FARGO — Dr. Paul Carson is taking on COVID-19 as an infectious disease specialist, public health professor at North Dakota State University and as a consultant on the governor’s task force, advising the state on testing and surveillance strategies.

He’s also trying to help informally — by educating acquaintances in church and at local parks, and the friends who gather outside, socially distanced, on the patio of his home.

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It can be difficult, Carson said, coming up against people who minimize the virus or deny any science behind it, as they have a tendency to dig in their heels.

“It's much better to try and first find your common ground… to kind of work your way through, keep dialogue open,” he said.

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As the pandemic wears on, members of the medical and science communities are being challenged and discounted with increasing frequency.

The White House has distanced itself from Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s premiere infectious disease experts, over what it said were mistakes made early on in the pandemic.

This week, President Trump retweeted a post from former game show host Chuck Woolery, who claimed the Centers for Disease Control and doctors are “lying” in order to hurt the president’s reelection bid.

“Do you generally trust the science and scientists when it comes to COVID-19?”

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The good news, Carson said, is that polling of the general public by nonpartisan organizations such as Pew Research Center indicates public health and medical experts continue to rank high in trustworthiness relating to the pandemic.

“Sadly, that does still seem to separate out somewhat on partisan lines. I don't understand that,” he said.

Legitimate criticism

A legitimate criticism of the pandemic response early on, according to Carson, was when health experts said the general public didn’t need to wear masks.

With only so many surgical and N95 masks to go around, the reason was to preserve masks for health care workers. There should have been no messaging that masks didn’t work — only that experts weren't sure.

“Everybody should have just been very forthright about that,” he said.

We know now through various studies, Carson said, that even cloth masks keep many of a wearer’s respiratory droplets from spreading to others.

Masks should be worn indoors in a public place because approximately 40 percent of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms, but may still be able to transmit the virus.

“It’s an act of charity towards each other, towards the common good,” he said.

People may feel frustrated when guidance given early on is later revised or contradicted but that is the nature of science, as scientists seek to uphold or challenge another's hypothesis.

Instead of a straight line, it’s more of an oscillating curve toward truth, Carson said.

Check your 'confirmation bias'

A small but vocal group, Carson said, are “science deniers” and critics of people like Dr. Fauci, who’s worked under six presidents for almost 50 years as one of the most trusted voices in public health.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Capitol Hill before testifying at a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing in Washington, Tuesday, on June 23, 2020, about the coronavirus pandemic. (Al Drago / © 2020 The New York Times)
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on Capitol Hill before testifying at a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing in Washington, Tuesday, on June 23, 2020, about the coronavirus pandemic. (Al Drago / © 2020 The New York Times)

“He's got no axes to grind. He’s got no political ambitions,” Carson said.

All people are prone to what’s known as “confirmation bias” and “motivated reasoning,” he said, in that we tend to be drawn to information that aligns with our beliefs.

During a pandemic, no one wants to be faced with disruptions and restrictions; as a result, some will avidly seek information online or elsewhere that challenges what is known — on authority or by consensus.

“We are motivated to look for things that affirm our bias that says, ‘That's not true. I don't have to believe that,’” Carson said.

People should approach these issues with an open mind, thinking about who they trust and on what they base that trust.

Questions to ask oneself include: What are the person’s credentials? How consistent are they? Do they have some sort of political agenda, or are they trying to sell something?

Carson referenced the “Plandemic” conspiracy theory film posted to social media in early May as an example of the latter.

People who claim they won’t trust any experts on COVID-19 will have a difficult time making any informed decisions on anything, he said.

'Nervous' about an uptick

North Dakota continues to have a low daily positivity rate for COVID-19 of around 1.5 to 2.5 percent.

However, active cases have risen steadily, from just over 200 in late June to 720 on July 13, according to the state health department.

Cell phone data shows North Dakota residents are moving about just as freely now as they were before the pandemic began.

Carson said after a 43 percent drop in mobility in early April, the state is back to its baseline.

“I’m a bit nervous we’re about to see an uptick,” he said.

While he’s pleased with how North Dakota has responded in terms of testing, surveillance and contact tracing, Carson said he’s discouraged, even “slightly ashamed” that the U.S. leads in the “worst numbers” when it has one of best medical systems in the world.

Part of that, he said, is because America values personal liberty so much that some are willing to sacrifice the common good, so as not to infringe on those freedoms.

The people of Fargo and the state have come together before in times of natural disaster and other threats, including flooding. Carson hopes that can ultimately still happen in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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