medical education and pre-prints and engage, for the most part,  in friendly debate. The medical and scientific community’s top voices are not just fringe members of scientific society or a small handful of respected, outstanding social media stars, such as Eric Topol. Many of the world’s most respected clinical experts and researchers are represented. For those of us outside of hospitals and labs, reading the social posts from these top voices provides a fascinating and valuable glimpse into the cutting-edge of science.

Physicians and researchers have been more active on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic than ever before. In response to what the WHO has called “an infodemic” of “myths and rumors” on social media, physicians and scientists have been in an epic fight to provide a clear and authoritative voice on the pandemic and, ultimately, how we can overcome it. This is in addition to working virtually around the clock to bring new therapies and vaccines to the market, route PPE where it’s needed most, and ultimately save patients’ lives.

When W2O partnered with the California Life Sciences Association to create a COR (COVID-19) communications dashboard for its members, we knew that select views into what the medical and scientific community are saying and sharing would be the best way to cut through the noise and see the developments that really matter.

The scientific community in the COR dashboard, which was compiled by W2O’s data science team and our partners at Symplur, is especially interesting to watch. It consists of hundreds of researchers globally and includes content from leading researchers in virology (especially coronaviruses), epidemiology and infectious diseases, such as Drs. Florian Kramer at Mount Sinai in New York and Ralph Baric at UNC. This content has been a good predictor of what happens next in the news and at a policy level. By paying close attention to the “top retweets” in the dashboard (i.e., content that is being shared most often by the scientific community), you can see epidemiologic models being covered in the news and influencing public policy in the following days. You can also see patient pathways that provide helpful information to other medical professionals who have yet to encounter patients with COVID-19. Even more importantly, this content is providing a clearer lens into advances in COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and therapies than any other source I’ve seen to date.

Obviously, this is important for CLSA members and our clients who need to keep a close eye on clinical advances and how the media and public are responding. But, on a personal level, this view into the scientific community has been one of the most anxiety-reducing and actionable tools I’ve had at my disposal since shelter-in-place orders were delivered where I live in the Bay Area.

One of my favorite examples occurred on March 26 when this community first shared the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model for peak cases within each state in the U.S. Like many other Americans under “lockdown,” I had arm-chair hypothesized the actual date of “return to normal” and, perhaps, was overly optimistic about my three young children returning to school this year so I could finally get some work done. But, that clearly wasn’t going to be the case given the IHME’s epidemiologic model for California, which was both horrifying but also very specific: a peak mortality rate in the last weeks of April, finally returning to pre-March rates in June. While the media covered this in the coming days, it was the scientific community that really “broke the story.” Two weeks later when California closed schools’ on-campus activities, it seemed like yesterday’s news.

My second favorite example also comes from March 26, when Sui Hang at the Institute for Systems Biology posted a paper on Medium titled, “COVID-19: Why We Should All Wear Masks—There Is Now Scientific Evidence.” In his literature review (not peer-reviewed), he shared evidence that home-made masks can partially reduce transmission of the novel coronavirus. Others in the scientific community shared that paper (and others) that day, capping a week of scientific debate about broad public use of medical or home-made masks. Based on the scientific community’s response to Hang’s paper, I quickly realized that masks were definitely in my future and that: a) I do not own a sewing machine, b) I would rather not wrap a t-shirt around my face in public, and c) it could take over a week for Amazon to deliver cloth facemasks to my home, so I placed an appropriately responsible order of five very unfashionable cloth masks that afternoon. I realized this was not a traditionally peer-reviewed paper, but the general consensus was enough for me to take action. Eight days later, Surgeon General Jerome Adams and the CDC recommended that all Americans, even those who are non-symptomatic, wear DIY masks in public spaces. You could also see, in the COR dashboard, local public health officials across the U.S. issuing recommendations to wear DIY masks shortly after the announcement, including very own Marin County. To my relief, five very unflattering face masks arrived the next day.

While these two examples might seem trivial, given the magnitude of this crisis, they speak to the leadership among the scientific community and their value in making a tangible impact on public health. I know that they have helped me make better decisions for the safety of my family and my community, and I am deeply grateful to all researchers who share their data, knowledge, and recommendations in these public forums. Even when the models they share are imperfect (and they certainly are), this is still among the best information that we and public officials have available to us right now. I hope this trend continues after the pandemic ends.

W2O’s additional COVID-19 coverage

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Seth Duncan
Seth Duncan

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