Don't Believe Every COVID Count You Read | Crooked Media
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May 23, 2022
What A Day
Don't Believe Every COVID Count You Read

In This Episode

  • COVID cases are rising again in the U.S. In just the past month alone, the average number of confirmed cases has doubled according to the CDC. But with many people using at-home rapid tests where results don’t get reported to officials, the actual case count could be much higher. Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, epidemiologist and host of Crooked’s “America Dissected,” joins us to discuss how to get an accurate estimate of the surge as we head into summer.
  • And in headlines: The first Russian soldier convicted of war crimes in Ukraine was sentenced to life in prison, the Southern Baptist Convention covered up allegations of mishandled sexual abuse, and outgoing Congressman Madison Cawthorn is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee.


Show Notes:



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Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Tuesday, May 24th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, where we’re rooting against the heat of our planet, and also The Heat in the NBA playoffs.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, I know nothing about basketball, but I do know we always root against The Heat. Who’s rooting for them? Certainly not I.


Josie Duffy Rice: On today’s show, the first Russian soldier convicted of war crimes in Ukraine has been sentenced to life in prison. Plus, the White House is trying to walk back President Biden’s statement that he would use our military to help Taiwan if China invaded.


Priyanka Aribindi: But first, COVID cases are rising again in the U.S. In just the past month alone, the average number of confirmed cases has doubled, according to the CDC. And the American Academy of Pediatrics says that among kids, cases spiked 72% in the two weeks ending last Thursday.


Josie Duffy Rice: Can confirm, one of my children was diagnosed today with COVID. So really hitting home.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, but a rough day for the WAD team.


Josie Duffy Rice: Truly.


Priyanka Aribindi: To make matters worse, experts say Americans can assume that infections are actually 5 to 10 times more than the official count. There are many reasons for that. One that you or someone you know might have gone through, for instance, you know, for those of us who use those handy rapid tests that we got from the government, getting a positive at home and then quarantining. That’s happened to me both times I had COVID. There’s no actual official record of you having COVID. You might know, your friends might know, but the government doesn’t know, and it’s not necessarily being counted into their data. So we wanted to know, you know, how big this surge is in reality and how we should prepare for it heading into summer. Obviously, there was one call that we would make in the situation. We have with us our favorite health expert, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed. He is an epidemiologist, the host of Crooked’s podcast, America Dissected. Abdul, welcome back to What a Day.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. I was excited to hear that we were only going to talk about COVID and not monkeypox today, so . . .


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, just keeping the questions easy, I guess.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: On that note, Josie, I’m really sorry to hear about your kid’s infection. That sucks.


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh, thank you. Yeah, it’s a bummer.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I’m sorry to hear it.


Josie Duffy Rice: She doesn’t actually know what she has, which makes it a little bit harder. Can’t really be like, You have COVID. It’ll be okay. So, yeah, we’re hopeful.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, I have a four-year old, and unfortunately, I’m the one who gave it to her about a month ago. And she knew what she had, and she was admonishing me. She’s like, Well, someone didn’t wear their mask. [unclear]


Josie Duffy Rice: Kids, man. They really love to tell you about yourself.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Oh, yeah.


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh, well, love it. At least you’re not dealing with that, Josie. And Abdul, question for you about these numbers. You know, how trustworthy is this data that’s currently being reported?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It’s trustworthy in some ways, and not that trustworthy in others. So when you look at hospitalizations, those are a real reflection of serious COVID cases.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: But when you look at cases, think about how often people are actually getting tested by PCR at a testing site that is reporting to some arm of government or public health agency. And that’s limited. I know that when I got COVID, I tested positive via rapid antigen, and so my case went unreported to the local health department.


Priyanka Aribindi: Same.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: And that tends to be the circumstance, right? You shared your experience in the same regard. And so in that respect, you think about the number of cases that are known to the government and public health agencies that get collected up into these case numbers, and what we have is a real underestimate. And just to validate that, Johns Hopkins has been collecting really high-quality data throughout the pandemic, and they found that while the number of tests has been rather consistent, the test positivity has gone up. And in other waves, what has happened is that you have both case positivity and the testing going up, and so we’re likely not ascertaining all of the cases that are out there. And then the last sort of piece of validation here is that one of the best ways to get a broad sense of how much COVID is out there is to look at wastewater, because people who are infected tend to shed it in their refuse.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. Wow. I didn’t even realize that was, like, a way to measure it.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Well, that’s the thing, right? Shit don’t lie.


