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Lead Balloon Ep. 7 - COVID-19: Critiquing the Federal Response with former HHS Spokesman Bill Pierce

Updated: Apr 10

Plus, Busting Coronavirus Myths with Epidemiologist Dr. Maria Sundaram



Communicating with the public during a crisis is as critical as it is difficult. And if it's seemed to you like President Donald Trump has been hitting many of the wrong notes during his daily media briefings, you're not alone.


"They threw the plan out, and started to make up a new one, and they didn't need to," says Bill Pierce, who served as a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush Administration. "There are some basic fundamentals that they should have adhered to and didn't, unfortunately."



In this episode, Pierce taps into his deep expertise in crisis communication and pandemic response planning to critique the federal comms response to the COVID-19 Coronavirus so far--what they've done right and what they've done wrong.


Plus, Dr. Maria Sundaram, an epidemiologist at the Emory Rollins School of Public Health, takes calls from listeners to bust some myths about the pandemic which have been circulating on social media.


Special thanks to Daniel Matarazzo for sharing his clever, uplifting Coronavirus musical parodies with the world. Check him out on Twitter or YouTube.




Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

Expertise: in the era of anti-science, fake news and mistrust in authority figures, only expertise is going to get us through the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak. This is weird for me. Normally this is a show that looks back at pivotal situations in public relations and strategic communications, what lessons were learned and what it meant in the long run. But that kind of hindsight isn't a luxury that we have when it comes to the COVID-19 Coronavirus. We're still in it, still just trying to get through it, and we're hoping like heck that our leaders know what they're doing. I don't have the expertise to tell you whether that's the case, but the Health and Human Services spokesman, under the George W Bush administration, Bill Pierce, well, he does.


Bill Pierce:

So many times we've come up with plans, and each and every time it seems, they threw the plan out and started to make up a new one, and they didn't need to. There's some basic fundamentals that they should've adhered to and didn't unfortunately.


Dusty Weis:

And also, a real-life epidemiologist, an expert who fights disease outbreaks by day, and battles misinformation by night.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I am really disappointed that Hugh Laurie is not on the case right now. He's one of my favorite actors, and I really could use his help right now.


Dusty Weis:

So two promises to open the show, you will not, in the coming hour of programming, hear out of my mouth the words, "in these uncertain times." I think we've all heard that one enough. But the second promise here, you will feel some comfort hearing from the experts to whom we will speak. I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media, and this is Lead Balloon, a show about disasters in public relations and marketing, told by the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them, or are living them, in this case.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in, I hope you and yours are well. Like you, I'm just trying to feel normal, and it turns out, I do that by staying busy. This episode was not even on my calendar, I just went and made it. But I think it's one of the most important things that I've done in a while.


Dusty Weis:

Please do make sure you subscribe to Lead Balloon in your favorite podcast app, that way when I get all manic and put out another random episode out of the blue, you won't miss it. Follow Podcamp Media on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and you won't miss any of our live tapings either. And because you don't keep a member of the Bush Administration waiting longer than necessary, Bill Pierce joins us now.


Dusty Weis:

Mr. Pierce, I'm frankly humbled you'd take the time, thank you. You were a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Centers for Disease Control, and you held that position in the George W Bush Administration. Specifically, you served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for HHS, under Secretary Tommy G Thompson until 2005. These days you're a Senior Director at APCO Worldwide, offering consulting services and crisis communications, among other topics, and you're an Adjunct Professor at John's Hopkins, where you teach media relations and crisis communication. All that is to say, you are one of the most uniquely qualified people in the world to assess the Coronavirus communications response, if you don't mind my saying so, because you've been there.


Dusty Weis:

So, my first question for you is, from a comms perspective, how are they doing?


Bill Pierce:

Well, first of all let me just say Dusty, thanks for that generous introduction. I think I'll take you everywhere and have you introduce me. And then second of all, please call me Bill throughout this, that's much more comfortable for me. I think the Administration is doing okay. I think they clearly could do better. They started off I think, not so good, they stumbled a bit, but they are getting better. This is not terribly unusual in a crisis situation. I will say, having been through a few in my day, often times that's exactly what we see play out is, they can start a little rough. The whole goal, is to get better.


Dusty Weis:

In crisis communication situations, they often tell you, be proactive, be consistent, manage expectations, and be truthful. You teach at John's Hopkins, am I missing anything there?


Bill Pierce:

No, that's basically it. The challenge in a crisis situation often times is, you want to be truthful, you need to tell folks those hard truths often times, but the problem is, you always don't know them, because it is literally something unfolding before you that is not something which you have any control over or your organization has control over. And in this case, none of us actually have control over this virus, all we can do is react to it. So, it's extremely hard to do that in the moment, and that I think is probably the biggest, if you will, unforced error made early on was, clearly there was a struggle in the Administration about how much to tell people, and what to tell them right from the get-go.


Bill Pierce:

We're now at a place where I think we're telling those hard truths, but three weeks ago we were not in that spot.


Dusty Weis:

Is there a problem there from the perception of the public then, with the consistency of the messaging on this, where people heard early on that, "Oh, it's not going to be such a big deal," and now all of a sudden we're being told, hundreds of thousands might die, and we all need to stay in our houses until at least the beginning of May?


Bill Pierce:

Yes, that was the problem. And even today, sometimes there inconsistent messaging going on out there. If you live in Florida, you're hearing one thing from your Governor, Oklahoma you're hearing from your Governor, then hearing something different now at the federal level. And that is a problem, because even though trust in government has gone down over the years, at times like these this is where the public looks, they look to the government. So therefore, when there are inconsistencies, that is definitely a problem. And it's very... The old saying, "You only get one chance to make a good first impression," it's very difficult. You can, and you must try, but it's very difficult to get back to where you started from, if you were starting in a pretty good place as far as trust is concerned.


Dusty Weis:

You're based in DC, I was in DC for client work, I had to check the calendar, it was only three weeks ago, on March 12th when they shut everything down, but it feels like three years ago at this juncture. But I've got to say, it was a little bit eerie to be in DC on that day. We were some of the last people out of the congressional buildings up on Capitol Hill before they closed them down to non-essential personnel. And DC normally bustling this time of year, was a ghost town. What's it like out there right now?


Bill Pierce:

It is still a ghost town, that was my last day in the offices coincidentally. Our office then pretty much shut down, we did a deep clean of our office, and then they said, "Look, if you have to come into the office to pick up equipment or something of that nature, please do, but otherwise let's all work from home." So I haven't been downtown, but I've seen lots of pictures of downtown as an example, and it is less busy than a Sunday in late August, which is about as slow a time as it gets in Washington DC. It's very, very quiet.


Bill Pierce:

Now, I live in a neighborhood that is just outside the city, it's an urban suburban neighborhood, and I jokingly say, where I live it looks a little bit like Mayberry, and we're doing a good job on the social distancing issues, but people are out. It's not a ghost town, there's people out walking their dogs, there are children, but everybody is practicing those guidelines. Absolutely, we're all doing it. Even if we get together, we stand across the street from one another, we stand 10 feet apart within those yards. So I think DC is doing a pretty good job, not everywhere, but generally speaking a generally good job, but it's definitely different.


Dusty Weis:

That week when they shut everything down, I remember thinking at the beginning of the week, "Okay, something's going to happen and we need to be prepared for that, but I've got time to make this business trip to DC real quick." And then I got out there, and Wednesday night the NBA shut everything down, Thursday everything on Capital Hill shut down, and I'm talking to a cab driver and saying, "They wouldn't shut the airport down on me, would they?" But it just felt like everything unfolded so fast at that point.


