Credit: Solena Aguilar | Mustang News

Pat Fidopiastis is a biological sciences professor at Cal Poly. The views expressed in this letter do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News.

I hoped the article “Power Imbalance In COVID Enforcement” would start a productive conversation, but it misrepresented my views and created more problems than it solved. This article was allegedly based on some negative student evaluations I received because of a COVID-19 lecture in my online Infectious Diseases course. Here are my responses, point by point. I am happy to speak to anyone with questions on this very important topic.   

Mustang News: “His discomfort with masks meant students ‘didn’t feel safe’ for weeks, according to interviews with students and others with close knowledge of the class. They all asked to remain anonymous in this story for fear of retaliation.”

My Response: In my only in-person class of the year (Microbial Physiology), I earned an “overall effectiveness” score of 4.8 out of five from the students. Similarly, for “overall, the instructor was helpful and respectful when dealing with students” I earned a 4.88 out of five. In the written evaluations, no student reported feeling unsafe. I always encourage students to talk to me whenever they have questions. I have lively Zoom conversations with students daily. Furthermore, my assessments in Infectious Diseases only covered objective facts on SARS CoV2 biology, so students were never compelled to regurgitate my personal views for a grade. I have taught microbiology for 30 years and never received criticism like this. I didn’t earn the prestigious University Teaching Award at Cal Poly by creating an environment of fear and retaliation.

Mustang News: “When Fidopiastis was reported to College of Science and Mathematics Dean Dean Wendt for not following mask protocols, Fidopiastis responded with a “lengthy email describing his views of the science behind mask wearing.” 

My response: We’re allowed to be alone in our labs without a mask. When I brought supplies from my lab on a few occasions I forgot to put my mask back on. After the reminder from Dean Wendt, I never forgot to put on my mask in class again. I should point out that I test myself two to three times per week using two different methods, so I was always aware of my “negative” status. The outside surface of masks foul with bacteria very quickly after putting them on. So, I often sprayed my mask with alcohol and didn’t put it back on until it dried.

Mustang News: “…he argued against mask and lockdown mandates and defended hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19 treatment.” 

My response: I’m not doing my job as a professor if I do not require students to think critically. For example, the hydroxychloroquine accusation reflexively conjures political division. Actually, I questioned why officials emphasized toxic high-dose studies but ignored a large low-dose study that was successful. Epidemiological evidence that masks are effective is inconsistent at best. Here are just three examples. 1) The prediction that Texas was “pouring gas on the fire” by lifting its mask mandate isn’t supported by its epidemic curve, especially when it’s overlayed with that of masked states like Michigan and New York. 2) Sweden has a much lower death rate than countries with tight restrictions and comparable population density in their largest city (e.g. Belgium, England). 3) Malawi, one of the poorest countries, was predicted to lose 50,000 lives to COVID-19 for not locking down. The country has come nowhere near this number. Chaudhry et al. (2020) concluded, “Rapid border closures, full lockdowns and wide-spread testing were not associated with COVID-19 mortality per million people.” Recent headlines reveal surging overdose deaths, a wave of children’s mental health crisis and a massive rise in homicide rates during the pandemic, among many other negatives of prolonged lockdowns. Spikes in certain “other” diseases are expected too: “African malaria deaths set to dwarf COVID-19 fatalities as pandemic hits control efforts, WHO warns.” Taken together, it’s clear that our pandemic response absolutely needs skeptics.

Mustang News: “One study Fidopiastis defends in his lecture concluded cloth and surgical masks were ineffective against SARS CoV2. But the study has since been retracted.” 

My response: I introduced the retracted paper not only to question mask efficacy, but also to ask a bigger question about the politics of COVID-19. Bae et al (2020) showed lack of efficacy for cloth and medical masks in blocking transmission of SARS CoV2; the technical reasons for retraction did not change their conclusion.  Senior author Dr. Sung-Han Kim told me they offered to address the new criticism, but the editor still requested retraction. This seemed suspicious given the importance of the findings and how it coincided with the shifting politics on masks. The authors re-submitted their work to a new journal but inexplicably dropped cloth masks and added N95/KF94s. Dr. Kim never answered my question why they dropped cloth masks. My guess is that they knew cloth masks would fail again and hinder the ability to publish the paper, while N95/KF94s were likely to be effective. According to Kim, et al, medical masks were ineffective at blocking CoV2 transmission from coughing patients, and they concentrated virus on their outer surface. Concentrated microbes on a mask surface can make masks amplifiers of transmission. However, the authors concluded that N95/KF94 masks were effective. Perhaps we should have had a more targeted strategy in which we focused on wearing N95-type masks in high-risk situations indoors but made masks optional in low-risk situations (e.g. outdoors). Giving people some autonomy over their own health would have gone a long way toward easing tension in society. I believe that the worst-case scenario public health model of Dr. Fauci and others greatly exacerbated our problems in exchange for very little gain in safety.  

Mustang News: “In the lectures, Fidopiastis accepts the use of the label ‘Wuhan Virus.’”

My response: I flippantly stated, “I could care less what they call the virus” not to be insensitive, but to express my frustration that politics had seeped into public health. For example, political pundits used names such as “Chinese Coronavirus,” but then abruptly decried “racism” when their political rivals did the same. SARS and COVID-19 viruses are genetically similar, so “SARS CoV2” is the correct name. I never use anything other than SARS CoV2 when referring to the virus, but I did ask students what’s the difference between “Wuhan Virus” and other commonly used names for extremely deadly viruses, such as Lassa Virus (Nigeria), Ebola Virus (D.R.C.), etc. The point of diving into this topic is that there’s a very serious question that I feel is purposefully being dodged due to politics. That is, we have not been allowed to ask about the true origins of the virus. Yes, SARS CoV2 appears to have originated in Wuhan, but did this virus leak from a lab? If so, we need to honestly be able to answer that question. Back in 2003-4, SARS CoV1 leaked from a Chinese lab on several occasions. This is documented and published. If the lab leak hypothesis is supported, I recognize that it would be a huge set-back for science. However, I would hope that it would encourage the science community to come together and work on ways to restore public trust in the essential work that we do.

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