COVID-19: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Staying Safe by Dr. Robin Schoenthaler

January 25, 2021

This is a recording of “COVID-19 Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Staying Safe by Dr. Robin Schoenthaler,” a Zoom meeting held on January 13, 2021, sponsored by Dinno Health. Dr. Schoenthaler is a radiation oncologist from MGH and Emerson Hospital. Below is an excerpt:

I think some people are asking why is this radiation oncologist from MGH and Emerson Hospital talking about COVID and I want to address that right away.  I am a cancer doctor, not an infectious disease specialist or a virologist or an epidemiologist. I’m not on the front lines and I’m absolutely not an expert in HVAC or aerosols, but what I am is a longtime student of epidemics. I did my training in California in the mid-80s and my medical training was completely bookended from the beginning until the end by HIV and AIDS. There I was, a young doctor learning to take care of, I thought, cancer patients but it turned out most of them were terminally ill young men with AIDS and it was really important to me to gain some sort of historical perspective on what we were going through at that time, so I became a very intense student of epidemics. I ended up writing a paper on yellow fever in New Orleans and it helped me a great deal to gain historical perspective.  I’ve been consumed by COVID since the very start and the reason that I’ve ended up talking to you is because I’ve, in the end, attracted quite a following with writings.

Very early on in March, I found myself so distressed over emails that I was getting from doctors in Italy and New York while they were really being hit by their surges that I wrote a Facebook post to the town I live in. We have a big 16,000-person Facebook page in Arlington and basically what I said was – this is the night of March 6th, the first announcements about shutdowns in our state were March 13th, so a week before that – I wrote that there’s absolutely no question that we’re facing a major life-altering epidemic and all of our lives are going to be changed for a while. I reminded people that it was important to have older people start thinking about staying at home, and then, I was sort of red wine fueled, my last line was “this is not a test.”

Through some complex situations, I ended up then writing an essay on COVID every week for the ensuing 45 weeks and now they’re shared by thousands of people at a time.  They’re read all over the country and I’m even more consumed with COVID.  This has actually worked really well for me because by continuously educating myself on COVID, I’ve had a much easier time psychologically than if I was constantly on CNN.

I just think it’s really important to think about how you’re gathering information and news, and how often. What I found by hanging out with scientists and researchers and doctors all the time, is that they are in the business of problem solving, whereas the news is in the business of getting more clicks or more subscribers.  I find that while the problem solving of the physicians and researchers that I work with is incredibly helpful to my soul, reading the news all the time with problem listing, problem exaggerating, problem focusing, has been really not good for me and definitely not good for my patients.

So I think we all have to think about how we collect our information. I get a lot of information from Youtube from This week in Virology, Med-Cram, Grand Rounds from all around the country – they’re all open to all of us now, so somebody can have a great grand rounds at Stanford and you can Google it on Youtube and then watch it. There’s some great people on Facebook: Dear Pandemic is a wonderful group of what I called nerdy girls who write every single day answering questions. Instead of answering questions to Dear Abby, now you can send your questions to Dear Pandemic. What this has done for me is, even in the darkest of times, I’ve continued to have great optimism that science will win, which feeds my constant mantra of “All epidemics always end, historically and scientifically.”

Let me just start talking about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. It’s just remarkable to me that all this trouble, all these alterations to our lives, are caused by this tiny, almost insignificantly little being, a virus, which is basically a glob of fat with these red spike proteins sticking out of it, and inside is a chain of about 1200 amino acids. This is contrary to what you would see with say, a bacteria, which has tails and organelles, several different plasma membranes and liquid inside, it’s incredibly complicated. It’s nothing as complicated as a human cell with all of its different structures.

This little virus caused all this trouble in Massachusetts. As of yesterday you can see the climb in cases. You can see this in the wastewater, that it’s not getting any better. At Deer Island, they’re doing tests every other day of how many viral particles, pieces of genetic material, that they’re able to find for COVID in our sewage water. You can see that the rises that we’ve seen before are reflected in this.

This is our hospitalization rate. You can see that it’s not nearly as bad as it was during our first surge but there’s no sign whatsoever that it’s going down. That little dip there is just reporting.

This is the kind of data that the Department of Public Health keeps track of for hospitalizations. The top part of the graph is everybody that’s admitted and then the bottom part is the numbers that are discharged. So you can see that it’s been going steadily up since November but it’s not skyrocketing. Same thing with the ICUs. Nonetheless we do not have a lot of room in our hospitals. We’re not, this is as of yesterday, we’re not like California where they’ve completely run out of room, but we definitely are edging into badness right now. 15% of beds are available in Massachusetts and 22% of ICU beds. At Mass General, we can convert a bunch of places like endoscopy suites into ICUs and some of that has happened already, so they’re on top of this, but it’s still really scary and in the rest of the country, it’s also absolutely terrifying. I gave a talk like this on December 15th and there were 300,000 deaths and now there’re 380,000. 23 million cases. In the context of all other horrible events in the past, we’ve now exceeded in terms of deaths almost all wars except for the Civil War and World War II and all pandemics other than in 1918. Why has this happened?

It’s happened because of the way that we’ve changed our interactions with the world. We have a whole lot more contacts with animals that we used to not have contact with, such as bats. We have a whole lot more travel and there’s been huge impacts from global warming. I just want to point to the end of this graph which shows that we had a small and contained epidemic in 2002, we had another one in 2012. We’re having obviously this one now.  I promise you we’ll have another one within another decade, at least one more as bad as this or worse.

Watch the recording on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkjkXCTA5Tw to learn more about

  • How COVID-19 spreads
  • How you can protect yourself against COVID-19
  • Vaccine updates