Dusty Weis:

As a former spokesperson for a federal agency, what do you think was happening behind the scenes that drove that decision making process, and was it properly communicated to the American public?


Bill Pierce:

Well, as we talked about early on, I actually don't think they moved fast enough. We knew about the unfolding nature of the Coronavirus back in early January, there's actually some reporting done on it, we know that the White House was aware of what was going on in China and the potential for it in mid-ish January, I don't believe they at the highest levels, took it serious enough to start to take those actions. I think what happened was, two things, one, literally the unfolding saga in Seattle, it moved so quick and so fast, and then New York, it moved so quick and so fast. Both cities very international, extremely dense populations, those are ripe environments for a virus to spread.


Bill Pierce:

And then I also think that the medical experts, the Tony Fauci's of the world, the Deborah Brick's of the world, the CDC's of the world... Don't forget that Nancy Messonier, one of the CDC spokespersons who heads the infectious disease group, she came out really early and basically said, "This is going to be bad." And she was muzzled for it, no doubt about it, and she shouldn't have been. She was telling us the truth, she just told it much sooner than the political apparatus was prepared to tell us. So finally, the facts caught up with politics, that's what happened, and then it just moved.


Bill Pierce:

In a situation like this, there's no time to move slowly and gradually, perhaps around the country in a way, but to go right to, "Okay, everybody go work from home," that has to happen quickly. It's the very best tool we have right now.


Dusty Weis:

I think that's a sobering assessment of what's unfolded over the past three weeks, and I think it feeds into a lot of the reason why we're still having trouble getting people to comply with measures to flatten the curve right now. Is that why it's such a struggle to get people, especially in middle America, to take this seriously?


Bill Pierce:

Exactly. And the other thing that makes this so challenging is, tornado's, hurricanes, even war, are things that are visceral that we can see them, they're events that actually occur, and this is not something we can see. If we're not some place, or know somebody whose had it, it's very hard for us to visualize what's actually going on in New York, to actually see the near chaos in some of the hospitals. That makes it extremely challenging. For better or for worse, this country has become very self-absorbed about our individual selves, and so we think about ourselves a lot. And if we don't see it, if we don't see our friends, if we don't see our relatives, or our small town, then we don't think about it.


Bill Pierce:

There's some analogies that are worth bringing up and talking about. For instance, there was just a really good documentary about polio that we saw the other day on PBS to remind us, that in the 50s, polio would literally strike an entire town, small towns included especially, and you'd see in the span of a couple of weeks, 50, 90, 100, 150 kids go down with polio, some never to recover. And again, nobody saw it coming. It was very hard to grasp the seriousness until it happened. And we're now in a situation where we don't have polio in this country anymore, because we had a vaccination program, so people don't worry about polio. We hope they continue to think about it and get those vaccinations. And that's the situation we're in now. If it doesn't touch me, people aren't thinking about it, but this disease is going to come to all of America. It's in every State.


Bill Pierce:

There are no differences between States, there's nothing unique about any State, any locality, any county, any city, that will keep this virus from coming, it will come. It will come everywhere. And the question is, is the more you're prepared for it in advance, the better of you will fare.


Dusty Weis:

I think that the polio analogy is very apt, and I'm glad that you brought that up. And I'm glad that you also point out that, in a few months time this will have touched every American life, because I think one of the big hurdles that science and medical communicators face, is putting statistics into a language that has an emotional impact for regular people. Because if you tell an average American, social distancing is going to limit the fatalities to 200,000 instead of 2,000,000, intellectually I think that they know that 2,000,000 is a much bigger number than 200,000, but emotionally that just doesn't hit home for them.


Dusty Weis:

Is there a better way to convey these sorts of numbers and statistics in times of crisis, without coming across as alarmist?


Bill Pierce:

Well, I think that... What I would do is, I would use the six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon analogy. We know that, we understand that in our culture, right? So what does that 200,000 represent, what does that mean? That means if there were... let's just say there are 200 million Americans and there are 200,000 that are going to die, there's a pretty good chance you as one of those 200 million, what is that a one in 10 chance?


Dusty Weis:

If you figure that every American knows 1000 people-


Bill Pierce:

Right.


Dusty Weis:

... then you're looking at one out of every 100 people you know could die.


Bill Pierce:

Right, that's the better way I think to put it is, in that reality timeframe, or that reality from of, each of us probably know 1000 people at least, so if 200,000 die in this country from this disease, the odds are you're going to know someone. You might know 10, you might know more, but the point is we have to put it in some kind of context where they will understand it. And again, I think the other big reality is, and this is a harder one, it just is not going to spare small towns, it isn't going to happen. It's a question of when, not if.


Dusty Weis:

Switching from the impact to average Americans, to the impact to frontline workers who are out there risking their lives to help save lives. There was a story in Bloomberg, and I'll be honest I'm hearing similar stories through secondhand sources, that physicians and nurses are being disciplined, and even fired, for talking to the media right now. From a crisis communication standpoint, is this a common practice, and is it a good practice at this juncture?


Bill Pierce:

Unfortunately, it is, I don't know if I'd say common practice, but it's certainly not unheard of, because in a crisis, you try your best to control the message. Now that doesn't mean you fire people, or clamp down on them, actually, you should probably encourage often times those folks to communicate. But they need to know, or have some sense of direction, what you'd like them to say. But what I do know is, anytime you try to really clamp down on and prohibit people from saying anything, and often times that's done by not sharing information with them, so you don't communicate with your own employees, you'll actually make the situation worse than you will better. You will force leakers, you will push the leaking to happen.


Bill Pierce:

So the better practice, as we always in communications when we're training clients, governments, whoever it might be, there are all these... they're very important audiences, obviously, it's the audience outside of your organization, the general public, depending on the circumstance, but as important are your employees. Particularly in this day of Facebook, Twitter, and SnapChat, and Instagram, and other things I don't even know about, you want to communicate to them, you want to tell them what you are doing as a company to protect them, or keeping them apprised of the situation. Let's say it's a fire at a chemical plant, they need to know what's going on, they need to know are there any employees injured, they need to know what we're doing to mitigate.


Bill Pierce:

So to me, you want to really over-communicate to your internal audiences, your employee audiences, with the knowledge that they are going to communicate outside those walls regardless of what you do. And frankly ask them, if they do... You should basically say, "And here's our media policy, so if you take it upon yourself to communicate with the media, understood, please let us know." I mean, there are things you should put in place to try to encourage them to keep you informed of such a thing. But again, firing them will always backfire, always.


Dusty Weis:

Especially when you're talking about physicians, and EMTs, and police officers expressing concern for the lack of PPE that they have going out into the field right now.


Bill Pierce:

Yeah. And again, that will never be successful, you should never do that, that's just wrong.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah. That much said, when we're talking about the medical apparatus, especially with HIPPA, especially with patient privacy, I feel like there is this inclination to clamp down on information getting out, but at this point, should more be done to show Americans the impact that Coronavirus is having in hospitals in places like Seattle and New York? Would a peak behind the curtain do more to drive home the seriousness of this situation?


Bill Pierce:

I think it can, it's very challenging. So you have obviously medical privacy issues that you have to... even in a time of crisis, you have to pay extreme attention to. The other thing is, frankly, we don't want to get in the way. Whether it's media, or whether it's government officials, you do not want to get in the way in the delivery of this service, of the care to the people who need it. So you don't want to get in the way. So that's one of the biggest things to me, as you look at these kinds of circumstances...