Josie Duffy Rice: [chuckles] So, realistically speaking, how can we get a more accurate estimate of this surge?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: It’s probably to pay attention to these more objective numbers, things like the wastewater sampling and the hospitalizations. The good news here is this, it’s a mixed picture. You know, it used to be the case that when cases went up, hospitalizations would follow two weeks later, and then deaths would follow two weeks later after that. We’ve seen a relative drop off of the number of deaths that we would expect from the number of hospitalizations that we have. And that’s probably owing to the high level of immunity that exists in the population, both because of how much vaccines that people have had, and the vaccination rate among adults in particular. But then also because of the high number of people who’ve actually gotten COVID. So as of February, 60% of the population has antibodies, having had COVID, which you know, is double the number from December before the first Omicron wave. And given how much more efficient BA-2 and all of the BA-2 sub-variants seem to be, we would expect that the number of people infected has been substantially higher. I mean, just anecdotally on this call, you know, there are either two people–or two people who are one step removed from people–on this call who have just gotten COVID recently. And so it’s really coming for all of the folks who have yet to be infected, and in some cases, infecting people twice.


Priyanka Aribindi: So, you know, as we talk about the surge and, you know, everything going on, what does this sort of mean as we head into this holiday weekend, the rest of the summer? Some of us have travel plans and whatnot, what kind of precautions should we be taking?


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Unfortunately, given how much of the infrastructure that we’ve decommissioned since the Omicron wave, and frankly, the fact that Congress has yet to pass funding for the Biden administration’s plan to, quote unquote, “live with COVID” we’re in what I like to call the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ phase.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: So it really does depend on what your risk tolerance is. You know, the same basics apply if you haven’t gotten vaccinated–and by vaccinated, I mean, three doses of the vaccine–you really ought to go and do that. And then from there, social distancing and masks are your friend. And not just any mask. Those cloth masks aren’t as effective. You really ought to be wearing a good N95 KN95 or KF94. And then if you really want to protect yourself, it’s important to just avoid indoor crowded settings where the risk of being exposed is the highest. At the same time, you ought to be thinking about, well, what is your tradeoff in terms of the risk to you, the risk to other people around you? And then the thing I don’t want us to forget about is that we just really don’t know about the long-term behavior of this virus. We do know that 10 to 15% of people who are infected will have long COVID, meaning symptoms that last six weeks or longer. But there’s also a longer COVID that I think we just don’t have any context for. And what I mean by that is, you think about chicken pox, right? Chicken pox can come back in later life as shingles. Literally, the virus will hang out in a part of your nervous system and then come out when your immune system is a little bit weaker and infect a part of your your body in this sort of patched blisters. And that’s the same virus. It’s the varicella virus. The thing is that we don’t really know what COVID is doing in our bodies or can do if and when you’ve been infected. And so there’s still an incentive to protect yourself, even in this moment where people are just sort of throwing up their hands and saying, You know what? Everyone’s going to get it. So keep that in the back of your mind and then be conscious of what your your short-term risk looks like and then be thoughtful about doing the basic things we’ve been talking about now for more than two years about how to protect yourself and your loved ones.


Priyanka Aribindi: Definitely.


Josie Duffy Rice: So getting to some good news from yesterday here, for kids, six months to five-years old, Pfizer Biontech said that three child sized doses of its vaccine appeared to be safe and showed a strong immune response. But how do you actually convince parents to get their young kids these shots? Because as we reported last week, even with older kids, 5 to 11-years old, less than 30% are fully vaccinated.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Josie, that’s a really good question. You know, both you and I are parents of children under the age of five, and I can walk you through what my thinking on this is, and it’s that I don’t know what the long, long-term consequences of COVID are.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: I do know that vaccines are incredibly safe, that if and when there is a risk, it would have been known within the first three months in 99% of cases. These are some of the best-studied vaccines in human history, given how many people have gotten them. So if I’m betting on the risk of a vaccine versus the risk of COVID, I’m betting that the risks of COVID are substantially worse. And so I’m betting on the vaccine and I’m going to vaccinate my child. So I’ll be honest, we held out for more than two years. My kid is four and a half and she just got infected last month, and we were really quite frustrated that it’s taken this long to get a vaccine that’s now safe and effective. So in any circumstance, don’t be that parent who’s wishing that you would have. And so even if my kid has been infected, I’m still going to vaccinate her because it reduces the probability that she gets infected again. And because I don’t know what this virus can do, and I know that viruses can do some really, really bad things in the long term. And so for all of those reasons, I’m going to vaccinate my kid.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: The last thing I just want folks to understand is that COVID is likely to be with us for a while. Even if and when we get out of this pandemic phase of the virus, I want folks to understand there’s still the risk of infection. And in these months, while there’s a lot that you can do outside, it tends to be the case that in places like where I live in Michigan, the risk of a serious wave comes in the fall, and so I want to be prepared for that when she goes back to school and so I’m going to get her vaccinated as soon as I can.


Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely.


Priyanka Aribindi: Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, as always, thank you so much for joining us today. Also for our WAD listeners, be sure to check out Dr. Abdul’s new YouTube channel. It’s called “More Context, Less Conflict.” I think we could all use that in our lives.


Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely.


Priyanka Aribindi: Every week there will be a new video where he breaks down so many other issues we are dealing with, like the baby formula shortage, what health care premium actually is–that’s is very helpful information–why SuperPACs are attacking progressive candidates. All of that and more can be found at slash Abdul El-Sayed. We’ll add a link to it in our show notes. We’ll be sure to keep following the COVID news, you know, as we have been for quite some time. But that is the latest for now. We will back after some ads.


[ad break]


Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s get to some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Priyanka Aribindi: Some updates from Ukraine: last week we reported that a Russian soldier pleaded guilty to killing an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the country’s first war crimes trial since the invasion began. That soldier was sentenced to life in prison yesterday after a Kiev court found that, quote, “the murder was committed with direct intent.” The Russian soldier’s attorney said on Monday that he plans to appeal the verdict, but the soldier himself apologized for the killing and asked the Ukrainian civilians widow for forgiveness during the trial’s closing remarks. The ruling holds a lot of weight amid probes into the alleged war crimes committed by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine, all of which Russia denies. But Ukraine’s top prosecutor told The Washington Post yesterday that her office is currently investigating over 13,000 war crime accusations against Russian forces. As those probes continue, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said yesterday that he would consider meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin under one condition: to end the war. But he also warned that arranging any kinds of talks between the two would become harder as more evidence emerges in these investigations.


Josie Duffy Rice: The leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention or the SBC, covered up allegations of mishandled sexual abuse dating back over two decades. That’s according to a new 288-page report published on Sunday, commissioned by the SBC itself. The Convention is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, and the damaging report said survivors repeatedly told leaders about sexual abuse from clergy members, but the executive committee blocked and belittled allegations in order to save their own reputations. Outsiders of the church have long pressed for an investigation, but it wasn’t until last June’s annual meeting that delegates overwhelmingly voted to have an external review of their own leaders. Since then, multiple high-up Executive Committee leaders have resigned and the SBC is working under interim leadership. The Committee plans to meet today to discuss the report and it will definitely come up again when the SBC convenes for its 2022 national meeting in Anaheim, California in three weeks.


Priyanka Aribindi: This is so awful.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s really terrible.


Priyanka Aribindi: And it comes from like, one of the groups that, I don’t know if you would say devout, but like they supposedly adhere the closest to, you know, what is in the Bible.


Josie Duffy Rice: Deeply judgmental, a history of just really despicable, discriminatory behavior, and then to find this out, it’s just awful.


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s awful. The man who learned the art of straight talk on the mean streets of Scranton is at it again.


Josie Duffy Rice: Of course, he.


Priyanka Aribindi: As always. In his first trip to Asia as President, Joe Biden stated yesterday that the U.S. would intervene militarily to help protect Taiwan from a Chinese attack, making a commitment that U.S. presidents traditionally keep extremely vague, do not say. This is the third time in recent months that Biden has made this claim. And also for a third time, the White House walked back his remarks. In clarifying the president’s comments, the White House said there has been no change in policy, Biden agrees with the one-China policy, which acknowledges that Taiwan is part of China but has never officially recognized China’s claim to the self-governing island. For its part, China wasn’t nearly as confused in its messaging. A Chinese spokesman said China would, quote, “take firm actions to safeguard its sovereignty and security interests” and advised the US that, quote, “those who play with fire will certainly burn themselves.”–all right, that is how you deliver a definitive statement.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true.


Priyanka Aribindi: Certainly terrifying, but definitely definitive.


