Untangling Covid-19, Altitude Sickness, and Conspiracy Theory

An emerging hypothesis has been mischaracterized by the alternative media

Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog
3 min readApr 7, 2020

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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…

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Yasmin Tayag
Medium Coronavirus Blog

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.