Though Widely Discredited, Bakersfield Doctors' COVID-19 Test Conclusions Spread Like Wildfire

Bakersfield Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, from Bakersfield-based Accelerated Urgent Care, held a video press conference on April 22, claiming their COVID-19 test results showed that fears of the virus were greatly overblown. Although public health experts were quick to debunk their findings, the video garnered national attention. (Screenshot from YouTube video, via 23 ABC News Bakersfield)

They dressed in scrubs. They sounded scientific. And last week’s message from two Bakersfield doctors was exactly what many stuck-at-home Americans wanted to hear: COVID-19 is no worse than influenza, its death rates are low and we should all go back to work and school.

Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, co-owners of Accelerated Urgent Care, which offers Bakersfield’s only private walk-in COVID-19 testing site, held a press conference on April 22 to report their conclusions about COVID-19 test results. During the conference, broadcast on YouTube, the doctors said that 12% of Californians tested so far have been infected. Extrapolating that to the general population, they estimated that as many as 5 million Californians have likely contracted the virus. They then used the total number of COVID-19 deaths statewide (roughly 1,200, as of last week) to calculate a death rate of just 0.03% — similar to the average death rate from seasonal flu.

"Millions of cases, small amount of death," Erickson stressed repeatedly during the press conference, saying fears about the virus were overblown and questioning the need for widespread quarantine measures.

But public health experts were quick to point out the major flaws in the doctors’ methodology – namely that only a tiny percentage of Californians have actually been tested, a group that is more likely to test positive and is not representative of the larger population.

But public health experts were quick to debunk the doctors’ findings as misguided and riddled with statistical errors — and an example of the kind of misleading information they are forced to waste precious time disputing.

The doctors should never have assumed that the patients they tested — who came for walk-in COVID-19 tests or who sought urgent care for symptoms they experienced in the middle of a pandemic — are representative of the general population, said Dr. Carl Bergstrom, a University of Washington biologist who specializes in infectious disease modeling. He likened their extrapolations to “estimating the average height of Americans from the players on an NBA court.” And most credible studies of COVID-19 death rates are far higher than the ones the doctors presented.

“They’ve used methods that are ludicrous to get results that are completely implausible,” Bergstrom said.

Still, the early media coverage of the doctors’ announcement went viral (digitally, that is) over the weekend. The press conference video garnered more than 5 million views before YouTube removed it on Monday for violating community guidelines.

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Elon Musk, the Tesla founder who wants to reopen his Fremont manufacturing plant this week, praised the doctors on Twitter, to his more than 33 million followers. And on Monday night, the doctors were featured on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, reaching a huge conservative national audience.

In a rare statement late Monday, the American College of Emergency Physicians and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine declared they “emphatically condemn the recent opinions released by Dr. Daniel Erickson and Dr. Artin Messihi. These reckless and untested musings do not speak for medical societies and are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19. As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health.”

The two doctors did not respond to a CalMatters request for comment on Monday.

“This pandemic has been so severely politicized in this country that evidence, no matter how poor, gets amplified enormously if it benefits one side or another,” said Bergstrom, who also was one of the first experts to critique the doctors’ study on Twitter. “We always hoped this crisis wouldn’t come, but that if it did we’d all be in this together. That’s been a huge surprise for all of us doing infectious disease epidemiology. It’s amazing to have to deal with this misinformation that’s being spread around for political purposes and the ways that interferes with adequate public health response.”

State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician who chairs the Senate Health Committee, said lawmakers who favor reopening the state had not yet cited the Bakersfield doctors’ conclusions as a justification to do so. But if they did, he said, they’d “be on pretty weak ground.”

The doctors “basically hyped a bunch of data and weren’t transparent about their methods. And they really played on the fact that they’re physicians. I think it’s quite disingenuous of them,” Pan said. “Then we have to push back on any media that promotes this information. They’re really doing this as a way to fish for attention.”

A Kern County public health spokeswoman told reporters that officials did not support the doctors’ call to reopen the region. Other epidemiologists echoed that sentiment.

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But already, the Bakersfield doctors — who tout their support of President Trump and refuse to wear masks in public — have become heroes on social platforms and conservative media outlets, with some commenters calling them “brave.” Others who support continuing to shelter in place described the doctors as self-promoters whose chain of urgent care centers would benefit from reopening. Non-COVID medical visits have plummeted during the pandemic, they note, endangering the practices of many doctors.

“As struggling business owners, their economic frustration is understandable. But it can’t be mistaken for science. People trust doctors,” Michigan emergency room doctor Rob Davidson wrote on Twitter. “When they tell Fox viewers to ignore recommendations from real experts, many will believe them. ... The impact of rejecting science-proven recommendations in exchange for these erroneous ideas would overwhelm health systems and cost lives. While re-opening the economy might be good for their Urgent Care Centers (sic), it would kill medical personnel on the actual front lines.”

Other highly publicized studies of antibody test results by Stanford and USC researchers — also suggesting that the virus’ true spread in the community was much higher than expected and that resulting death rates were comparatively low — were similarly criticized for sampling bias and for the poor reliability of the tests used. But again, politicians and media who favor reopening states right away cited them as supporting evidence.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

KQED's Matthew Green contributed to this story.

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