Bill Pierce:

Having been there when 911 hit, when Anthrax hit, my former boss, former Wisconsin Governor, Tommy Thompson, quickly pulled together a command center of sorts, bringing a lot of different agencies together in one place right outside of his office, and ultimately he built a command center there. We wanted to bring the press in to show the public what was going on, because at a time like that it's hard to see my government in action, so we wanted to show the government in action, but we had to do it very carefully that we didn't interfere with the action going on. So you have to think about that, how you do it.


Bill Pierce:

But I do think, peaks behind the curtain, so to speak, are actually important. I often times use the analogy of the following: You're in an airplane, and you could be a nervous flyer or not, but you hit a rough patch of turbulence, and for 10 minutes the plane's bouncing around like crazy, the pilot says nothing to you, you think your worst thoughts no matter what kind of flyer you are. So if you're a veteran flyer, your thoughts may go to, "Oh, crimeny, I can't read my book, this is annoying," to a nervous flyer saying, "Oh my gosh, the plane's going down." Compare that to the pilot-


Bill Pierce:

The plane's going down. Compare that to the pilot comes on and says, "Okay folks, we're going to be hitting some turbulence for about the next 10 to 15 minutes. Everybody please buckle up. Don't get up." Compare those two things. The second is better. You're not fixing the turbulence, you can't fix the turbulence, but what you do is you've told your audience information that they can process and use, and that veteran flyer now says, "Okay, fine." That nervous flyer says, "Oh, I'm still nervous, but at least I know something now."


Bill Pierce:

That's the situation we're in now. We need to tell Americans the truth about what's going on as best we can, when we can and not hold back from them, because I also believe we can trust Americans as a group, collectively to do the right things. Individually, in small groups, you're always going to find people who won't. But collectively I think Americans do the right thing overall, we can count on them.


Bill Pierce:

Now, I am a realistic optimist. I wake up every day expecting the best things to happen, prepare for them not to occur, and that's the realist part of me, but I think we're seeing examples of where that attitude is actually working, typically in New York, which is, as we all know, a fairly cantankerous, individualistic, bustling, hustling city who doesn't like to be told anything. They're seeming to get the message. Let's hope everybody else does.


Dusty Weis:

That's a hopeful note. In that vein of transparency then, you were recently quoted in an NPR article and the headline was, Where Has the CDC Gone? In that article? You note that the CDC is full of qualified leaders who could be communicating directly with the American public about this crisis, but we never see them in the press briefings. Why is that and is it problematic to you?


Bill Pierce:

I'll answer the second half of that question first and the answer is, I think it is somewhat problematic because they are expert, there's no doubt about it. I think the reason we're not seeing it, is going back to this thing I said, where oftentimes the entity, in this case, the government, in this case, the White House is trying their best to control their message and put the people they want in front of the camera for a host of different reasons.


Bill Pierce:

I think that's to the detriment of the public at large. Again, go back to Nancy Messonnier, who did one of these briefings and told the truth early and frankly people got upset with her about it, and she got pushed aside. Now, having said that, bear in mind also that these people have a day job to do, so to speak, as opposed to speak to the public.


Bill Pierce:

I'm less concerned about seeing the same people every day. Though, I think Tony Fauci gives America great comfort. We want to see him every day. I've said this before, I'll say it again, he's built for this. Could not have a better person in this position at this time under these circumstances than him. But going back to the CDC, so it's less that we see Bob Redfield or Anne Schuchat or Nancy Messonnier there every day, but that we see somebody from the CDC up there talking, because they do have a certain level of expertise.


Bill Pierce:

The other thing I'll say is, and I also shared in that article, I can't remember if it was printed, during the anthrax crisis, the White House at the time, very quickly realized as far as information sharing and knowledge, et cetera, we're out of our depth, we don't possess that expertise. At HHS Thompson convened, we had a rough start. I will admit, we had a rough and Rocky start in that and we were far from perfect as well.


Bill Pierce:

But quickly started to do a daily briefing with the press that Thompson would lead, but realistically he would just quickly open it up, say a few small things and then he would turn it over to people from, Tony Fauci, the CDC, the FDA, our pandemic preparedness people, not quite the same structure as today, but the early on experts we had who were talking about what we're doing and what we know. We did that every single day. He didn't play a huge role, but he always played a role and then we had the experts. It was sometimes a rotating group of experts, but there were always people who were expert.


Bill Pierce:

The other difference I would point out is these briefings are held at the White House where you have political reporters, no disrespect for them, but they really don't have the in depth knowledge of the healthcare reporters in this country.


Bill Pierce:

I think also HHS should lead something similar for the healthcare reporters where they're given a chance to really go into the in depth issues and get more information on a regular basis, get their questions answers on a regular basis than is going on now. It would be complimentary to, in coordination with that White House briefing, but they should... I think that would be one recommendation I would have that they should do.


Dusty Weis:

I think you raise an important point there because certain media organizations have raised objections to the politicization of these White House briefings, and have even threatened at this point to end their live coverage of the daily White House briefings.


Bill Pierce:

Correct.


Dusty Weis:

Is that the right course of action here? What should be the role of these briefings, and is it critical that they be carried live?


Bill Pierce:

Again, I have no problem with the White House doing briefings, with the president being up there with a group of experts because the reach is so great. Absolutely, the reach is great for people to watch it. Again, I think they're watching it to see Tony Fauci, to hear from Deborah Birx, that's what I think the public is really doing because they do speak such real truths.


Bill Pierce:

Should they be carried live or not? There's arguments for yes and no. Again, I'm not fond of the president constantly talking about himself and the politics and things of that nature. I think there's no place for that in a briefing like that, really in this circumstance, but you have to weigh that against the fact that Tony Fauci and Deborah Birx, who are these truth tellers, they get to talk to America every day. So, you have to weigh the two together.


Bill Pierce:

It's a tough call, I criticize no one for taking either, if you want to carry it live or you don't want to carry live or only carry parts of it, I don't. But what I think they should do is add this other briefing for the healthcare reporters, because even though it won't be a public audience hearing this briefing, those reporters are going to take that information and write these stories, which are everywhere; The Washington Post, our hometown newspaper, it's three quarters stories about this subject.


Dusty Weis:

If you were turning the dials behind the scenes right now as the HHS spokesman, it sounds like you would be turning down the Donald Trump and turning up the Dr. Fauci a little bit. But by all accounts, President Trump is a very difficult person to say no to. You got to work for Secretary Tommy Thompson, who I know from experience was a pretty affable person and very likely to defer to the experts on a thing like this. How do you as a crisis communicator approach someone like President Trump and say, "Let's ease back a little bit and let the experts take center stage for a while."


Bill Pierce:

Yeah, it's extremely difficult. It's extraordinarily challenging. I think our two best examples are Fauci and Birx, because they bring such a high level of credibility. They walk into that room, Fauci, for those who know him, this is not unexpected nor surprising. He goes back to 1984 when he faced the AIDS crisis in this country and a community that was up in arms that literally burned him in effigy because they didn't think he was doing enough.


Bill Pierce:

Later, many of those same people who marched against him, called for his ouster, burned him in effigy became patients and friends because he so persevered and pushed the envelope, behind the scenes by the way, with presidents Reagan and Bush, the first Bush to actually move pretty quickly to do something. His credibility level is unimpeachable as an infectious disease investigator and scientist.


Bill Pierce:

That's very difficult for any politician regardless of who they are or their personality. The question is, is how quickly did you recognize that? Thompson quickly recognized it with Fauci. He quickly recognized this guy is fabulous and he should be out there as often as possible. That's what we did. I think the president was a little more slow coming to that conclusion, but we're now seeing that he's come to that conclusion.


Bill Pierce:

It's very difficult, there's no magic wand. There is absolutely no magic wand to doing something like that. I think the best way to do it is through the perseverance of credible, factual information. You just got to keep pounding and pounding and pounding to the powers that be and hopefully it will break through and it did it, it has.


