COMMENTARY

The Risk of Avoidance

William G. Wilkoff, MD

May 06, 2021

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It's pretty clear that, at least globally, we have not reached a steady state with the SARS-COV-2 virus. And here in the United States we should remain concerned that if we can't convince our vaccine-hesitant population to step forward for their shots, this country may slide back into dangerous instability. Despite these uncertainties, it may be time to polish up the old retrospectoscope again and see what the last year and a half has taught us.

Although it took us too long to discover the reality, it is now pretty clear that the virus is spread in the air and by close personal contact, especially indoors. There continues to be some misplaced over-attention to surface cleaning, but for the most part, the bulk of the population seems to have finally gotten the picture. We are of course still plagued by our own impatience and the unfortunate mix of politics and the disagreement about how personal freedom and the common good can coexist.

A year ago, while we were still on the steep part of the learning curve and the specter of the unknown hung over us like a dark cloud, schools and colleges faced a myriad of challenges as they considered how to safely educate their students. Faced with a relative vacuum in leadership from the federal government, school boards and college administrators were left to interpret the trickle of information that filtered down from the media. Many turned for help to hired consultants and a variety of state and local health departments, all of whom were relying on the same information sources that were available to all of us – sources that often were neither peer reviewed nor based on hard facts. In this land that prides itself on free speech, we were all college administrators, local school board members, and parents basing our decision on the same smorgasbord of information that was frequently self-contradictory.

As I look around at the school systems and colleges with which I have some familiarity it has been interesting to observe how their responses to this hodgepodge of opinion and guesstimates have fallen into two basic categories. Some institutions seem to have been primarily motivated by risk avoidance and others appeared to have struggled to maintain their focus on how best to carry out their primary mission of educating their students.

This dichotomy is not surprising. Institutions are composed of people and people naturally self-sort themselves into pessimists and optimists. When a study is published without peer review suggesting that within schools transmission of the virus between children is unusual the optimist may use the scrap of information to support her decision to craft a hybrid system that includes an abundance of in-class experience. The pessimist will probably observe that it was only one study and instead be more concerned about the number of multi-system-inflammatory syndrome cases reported among children in New York City. He will be far less likely to abandon his all-remote learning system.

There is risk inherent in any decision-making process, including incurring a greater risk by failing to make any decision. The person whose primary focus is on avoiding any risk often shuts off the process of creative thinking and problem solving. At the end of the day, the risk avoider may have achieved his goal with a policy that includes aggressive closings but has fallen far short of his primary mission of educating students.

Here in New England there are several examples of small colleges that have managed to create more normal on-campus educational environments. To my knowledge, their experience with case numbers is no worse and may even be better than that of schools of similar size and geographic siting that chose more restrictive policies. You could argue that the less restrictive schools were just lucky. But my hunch is that the institutions that were able to put risk in perspective and remain focused on their mission were able to navigate the uncharted waters more creatively. The bottom line is that we aren't talking about right or wrong decisions but grouped together they should provide a foundation to build on for the next turmoil.

William G. Wilkoff, MD, practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Other than a Littman stethoscope he accepted as a first-year medical student in 1966, he reports having nothing to disclose. Email him at pdnews@mdedge.com.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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