Josie Duffy Rice: The man whose last 30 days form a cautionary tale against exposing sex parties, Madison Cawthorn, has taken yet another L. The outgoing North Carolina congressman is the subject of a new investigation by the House Ethics Committee over allegations of insider trading and having an improper relationship with a staffer. As we’ve talked about before, Cawthorn may have participated in a pump-and-dump scheme involving a cryptocurrency called “Let’s Go Brandon Coin–that is a real true sentence I just said.


Priyanka Aribindi: Just the dumbest name.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s really the worst thing ever. It’s all, the whole thing is so dumb. Which he promised would go quote, “to the moon.” It did briefly, but it bounced back and headed for another astral body called the Black Hole for Other People’s Money. As far as the second complaint, it involves failing to disclose gifts and loans to his staffer Cawthorn has described as his cousin. Hilariously enough, this complaint seems to draw partly from alleged Venmo transactions between the two men, which were given labels any 10th grade lacrosse player would find hilarious, including: Nudes, For Loving Me Daily and Nightly, and The Stuff We Did in Amsterdam.


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh boy.


Josie Duffy Rice: However, also in potential ethics violations from the right: there is more reporting from The New York Times about the ways Trump’s Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, and America’s oldest toddler, Jared Kushner, may have rolled their government work in the Middle East into private sector businesses. Soon after leaving the White House, Kushner raised $2 billion from Saudi Arabia to launch a wealth fund, while Mnuchin raised 1 billion from the Saudis, plus 500 million from other Arab countries. And that lines up pretty well with the $3 billion government-sponsored wealth fund they had announced under Trump, which went up in smoke at the end of the President’s term.


Priyanka Aribindi: Okay. I’m going to rewind for a little bit because I don’t know what a wealth fund is.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, but I feel like it’s self-explanatory. I don’t either, but it’s right there.


Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t really, so I’m just going to back up to the Madison Cawthorn stuff, if you will allow me to do that for a moment.


Josie Duffy Rice: Mm hmm.


Priyanka Aribindi: It is 2022, if you are an elected official, how is your name on your Venmo? How is this stuff so easily traceable? Like, come on, how is there not, like, a bootcamp for, like, You just got elected, here is what you grab from the internet.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Priyanka Aribindi: I don’t know.


Josie Duffy Rice: So, like, we all know, people can say on Venmo, it is not news. So what’s going on?


Priyanka Aribindi: They want it to be found. This is on Venmo. And just a note to Congress, Nancy Pelosi, if anyone would like to hire me, I am happy to help you guys scrub your embarrassing Venmos, delete unflattering Instagrams, delete the last eight years of your Twitter,  like, happy to help.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. all for the very low price of a $1 billion wealth fund Priyanka and I will–


Priyanka Aribindi: We could do. We’re here.


Josie Duffy Rice: We can do it.


Priyanka Aribindi: Just think about it. And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go: our Memorial Day weekend sale is here and it’s kind of a big deal. We love a sale.


Josie Duffy Rice: We really do.


Priyanka Aribindi: Today through Tuesday, May 31st, get 15% off sitewide and up to 80% off new sale items.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s our biggest sale ever, so if you have your eye on something, now’s the time to nab them before they’re gone for good. I am a huge fan of my WAD coffee mug and I have to say the biggest coffee connoisseur in my house, my husband, is also. It’s his favorite mug.


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s a good mug.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s a great mug.


Priyanka Aribindi: Honestly, now is the time to just stock up on things, have them at home. Whenever there is an occasion that you need a gift for, you have it. You don’t have to go out and get something.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true. Hello. Christmas is around the corner.


Priyanka Aribindi: There we go.


Josie Duffy Rice: Get your gifts now, during this Memorial Day sale. To shop now head to slash store. Check it out.


Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, set your Venmo to private like you should have done in 2018, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: In a very interesting and not just instructions on how to sell your Let’s Go Brandon Coin like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


[together] And you’re going down Heat!


Priyanka Aribindi: I think. I mean, I’m learning so much about the playoffs that apparently are happening right now, from this show.


Josie Duffy Rice: They are happening, they are happening.


Priyanka Aribindi: We all learn together here on What A Day.


Josie Duffy Rice: We all learn together.


Priyanka Aribindi: It’s a beautiful thing.


Josie Duffy Rice: At least you and I do. Everybody else probably knows.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzy Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.