Bill Pierce:

I think it's getting better. Now, again, the other stuff, the talking about his ratings and all that stuff that I think is relative nonsense, that's not his realm to deal with, is to keep the country focused on what they need to know with the facts.


Dusty Weis:

One thing that you didn't have to deal with when you worked at HHS, and I think that this was a lucky thing for you, you got out right before social media came into the scene, but I want to talk about the role that social media, misinformation and fake news have played in sowing doubt in the hearts of the American public right now. How do you go about pushing back against that kind of stuff as a professional communicator when people are sharing around on Facebook that, you can prevent getting the coronavirus by gargling salt water.


Bill Pierce:

Right. It's extremely difficult. In my work since then we have had to deal with a lot of this same situation in a different way, but still nonetheless deal with it. The example is of course issues around vaccines and vaccine safety.


Bill Pierce:

Again, there are two things. I think one, you have to take somewhat of a long view. Even though we're not in a situation where it seems like we can take the long view, we have to take the long view. The other reality we have to deal with is to look at it as containment as opposed to stopping. You can't stop. There are always going to be with us those who... Whatever their case may be, don't think we should get vaccinated. Those who don't believe COVID-19, the coronavirus is real or it's overblown. They're always going to be with us. The key is to try to mitigate it and surround it with the facts and the truth. That to me is the way you go about it.


Bill Pierce:

I think someone said, I don't know who it was exactly, the best defense against false news, false information is to speak the truth often and as many places as you can. That's the best defense. It's not equal to equal. You don't have to... If it's coming out of Facebook, you don't have to do it all back on Facebook, that's what the daily briefing helps with, because you have the president standing there with Fauci and Birx who are telling these hard truths and oftentimes in contradiction to what those things that are popping up on social media are.


Bill Pierce:

That's the best kind of way to go about doing it. What you do is you just continue to push out the truths in all the ways you can push them out, with the goal of keep it contained. You're never going to win over those hardcores. What you don't want to do is you don't want to lose potentially persuadable people or people who could be influenced. You don't want to lose them. You want to really focus your attention in that area.


Dusty Weis:

I feel like in the span of the last five minutes, you've transitioned from being my expert interview subject to now being my personal therapist because not fighting back against misinformation on social media is something that I really just need to accept.


Bill Pierce:

It's not not fighting back, it's how you do it, that counts. You are fighting back, you're pushing back, but it's not a direct... Think of it, if you were a military strategist, it's not having a frontal assault, it's doing a left hook around the back. It's doing a left hook around the right, it's putting a small wall here to keep them from advancing, but then it's trying to come around to the left and the right flanks.


Dusty Weis:

Flank them, pincer move, isolate, and cut off from the supply lines. Okay, I like that.


Bill Pierce:

That's right.


Dusty Weis:

It hearkens back to an old... Randall Munroe is an online cartoonist and one of his earliest cartoons is just a guy sitting at his laptop and there's a speech bubble coming from the other room and it says, "Honey, are you coming to bed soon?" He says, "I can't go to sleep now. Someone is wrong on the internet." I identify with that on a very personal level.


Bill Pierce:

It's extremely difficult. Our natural urge is, if you will, punch back, it doesn't work. At the end of the day, you will not succeed at that.


Dusty Weis:

I think part of the reason you see so much misinformation on the internet right now is people are scared. They're uncertain, and justifiably so. You had mentioned speaking with hospital employees and frontline workers about this situation, and I have a very specific question because this pandemic is hitting different people in different ways. Personally, this is one that's hit my family very personally. My wife is a general practice physician.


Dusty Weis:

Through sheer dumb luck, she has been here at home with me on maternity leave since the birth of our daughter in February. Sigh of relief, but in a few weeks now, right as this situation is getting to its ugliest, she's going to be going back to work. She is a firefighter running into a burning building right now and she's going to leave me and her 12 week old daughter and our toddler and go do her job, whatever the costs. Like many essential personnel right now, I think that makes her a hero.


Bill Pierce:

They're always heroes to be honest.


Dusty Weis:

The president said something the other week that got her hackles up. He insinuated that healthcare workers bear the blame for the shortage of personal protective equipment to keep them safe on the job and that didn't really sit right with us. If you were counseling the president on the messaging that he should send to all the frontline workers who are fighting this right now. Doctors and nurses who are in harms way, dealing with shortages, but also pay and benefit cuts in some cases. Also, police, firefighters, paramedics, grocery store clerks, postal workers, Amazon warehouse stockers, the people who are critical to our nation getting through this pandemic. If you were counseling the president on how to speak to these people, what would you tell him?


Bill Pierce:

Don't criticize these people. Again, these are our true... Who knew that the stock boy down at my local grocery store was going to be an essential frontline personnel in this battle? No one. As soon as I get the first chance, I'm going to go down there and make sure he knows it and she knows it. In my case, these are young kids, these are like 19, 20 year old kids. They didn't sign up for this at all, but now they're stepping up to the plate, which is again, I think a great thing. But especially to those who are in the middle of it, as your wife is going to be soon; the doctors, the nurses, everybody who's in the hospital providing whatever they are, janitors on [inaudible 00:35:43] for these people, they need A, nothing but encouragement, nothing but our gratitude. We need to do everything we can to make sure they have all the supplies, whatever those supplies are, as soon as they do.


Bill Pierce:

I think those supplies are everything from the obvious, the PPE to the... And it might be virtual, to the virtual hug and pat on the back, because without them, we're in trouble, and that's all there is to it. To the president he has to stop that. It's not responsible. It's that simple.


Dusty Weis:

Bill Pierce, who served as Health and Human Services spokesman under the George W. Bush administration, because this is Lead Balloon, the show would not be complete without some fun stories about working in the White House. Later in the program-


Bill Pierce:

When you are a cabinet secretary with an armed security detail that is with you, every close play at first phase, you get called for you.


Dusty Weis:

What was it like working for one of the most colorful cabinet members in recent US history? Directly after the break.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Touch those groceries, and then you would need to, without washing your hands, touch your face a lot, or you would also take your tomatoes and rub them directly into your eyes.


Dusty Weis:

We throw back a brandy old fashioned with an expert, a world-class epidemiologist, bust some coronavirus myths and take questions from the listeners. It's all coming up in a minute.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. This is a podcast that explores communications disasters. Frankly, I cannot think of a bigger disaster than the one that is unfolding on social media right now. Maybe more than we've ever seen before, rumors and misinformation are running wild on social media, and that's a problem when lives are at stake.


Dusty Weis:

Like Bill Pierce said, there's only one way to push back against misinformation and that's with fact from the mouth of an expert. Thankfully, I happen to know one of those and she's got a knack for busting coronavirus myths. In fact, she's been doing it for the BBC lately and joined me on Facebook Live to take some questions from listeners.


Dusty Weis:

Dr. Maria Sundaram is an epidemiologist specializing in upper respiratory ailments and a postdoctoral fellow at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory university. While she would never brag about it, that's a pretty big deal, they share a campus with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. She is really at ground zero right now for the global response pandemic. Dr. Sundaram, thanks for joining us. How are you doing?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I'm doing all right. I'm hanging in there. How are you?


Dusty Weis:

Doing the same. I feel like that's how all conversations are starting now with just, "No, really, how are you doing?" That's good, I think it's important to be sensitive and to just care about people under circumstances being what they are right now. But first of all, ask an epidemiologist. This is an old hat for you at this point, but it's a neat story. Way back when, this was all just getting started in January, you posted on Facebook, "I'm an epidemiologist, ask me anything, basically."


Dusty Weis:

Now, you and I are Facebook friends from way back in undergrad at the university of Wisconsin. I've been watching from afar is your career has developed over the years here, but what prompted you to do that and what has the reaction been so far?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

What actually prompted me to do this was a tweet that I saw speaking of communication in mid-January about an interesting cluster of 27 cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. This is of significant concern to a lot of virologists, especially those who work in the area because of its similarity to SARS. Initially I thought, that's, interesting. It's definitely unfortunate for the people who have pneumonia. I'll be taking a closer look to see how they handle this, and it'll be interesting to see how this wraps up.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

At the time, I was teaching a class on decision making and public health, and I'm actually still teaching that class, but now it's online.


Dusty Weis:

I get-


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And I'm actually still teaching that class, but now it's online.


Dusty Weis:

Like everything.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Right. And so I expressed that to my students and they actually had a lot of questions and then they sort of became different questions over the course of the next couple of weeks. And that's when I decided, "Hey, other friends might have similar questions and I would love for them to get the answers from someone who is trained in epidemiology instead of the internet."


Dusty Weis:

There's a lot of people out there on the internet that are not epidemiologists, it turns out.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

It does turn out that way, yes.


Dusty Weis:

And so in the time since you posted that, this is more than two months later and that thread is still active. I saw you were posting on that earlier today. How many people have chimed in with questions for you there?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I actually have not counted the number of people. I think the last time I checked it was like 250 comments or so. I'm kind of a long winded person, so let's estimate that probably half of those are from me. I don't know, maybe 100 different questions from maybe 40 or 50 different people.


Dusty Weis:

What does that tell you is going through people's minds as this has developed, and how have the questions that people ask changed as the time has gone by?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Definitely. I think the way that people have been thinking about this has been changing over time. Definitely when I first posted this, I would imagine majority of my Facebook friends didn't know what I was talking about. They didn't know what this virus was and they didn't know why I would be posting.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

But the folks that I work with in public health who might not be respiratory virus experts, we're definitely interested in wanting to know more. So the questions started out, "What is this virus?" "What's its virologic origin?" "Should I be concerned?" "Is this as bad as flu?" "Is it something worse?"


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And then it just became, "Should I wear a mask when I go to the grocery store?" So as you can imagine, things have changed so rapidly in the course of maybe two months that the questions have also changed quite a bit from like, "What's going on in China," way over there to, "Can I leave my house?"


Dusty Weis:

Right, right. The questions went from academic and curious to, "Holy crap, what's going on? This is terrifying."


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Right. I think as the situation moved closer and closer to our own homes, the questions became closer and closer to us as well.


Dusty Weis:

I want to note early on here that as we're having this discussion and as I talk about this topic, if I seem lighthearted, if I make a joke here or there, it's not that I'm not taking this thing seriously. It's very serious. I think that should be clear to just about anybody with a forebrain at this point, and I'm lightening my approach to it because it's scary and that's the way that I deal with scary things.


Dusty Weis:

And so in that vein, I should also note that I've been doing in my bunker here in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, I've been doing a semi-regular feature known as the Covid Cocktail Hour. And in honor of you, a Wisconsin ex-pat, I have mixed up a classic Wisconsin Brandy Old Fashioned, which I see you are also consuming at this point.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I am very happy to be able to consume this drink with you in solidarity and in appreciation of Wisconsin and all that she encompasses.


Dusty Weis:

You said earlier that the maraschino cherries for that beverage actually arrived in the mail earlier today.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Perfect timing.


Dusty Weis:

Skin of the teeth there.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Yeah, couldn't ask for a better scenario.


Dusty Weis:

Can we raise a glass right now to the brave and competent workers at Amazon who made that possible?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

And who are still out there grinding right now in spite of everything that's going on.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

You mentioned humor as a way to cope with this, and I think that is extraordinarily important and very, very healthy. And I really would encourage people to use humor in whatever way they can, because this is a stressful situation for humans. No matter who you are, this is a stressful and scary situation and even if you are like, "Why am I scared? I'm just inside watching Netflix all day," you still have a right to feel anxious and freaked out, because it is a crazy situation none of us alive today have experienced anything like this before.


Dusty Weis:

Thank you for that. Actually that comes as a self at this point for me. That's really nice to hear.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

It might feel weird to make light of this given that it is serious, but I think it's really important and in some cases necessary.


Dusty Weis:

Why is it that we still know so little about this virus at this point? If Dr. House was on the case right now, he would have solved this and wrapped it up inside a 45 minute TV episode.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I am really disappointed that Hugh Laurie is not on the case right now. He is one of my favorite actors and I really could use his help right now. I would love that. I think we all would. The shortest answer to that is that this is a brand new virus that didn't exist really before probably December or possibly November.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

This is an entirely new species of thing. So in that time we have identified it, we've mapped the genome, we've identified a test for it. We've had several different tests now all over the world that people have developed. We've tried to look at the epidemiology from an age perspective, from an underlying health perspective, from a transmission perspective, who is most at risk if they're exposed?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And all of that has happened within the space of two to three months. I think that is actually pretty amazing. When we compare that with influenza, which is another respiratory virus, it can be quite severe. Influenza has been circulating for a long time and we've known about it for a long time and a lot of people, for example, who brought up the influenza pandemic of 1918, we just had the 100 year anniversary of that a few years ago.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

We've had a lot more time to understand influenza strains than we have had to understand this particular virus.


Dusty Weis:

Realistically, how can we expect the timeline of this virus to play out over the weeks and months ahead, knowing that you don't have any ability to foresee what elected leaders or business leaders are going to recommend doing, and whether or not they will heed the good advice that is given to them? How long are we going to be cooped up in our houses? I think is the burning question on everybody's mind.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

The two short answers I can give you is, I don't know and definitely longer than everyone wants to be cooped up. When I was doing my masters research in Bangladesh 10 years ago, I received some kind of threatening letter from a community member and I had to stay inside for two weeks, just for my own safety.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And I really am empathizing with everyone right now because of that experience that I already had. Two weeks does not seem like a long time and then when you're inside for two weeks you're like, "Wow, this is a really long time. I'm ready to be done with this." And I can't tell you how many times people have asked me in the last two or three days, "When are we going to be done?"


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Unfortunately not soon. It's very, very hard to know other than not soon, just because of the number of factors that are in place. So risk communication is a big part of that, people understanding what they need to do. Another really big part is knowing exactly what the resources are. If doctors and nurses and other healthcare providers have access to PPE, which they currently don't.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Another really big important part is identifying exactly how the spread is going to occur across the United States. You mentioned New York and LA. We're seeing that Detroit may be another hotspot. There is an outbreak in rural Georgia just now as well associated with a funeral. So it's going to be a very hard several months, at least, for people, and possibly more.


Dusty Weis:

We've got some questions coming in on Facebook now. One from Mike Roach, Mike has a crazy social distancing question. His 80 year old parents are downsizing into a new condo. He wants to know if they stay in different rooms with the doors closed, can we move their furniture out and into the new place presumably, if they're careful and disinfect all of the surfaces when they leave?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

As long as no one has recent known exposure and no one has any kind of respiratory symptoms, and I'm really talking even mild respiratory symptoms. If you have a scratchy throat or if you have a very mild runny nose, I would think twice about this. But if you have really no respiratory symptoms and you're able to limit your exposure both by not getting too close and by frequently washing your hands, I think that's fine.


Dusty Weis:

Molly wants to know first and foremost about wearing cloth gloves to bring in the mail. I would imagine Molly is asking about bringing in the mail and packages that she's already doing a really good job of social distancing, but wearing the cloth gloves, does it do any good?


