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Supervisor by Day, But a COVID-19 Skeptic on the Airwaves

Jim Desmond coronavirus
Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths spiked in San Diego this summer after public health officials agreed to loosen restrictions on bars and other establishments — decisions they were forced to walk back.

But for County Supervisor Jim Desmond, whose district includes a large swath of North County, the restrictions are still too tight. And governments that refuse to immediately let businesses reopen are “holding our jobs and the economy hostage,” he said.

Even though the region is showing signs of improvement — California this week removed San Diego County from its watch list — local public health officials aren’t hurrying to let churches, businesses and other organizations operate indoors, for fear of another backslide.

Since May, Desmond has positioned himself as the most high-profile skeptic of the coronavirus to hold local office. He’s primarily given voice on his podcast to people who believe the dangers of COVID-19 are exaggerated, particularly in schools.

He’s stated publicly that only a handful of coronavirus deaths were “pure” and he wildly underrepresented the percentage of cases that result in hospitalizations. He openly advocates that catching the coronavirus is a good thing, because healthy people will build up antibodies, a claim that is entirely speculative at this point. The latest science, according to the CDC, did not imply that a person is immune in the three months following infection [1].

Desmond said his goal with the podcast is to bring on a variety of perspectives so that his constituents have “more insight and information” about the current health crisis. The county, he said, is providing a narrow view of the pandemic.

“The information San Diego County puts out is cumulative information instead of where we actually stand. So what I wanted to do is hear other opinions when it comes to health issues,” Desmond said in a phone interview. “One of the first things you hear [in the medical world] is ‘get a second opinion.’ I’ve been trying to put people on both sides that are making public statements and have a conversation with them.”

But most of Desmond’s guests are not experts in the spread and prevention of communicable diseases.

“Around the County With Jim Desmond” has put its host at increasing odds with some of his elected colleagues. There’s no longer even a pretense of pleasantry. One fellow supervisor and at least one local medical expert have called the podcast a serious threat to public health and safety.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, the board’s lone Democrat, and Desmond have sparred regularly over what a safe reopening of the county actually looks like. But while both said they welcome debate on policy and procedure, Fletcher has argued that Desmond broadcasts false information that is undermining the county’s ability to do its job.

“It’s very frustrating on a daily basis to engage with these wild conspiracy theories. They just take off and run wild,” Fletcher said. “Things that used to be relegated to the dark regions of the world where they thought the moon landing wasn’t real and Biggie was really alive are in the same minds that now have elected officials promoting similarly absurd things that get shared tens and hundreds of thousands of times, and it fundamentally undercuts our ability to productively respond.”

Desmond’s spokesman, Miles Himmel, has said the supervisor doesn’t endorse every opinion on the show. But the podcast still manages to push out highly questionable claims with an air of certainty. The guests he’s chosen, aside from one local immunologist, have all suggested in some way that the coronavirus is less deadly than the flu and not what’s really killing people.

In May, for instance, Desmond himself said the county had only seen “six pure, solely coronavirus deaths” [2] because the nearly 200 other people had underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or cancer. The number of strictly COVID-related deaths has risen to 27 since then, as the county grapples with more than 600 deaths total.

Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten confirmed the earlier May figures at a subsequent press conference at the time but said San Diego is not unique in identifying both people with and without underlying conditions — the entire nation does it. And it didn’t make the loss of life for those with underlying conditions any less significant, she argued.

Wooten and others have suggested in recent months that the danger of downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 is that it gives members of the public an excuse to stop socially distancing and wearing masks.

In response, Desmond said he wasn’t trying to downplay anything — he was highlighting how older people, who often suffer from underlying health conditions, are where the real focus should be. But seniors already are a focus of the county’s coronavirus response, in addition to other vulnerable groups, like the homeless.

National media outlets picked up Desmond’s original statement. As did Joe Rogan, who has hundreds of thousands of listeners. He brought up Desmond on his own podcast [3] back in May.

To be clear, Desmond has never advocated against basic safety measures. But some of his guests do. He continually tells his listeners to abide by the county protocols, even when Justin Hart, a digital strategist, said masks wouldn’t help curb the spread.

At the same time, Desmond has repeatedly referred to the county’s official messaging on COVID-19 as “hysteria.” In his June 29 episode [4], Desmond said less than 1 percent of people who’ve tested positive were hospitalized because “99.5 percent of [positive cases] are never hospitalized. They either have no symptoms or mild symptoms. I’m just trying to make sure the … numbers match the hysteria and that’s not the case right now. We can still be opening up.”

He then encouraged people to wear masks, even though, he said, “I know a lot of people don’t like them. But if we can open businesses, fine. So that’s been my kind of push and effort to make sure we do things smartly, common sense, avoid the hysteria, get people back to work and get people healthy at the same time.”

When asked where Desmond got his data, Himmel pointed to the county’s numbers. The county dashboard, however, shows that on June 29, there had been 14,149 positive COVID-19 cases with 1,770 hospitalizations [5] and 365 deaths. That means 12 percent of positive cases resulted in a hospitalization — far higher than the number Desmond cited.

Another of Desmond’s guests, Dr. Kelly Victory, a health care consultant from Colorado who specializes in emergency medicine, generated so much attention, the Union-Tribune brought in three experts, including the county’s medical director, last month to break down and analyze [6] many of her claims.

Victory, for instance, made a case for reopening schools by arguing that children are not significant spreaders of the coronavirus. She said children were unlikely to get ill, let alone die. The episode was viewed more than 117,000 times on YouTube.

But Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children’s Hospital, told the U-T that it was way too early to make those claims. Children are vectors for influenza and initial evidence suggests they’re more likely to be asymptomatic with COVID-19, meaning in large numbers they could very well be the source of an outbreak.

Desmond has dismissed these kinds of fact checks by distancing himself from the guests and telling me — along with multiple other outlets — that he simply aims to bring on people with different viewpoints, even if he doesn’t agree with them. But he also doesn’t push back very hard.

One guest, for instance, Dr. Scott Atlas, a public policy fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, blamed Black Lives Matter protesters for the summer spike [7], even though there’s no evidence of that. Atlas, who’s downplayed the benefits of testing, has become a star adviser in President Donald Trump’s inner circle [8], Politico reports.

So far, Desmond has only strongly disagreed with one podcast guest, