Robert Gehrke: Please stop spreading these COVID-related myths

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

As we head into the darkest period of the pandemic, there are a few old saws that critics and doubters of public health policies keep trotting out — theories that, frankly, aren’t backed up by the data.

So I wanted to take some space here to correct the misinformation, provide accurate data and hopefully provide a better perspective on where we go from here.

Myth 1: Suicides are skyrocketing because of COVID restrictions

This is a common refrain from opponents of additional coronavirus-related protections — that these safeguards have led to an increase in isolation and suicide. It’s tossed around as a fact by legislators and at rallies.

Even President Donald Trump predicted in the early days of the pandemic that economic restrictions would result in suicides “by the thousands.”

So I contacted Michael Staley, who tracks suicide at the Utah Medical Examiner’s Office, to find out if it’s true.

Staley said when there are big, traumatic national incidents, like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, suicide rates go down. But when there are long-term economic downturns, they go up.

With COVID-19, he said, both dynamics are in play. In the early weeks of the outbreak, there was a decline in suicidal ideation (those who contemplate suicide), suicide attempts and deaths from suicide.

Suicide attempts stayed down for about three weeks, and then returned to normal levels. “With the suicide deaths, it looked a lot like the attempts,” Staley said. “It went down for a few weeks and rose back to what we had seen in 2018, 2017 and 2016.”

Reports of suicidal thoughts returned to normal a little later, Staley said, likely because COVID fears made people uneasy about going to emergency rooms.

“I have felt this entire time, as someone who looks at suicide in our state every single day, is something going to turn for the worse?” Staley said. “And it hasn’t. And I think that’s good news, because we’ve been through a lot in 2020.”

So suicides are not up, and that is very good news.

We should also take a step back and acknowledge that suicide remains a serious problem in Utah, and we shouldn’t ignore the mental health impacts of the pandemic.

Likewise, COVID-19 is a serious problem, now the third-leading cause of death in Utah behind heart disease and cancer.

But we also shouldn’t let people pit one against the other by falsely claiming suicide is on the rise (again, it is not) to make a political argument against COVID safeguards. That is about as cynical and exploitative as it gets.

Finally, if you are struggling, there is help available. LiveOn.org has information on resources available and the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-TALK) is staffed 24 hours a day.

Myth 2: Face mask mandates are bad for the economy

There’s some logical inconsistency among the groups — like Utah Business Revival — that have been staging protests around the state demanding the economy reopen, while vehemently opposing government mandates to wear masks.

By now, this much should be clear: Masks work.

And if there is any doubt, a Brigham Young University assessment of all of the studies on the efficacy of masks up to that point makes it pretty clear. More recent studies have suggested that wearing a mask doesn’t just protect the people around the wearer — as has been assumed — but might help protect the wearer of the mask, as well, although the extent to which that is the case is less clear.

There is also a new study that shows that statewide mask mandates actually help the economy.

The national study was conducted by researchers at the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business and found — using infection rates, cellphone mobility data and card purchases — that areas that imposed mask mandates saw an increase in people getting out and spending money as well as a decrease in coronavirus infections.

“The real movement is in how much people are willing to go out to the stores and shop,” Nathan Seegert, a professor of finance who co-wrote the study, told me. “It’s maybe not obvious, but it’s common sense: If people feel safe, they’re going to go out and spend more.”

To back up that idea, researchers surveyed Utahns and found that as many as 56% said they would be more likely to go to the store if a state mask mandate was in place.

But it works only if the mandates are statewide. If a county issues a mandate, it appears to have the opposite effect, he said, and people stay home and spend less.

The researchers were actually able to quantify the impact — an increase of about $25 per person per month in those states with a mandate. And that may not sound like much, but for Utah’s population, that adds up to more than $80 million per month in additional spending.

“That’s a pretty big effect, actually, for just imposing these mask mandates,” he said.

And, as a bonus, of course, states that imposed mask mandates saw the infection rates drop.

The entire study is due to be released Monday afternoon.

Myth 3: Thanksgiving dinner isn’t that risky

Gov. Gary Herbert is expected to rescind an order Monday that would have prohibited people from having Thanksgiving dinner with people from other households after getting major pushback from Republicans in the Legislature.

By no means should you take that as a sign that big Thanksgiving dinners are safe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends not having a big Thanksgiving gathering, as does Herbert, and numerous area doctors.

But how risky is a big Thanksgiving get-together?

Scientists at Georgia Tech University have created an interactive map where you can put in how many people would be in a room and, based on the current level of cases in your county, it will calculate the likelihood that at least one person in that room will be infected with the coronavirus and liable to infect others.

The results are sobering.

For a gathering of 10 in Salt Lake County, there is a 40% chance one of those people would have the coronavirus, and a 43% chance for a similar gathering in Utah County. With 15 people attending, chances are better that someone will have COVID than they are that you’ll get the big piece of the wishbone.

And if you are dining with 25 — and please, don’t dine with 25 — there’s a roughly 3 in 4 chance someone there will have COVID at the start of the night. No telling how many will have it at the end.

There are recommendations for how you can make your dinner safer, but I don’t even want to focus on those, because, with as rampant as the virus is and hospitals bordering on collapse, it’s just not safe to have a big dinner this year.

So let’s keep it small, household only, and improve the chances that everyone will be around for a big Thanksgiving bash in the summer.