Dusty Weis:

And then afterwards, what do you do with the gloves? She heard that heat kills the coronavirus, so you just throw them in the dryer on hot afterwards and then you can reuse the gloves. What do you think?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I would not use cloth gloves. It's not clear whether heat in the dryer would be damaging to the virus. It's likely that that's the case, but I can tell you that I have not seen a study that has put cloth gloves in a dryer to see how much virus was able to be recovered from those gloves afterwards.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

There are other problems with cloth gloves and wearing gloves in general that you might want to consider. So one of those problems is that cloth gloves are porous, the holes in cloth are certainly big enough for viruses to pass through. The other thing is that if you do not take gloves off correctly, you can still get virus on your hands, and that is actually something that takes a little bit of a practice to get right.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

What I think is probably a lot easier and probably safer for you, is to wash your hands carefully.


Dusty Weis:

Just bring the mail in, set it down in the corner, and then wash your hands real well.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Yeah. Here's what would need to happen for you to be exposed to coronavirus through your mail. So someone would need to touch your mail that had a lot of virus on their hands. Then it would need to go in your mailbox, or that person would need to at least touch the handle of your mailbox.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Then that virus would have to survive for the amount of time between when the mail is deposited and when you pick it up. Then it would have to survive on your hands and you would have to not wash your hands, and then you'd have to rub your face with your hands. So there are so many different steps in this process that I think this is maybe not the likeliest exposure that you might have.


Dusty Weis:

We've got a call coming in here. You're on Lead Balloon with epidemiologist, Dr. Maria Sundaram.


Sarah:

Hi Maria. Thanks for answering my call. I really appreciate it. So I just have some practical type question. I think with this whole pandemic it's hard to know how overboard you're going or not going. Considering I'm pregnant, my husband has an underlying condition.


Sarah:

He's also in the healthcare profession in the emergency department and coming into contact with people who may have Covid-19, or may not, or may not have had a test yet. I'm trying to be extra cautious as far as when he comes home, he takes off his shoes, he puts them in a bag, he immediately takes off his scrubs, puts them in the washing machine and he can't wash them in hot water.


Sarah:

He washes them in warm water and with the regular detergent. I think it's just some sort of organic whatever based thing. Does that kill the germs or does it need to be hot water with some sort of pre soaking sanitizing special detergent?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

That's a great question. I would say one of the weirdly good things about coronavirus is that it has something called an envelope. The envelope is basically a shell around the virus that can be punctured just by the use of soap, which is why washing your hands very thoroughly is a great way to clean your hands. So I think the detergent is fine and warm water is fine.


Sarah:

Okay. So the same kind of goes as far as mopping the floors. It's just as long as you've got soap and water, it kind of destroys that envelope and you don't really need to do the bleach on top of that?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Yeah, I would say it depends on how well you think that you are getting to those surfaces. For clothing that's clearly being agitated, it's very clear that's being cleaned. I'm not the best mopper, I'll be honest with you, I'm just kind of like a lazy mopper.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

So if you're anything like me, you might think about something that is going to require maybe less scrubbing, and bleach is certainly very, very effective. In that case, alcohol would also be effective. You are both in a really challenging situation and I totally hear you when you say that it's hard to know if you're going overboard or not, especially because you are pregnant and because your husband is potentially exposed through his job.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

It's a challenging situation to be in. It sounds to me like you're doing everything right.


Sarah:

Thanks.


Dusty Weis:

Sarah, you also had a question on Facebook about your groceries?


Sarah:

Yeah, so I'm going to try to do, for the first time ever, the delivery, which I figure is just one less person in the grocery store. I mean I can't really help if some person gets close to me in the grocery store. I mean I can try to keep my distance, but I've ran into people who are constantly invading my bubble. So I've read that they've found that this virus can last on stainless steel for three days and plastic for a long time and even cardboard for a day. Do I need to really sanitize my groceries when I bring them in?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Yeah. No, I think a lot of people are curious about this. And I know that there was a YouTube video out there, a GP, and he's using sterile technique to disinfect his groceries. So we were just talking about this with the mail, and I was just explaining all the steps that would need to happen for you to be exposed through that fomite transmission.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And I know that you know what a fomite is, but just for anyone else again who may be listening, a fomite is any kind of surface where germs can stick around and infect something else. So that could be your keys, it could be a countertop, it could be a can of tomatoes at the grocery store. So in order for you to be exposed through this particular scenario, you need to have groceries that someone else had touched or coughed on.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

The virus would need to stay there for a very short time, sort of survive there and still be alive when you got to them. Then you would need to touch those groceries, and then you would need to without washing your hands, touch your face a lot. Or you would also take your tomatoes and rub them directly into your eyes I guess.


Dusty Weis:

Don't do that. Don't do that under any circumstances.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

So you can see that there's a lot of different steps to transmission via this route. If you are going to be exposed, what's more likely is exposure through respiratory droplets. So I fully support the idea of getting grocery delivery. I've been doing that myself. In terms of sanitizing your groceries, I don't think that that is necessary.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I will say that things like paper are very challenging to sanitize, because they're porous. If it brings you peace of mind to rub a Lysol wipe over plastic packages, I think that mental health is a large part of this and I'm not going to tell you not to do that, but I think the best thing you can do is just be very careful about washing your hands and not touching your face.


Dusty Weis:

It's kind of the motto that I've been getting by on here at this point is, there are certain vectors where you're likely to be infected and you should take the steps to distance yourself from those, and then there are certain vectors that you could be, but it's highly unlikely that you would be. And so take reasonable precautions, but don't kill yourself with your precautions either. That's counterproductive.


Sarah:

Right. Yeah. My last question, as far as walking the dog, I'm in Milwaukee, I'm in the city, and there's frequently someone coming down the other side of the sidewalk and I'm trying to cross the street and avoid people, but sometimes you just can't help it. People are definitely less than six feet away. Should I be super concerned about that? Right now I'm just kind of like, "Oh well, I'll just look the other way and try to hold my breath for a second." Or is that seriously a problem because they're breathing and I'm breathing in that air?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Unfortunately, I think that is a likelier exposure than fomite transmission from grocery store items. It's really challenging, I know, because you cannot expect to be cooped up inside all of the time. People need fresh air, dogs need to pee, maybe try to find an area that has a little bit less foot traffic.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

And I would say just try to do your best to avoid other people. Again, I would love to see people taking the social distancing a lot more seriously, for people to step out on the street to give you your space just for a moment, and taking the precautions that you need to there.


Sarah:

Yeah. Thank you. Well, thanks so much for answering all my questions. I really appreciate your expertise on this.


Dusty Weis:

Okay. Myth-busting, let's do some of these. These are things all of them that I've actually seen. Yeah, roll up the sleeves here. Things that I've actually seen on social media and the first one is, this is a relevant question right now actually. It's not so much a myth, having a beard, this is a very personal question for me. My wife told me several years ago that if I ever shaved this I could just sleep on the couch for a week. That much said, these are unprecedented times here. What hazard is my soup catcher posing me as we sit here and speak right now?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

So if someone is close enough to you to get virus on your beard, they are close enough to you to get virus all over the rest of your face. So the beard really doesn't play a role there. The major consideration with facial hair is wearing masks correctly. With surgical masks you want to make sure that there are no gaps between the mask and your face.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

So if your beard is a very giant bushy beard and prevents that, you might want to consider trimming it if you want to wear a mask safely. There is actually a very, very good infographic on the CDC website about the types of facial hair you can have an N95 mask as correctly. So the N95 masks, I mentioned, they're like a cup that goes over your nose and mouth like this.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

They have to have an absolute airtight seal to your face. So having any facial hair get in between the mask and your face will destroy the seal and make the mask not work correctly. You could have a mustache, you could have a little soul patch. Those are still fine and you can continue to wear an N95 safely. This is kind of advice specifically for people who have access to an N95 and need them for their work.


Dusty Weis:

Important point to note here, we should not, as general members of the public, all be rushing out and buying N95 masks right now, because there are health professionals who actually need-


Dusty Weis:

Right now, because there are health professionals who actually need those to do their jobs and not die.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

They need them desperately.


Dusty Weis:

Just wanted to point that part out. Glad to hear that I can keep this. Glad to hear that I don't have to downsize to a soul patch, because I tried that once in 2011 and it did not go well.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

It's not a great look for a lot of people. I'll be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of the soul patch. Apologies to all soul patch havers out there. So yeah, you can feel good about your current facial hair status.


Dusty Weis:

Another question. This one probably falls under the category of myths and rumors, but Sarah has heard that dogs can get and carry COVID-19. Should we still be letting our dogs go to daycare, or let other people pet the dog, or let them go to the dog park?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Great questions. Here's what I know. Dogs actually can get a whole other series of coronaviruses that don't infect humans, and in fact they get vaccinated for one of those coronaviruses that causes, in dogs, that causes kennel cough. Those viruses cannot infect humans, and we are safe from them. There was a person in Hong Kong who tested positive for coronavirus, whose dog also tested positive for coronavirus, and for a while we were not certain whether this was a true infection, or maybe the dog was just kissing the owner and got some virus on its nose.


Dusty Weis:

It's a deep kiss with a dog.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Well, you can imagine a dog's nose is... There's a lot of surface area there. Dog's kisses can be quite wet and quite thorough, depending on the dog, and depending on the enthusiasm of the owner. It's possible that that just happened as a result of the dog sort of nosing their human, or licking them. The dog did not appear to have any kind of respiratory symptoms, and then the dog did not test positive again as far as I know. In general, I think this is not the biggest concern you should have. There are no fomite transmission studies on how long viruses can live on dogs. I think it's probably fine to let your dog go to doggy daycare, but I would be, again, just very mindful of washing your hands carefully and trying to avoid touching your face.


Dusty Weis:

Talking to Dr. Sundaram, listening to her. You're struck by her competence and her bedside manner, her expertise. She's smart, but she doesn't lord it over you. She genuinely wants to help people keep themselves safe. She understands that this is a scary time for folks and that's most experts right now. They don't make these predictions to make people sad or angry. They don't want to be right about mass casualties. They're trying to protect lives. To paraphrase, you can have all the best people, but that does you no good if you don't listen to them. So it baffles me how some schmo on the internet could look at someone like Dr. Sundaram and not take her words to heart.


Dusty Weis:

You've spent your career studying this, more than 15 years already. You got your master's at Johns Hopkins, you're a research epidemiologist at the Marshfield Clinic, PhD from the University of Minnesota, Postdoc Fellow at Emory Rollins. Now, why do you think that there are people out there who think that their expertise surpasses yours after they've spent 15 minutes watching a poorly lit YouTube video and reading QAnon posts?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I do actually have a couple of theories about this. One of them is that epidemiology is like a very human science, and you can kind of... Everyone's seen a zombie movie. Maybe not everyone has seen Contagion, but a lot of people have seen a Contagion like movie. You are familiar with these terms of like outbreak, we have to stop the virus, and you know what a vaccine is and you know what quarantine is, and these terms are familiar in this way. The people are like, "Oh I know what that is. I can use my own common sense to identify what's going on here," and because it is such a human science and everyone, I think... This is one of the nice things about epidemiology, is everyone can kind of connect with it in some way.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I think that is maybe where people feel as though they have like maybe more traction. Unfortunately, that can lead to some unfortunate conclusions. People can conclude for example, that vaccines are not for them. That's an unfortunate and incorrect conclusion to make. People can conclude that they don't need to be adhering to social distancing policies, again, an incorrect and unfortunate conclusion to make.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

The positive side of that is that people are sort of naturally interested in this science, and part of the reason that I wanted to sort of answer questions on Facebook was to get people involved in my thought process and my science. The way that I am sort of thinking about this, because I really want to show that there is a lot of thought, and a lot of care that goes into the decisions that are being made.


Dusty Weis:

I just wanted to do a lightning round real quick of other coronavirus myths that I've heard and get your reaction. Coronavirus, is it a bioengineered weapon?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

It is not a bioengineered weapon.


Dusty Weis:

Can you kill it by spraying chlorine on your skin?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Please do not spray chlorine on your skin. That sounds...


Dusty Weis:

Under no circumstances.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

If you would like to wash your skin, if you're concerned that you have virus on your skin, wash it with soap and water. Please do not spray chlorine on your skin. That is very bad for you.


Dusty Weis:

Saw on Facebook the other week that you can prevent coronavirus by gargling salt water.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

That is not true. You cannot do that and you also can't prevent it by taking a bath or shower. Although those are nice things to do, and I don't want to discourage people from doing that. They often feel great, even if you don't see anyone that day, still do it, but it's not going to prevent you from getting coronavirus.


Dusty Weis:

If I can just point out in that vein, this is the most put together I have looked in several weeks right now, so thank you.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I'm feeling very grateful. Wow.


Dusty Weis:

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to clean myself up a little bit, and my wife probably thanks you too. Upstairs.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

Thank you for bringing your A game. I'm feeling like maybe I should've done more to my hair.


Dusty Weis:

This is an interesting one. I've seen it theorized that maybe coronavirus has been around a lot longer than we realized and a bunch of us have already had it and just didn't realize it.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

There's no way to say whether that's the case or not because we have not been testing in the United States. So a lot longer is really like, that's a very qualitative term. That could mean one month or it could mean several years. It certainly has not been around several years. It's possible that it was around in the U.S. longer than when we've identified the first case, which is January 20th.


Dusty Weis:

And last but not least, the toilet paper thing. Why is that a thing that people are hoarding when the virus is respiratory?


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

There are so many think pieces about why people are hoarding toilet paper specifically. My opinion is that this is a scary situation, and you want to make sure that you have the essentials. I think one of the essentials that people think about is toilet paper. I think that kind of underlines what you brought up at the beginning of this, that there is a need for a really consistent and empathetic communication, and I hope that we achieve that at some point, but I also want to acknowledge that it's something that people don't have any experience with. This is something that none of us living have really experienced in our lifetimes, so we're trying to sort this out as we go. Hopefully we'll find some really good things about ourselves, that we are supportive people, that we are empathetic people, that we learn more about each other and that we reach out.


Dr. Maria Sundaram:

I've seen a lot of really heartwarming things about people just doing whatever they can to try to be social in the face of social distancing. You know, having zoom happy hours, and meeting in the street, sort of eight feet apart, drinking a beer. There was a guy who sent over his number to a girl on a drone because he thought... He liked her dancing on the rooftop when she thought that she was dancing by herself. Those are really wonderful things about humans, and I hope that we sort of can see the good things about our willingness to work around this, and our willingness to push through this.


Daniel Matarazzo:

(singing)


Dusty Weis:

If you're looking for the next Dr. Fauci, my money's on Dr. Maria Sundaram, epidemiologist and internet MythBuster who joined us on Facebook Live. We talked for almost an hour and a half. So if you want to hear more from her, the video's up right now on the Podcamp Media Facebook page, check it out. Another internet hero is the gentleman providing the musical accompaniment right now. Daniel Matarazzo has been pumping out the COVID inspired jams on his Twitter account, and it is the pick-me-up you need right now.


