Untangling Covid-19, Altitude Sickness, and Conspiracy Theory
An emerging hypothesis has been mischaracterized by the alternative media
There’s a lot doctors still don’t know about Covid-19 and how it affects the body. While its usual symptoms — cough, trouble breathing, tiredness, and fever — are well documented, some of its other effects remain unexplained. In particular, a peculiar observation about the blood oxygen levels of some people with Covid-19 has generated some new hypotheses among physicians — and dangerous speculation among the alternative media.
One of the first things doctors do when people show up at the ER is check their oxygen saturation — the amount of oxygen being carried in the blood. In healthy people, saturation is normally above 95%. But some patients, writes Dr. Reuben Strayer, an emergency physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, in an article published by Scientific American, present with “the kind of very low saturations that we associate with cyanosis and respiratory distress — but they were comfortably speaking to us or texting on their phones.”
This unusual phenomenon, he writes, is very “disorienting” because doctors often rely on this measurement to guide their work. Some physicians, he notes, suggest that the physiology of Covid-19 resembles that seen in people with altitude sickness. The prevailing characteristic of altitude sickness is low oxygen saturation, and similar symptoms can be observed when a diver returns to the surface too quickly.
Doctors have been sharing their observations on social media, Strayer writes, because the disease is spreading so quickly and is so poorly understood that they can’t afford to wait to publish them in medical journals. Sharing these findings is important because it could change the way that people with Covid-19 are treated.
The problem with these ideas being shared on social media, however, is that they can easily be misinterpreted or misconstrued by non-experts who lack context.
Some outlets and Twitter users are now framing the “altitude sickness” hypothesis as a conspiracy that’s just been uncovered. NaturalNews.com, a known conspiracy theory and fake news website, posted an article on April 3 characterizing Dr. Cameron Kyle-Sidell, a Brooklyn doctor who has recently posted YouTube videos about his observations, as a “whistleblower.” Kyle-Sidell, whose Twitter page Strayer links to in his Scientific American article when he describes physicians “openly questioning received wisdom,” is an emergency medicine and critical care medicine physician also affiliated with Maimonides Medical Center.
On Twitter and in his videos, Kyle-Sidell says that the symptoms of Covid-19 he has observed more closely resemble high altitude sickness than pneumonia and questions the best use of ventilators in treatment. He does not, however, claim conspiracy of any kind. In an April 5 tweet, he wrote: “I don’t know the answer. But it seems this is a novel disease that requires a new treatment model.”
There are a lot of conspiracies floating around about Covid-19, but this isn’t one of them. Doctors are grappling with a disease they are only beginning to understand, so they are, very understandably, questioning the prevailing treatment paradigm as new observations trickle in. What they aren’t doing is calling foul — they’re just trying to work together to understand how to beat the thing they’re up against.
Read more about the altitude sickness conspiracy in this Medium post by political scientist Charli Carpenter.