Dusty Weis:

Follow him @dannymatz90 there's a link in the episode description. He did give me his blessing to use his work here. Thanks Danny. And speaking of pick-me-ups, I promised you some lively tales from our other guest, former HHS Spokesman, Bill Pierce.


Daniel Matarazzo:

(singing).


Dusty Weis:

This is normally a show that deals with lighter hearted topics than this, so I apologize to our listeners for this diversion, but I think it's important that we cover these sorts of things. But you spent a good deal of time working with secretary Tommy G. Thompson, former Wisconsin Governor, who I know from personal experience is a great source of lighthearted fun.


Bill Pierce:

He is.


Dusty Weis:

What's a fond memory that you have from working in the trenches with Secretary Thompson?


Bill Pierce:

There are a couple that come to mind for me. One of which was... HHS when I was there, had a softball team that was made up of some of the political appointees, some of the people who provided his security detail, some of the career employees, and we were part of a bigger league of agencies. All the agencies and departments had these softball teams.


Bill Pierce:

One of my fond memories, and I've got a picture of it somewhere, I think it's in my office in Washington, not here in my office at home, was a picture of Thompson getting a big hit, because he was a very good softball player. But the thing that was always funny... And what I think just told me a lot about Thompson as a person, and as a pol, as an old fashioned politician, which I think is, to me that's the highest compliment I can pay a political official, was he came to the games. Not just to watch, he came to play, and he would oftentimes ride up in his Harley with his security detail guy. They would come up to the thing, and the other teams were always shocked. Always, they couldn't believe he was there, because a few other cabinet secretaries and high officials came to watch, none of them came to play.


Bill Pierce:

The good news is when you are a cabinet secretary with a security detail, an armed security detail that is with you, you get every close play, so every close play at first base you get called for you. We appreciated that very much, but that's a very fond memory I have of him, that just showed you what kind of person he was.


Bill Pierce:

The other real fond memory I have was, it was over Christmas during the middle of the anthrax crisis and 911, so this is December 2011, and we were all in on a Saturday, because we were doing our daily press briefing that we did. We were all there on Saturday doing it, and my wife came down with me, she was over with a crew of people cleaning the church, which is walking distance from HHS, where HHS is on on Capitol Hill.


Bill Pierce:

Thompson comes in at one point, to all of us after we're done, and he says, "Hey, who wants to go for a tour of the White House?" And we all said, "Sure." Many of us had been on a tour of the White House, but it's different to get a tour from a cabinet secretary. He turned to me, he'd met my wife before, many times and he said, "Where's your wife? Bring her along," so I called her up. Granted she is dressed in clothes to clean the church, not clothes to go to the White House.


Dusty Weis:

I'm sure she was mortified at this point.


Bill Pierce:

Yeah, but I said, "You can't say no to Tommy T., When he asks, you can't say no to that." We all trudged over to the White House. He gave a great tour, he took us behind the velvet ropes. I think we walked into the chief of staff's office. Just the kind of guy he is, to give you that, not only behind the scenes, but this warmth of this kind of greeting.


Bill Pierce:

But the funny part was, is we were in the basement area, which is not the deep, deep basement, but the public basement of where the diplomatic entrance is to the White House, where the helicopter lands is generally where that is. So we're down there and there's pictures on the walls of dogs, of the presidents, and he points to Roosevelt and his dog, and he, I forgot what name he used, but it wasn't the right name, and my wife goes, "Sir, Mr. Secretary, that would be... " I think it's Fala, I think it was Fala the dog, and "that would be Fala the dog." He looks at her, and all of a sudden she looks at me and she goes, "Uh oh, I think I've made a very big mistake." It's a group of 25 people.


Bill Pierce:

Anyway, at the end of the tour, we're walking out into the outdoors, and we're heading our way back, and Thompson grabs my wife and says, "I like you, you're smart." And he turned to me, and he says, "You've got a really great wife. She is really smart, and I like her." Ever since that time, he always asks about her. That's 19 years ago. He always says, "How's your wife? I really like her." Those are two memories. There's lots of them, but those are two really memories that I think tell me a lot about Tommy Thompson, who he is, as a kind of a person.


Bill Pierce:

Now, you can disagree with his politics or whatever, but as a person, this is a good person, and I was fortunate to work for him, and still fortunate to call him a... I don't know if I'd say friend, but perhaps, because I still talk to him to this day, from time to time.


Dusty Weis:

I think there's something to be said in this day and age about the kind of leadership that's not afraid to be told that it's wrong, and appreciates being corrected. I think we could use more of that.


Bill Pierce:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you hoped I would?


Bill Pierce:

The one thing I might add, is when I did that NPR interview, it didn't appear in the paper, but the reporter said, what grade would you give the government? Wasn't referring to HHS or CDC specifically, but the government at large, and I said I think I'd give them a B. Sometimes it slides into the B-, C+ category and sometimes it slides into the B+ category, and that can happen in the same briefing. Some of what they're doing is C+ work, at best C work, and then sometimes in that same briefing it's B+, maybe even into an A.


Bill Pierce:

I mean, I give Fauci and BRICS consistent A's. Absolutely. It's a sliding scale, and you can always back slide if you're not careful, and I think that's what's important here. We have to keep moving forward and striving for the higher grade, and not be content with where we stand.


Dusty Weis:

Well, more than anything. I hope at this point that we can count on some consistency, because I think that's what's sorely needed going forward here.


Bill Pierce:

That's what's lacking right now. Absolutely lacking. When it's all said and done, we will do and should do an after action report. The press is going to do it, the government will do it, and the one thing I would hope is that so many times we've come up with plans, and each and every time it seems, particularly in this case, they threw that plan out and started to make up a new one, and they didn't need to. You can always modify for circumstances and specifics, but there's some basic fundamentals that they should have adhered to, and didn't unfortunately to start with, are now starting to come around to, not quite there in many cases but starting to come around to.


Bill Pierce:

My hope is that we once again will come up with that plan. We'll put that plan, not make it on a dusty shelf, but we will practice that plan. We will make that plan a part of our everyday life. Maybe some things are going to change for us. Hopefully America will wash their hands more often from now through eternity because it is singly the best thing we can do. We'll get less flu, and maybe when we get a vaccine for the coronavirus, more people will get vaccines for flu, and more people will get vaccines for measles, and all the things we should have vaccines for. Maybe people will change that behavior too. I'd like to think we will.


Dusty Weis:

Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me here today. Crisis communications consultant, Bill Pierce from APCO Worldwide, former Health and Human Services spokesman under the Bush administration and Secretary Tommy G Thompson. Proud Wisconsin byproduct, but I've got to say you're not a doctor but you have great bedside manner.


Bill Pierce:

Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

I would appreciate a daily briefing from you if we could get it, but thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Bill Pierce:

Dusty, thank you very much for having me, and always happy to do this. Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

This has been a real pleasure. I appreciate it.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks are due as well to Dr. Maria Sundaram, whom I really do believe you'll see on TV doing the CDC briefing someday.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks to my wife who tolerated me buzzing around the house yelling, "I'm on a deadline, over a deadline that I just randomly decided to impose on myself. And thanks to all the frontline workers who don't have the luxury of working out of their own basement studio, and put their lives on the line to do their jobs. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, cops, mail carriers, delivery drivers, grocery stackers, journalists, you know, the experts. My hat is off you folks. Keep grinding. Keep your distance. Keep healthy.


Dusty Weis:

Please make sure you subscribe to the Lead Balloon podcast feed, and share this with your friends and colleagues if you found it useful. Feedback's always welcome, the comments section or at dusty@podcampmedia.com.


Dusty Weis:

Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. We're on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.


Dusty Weis:

Until the next time I'm Dusty Weis. Be well folks.


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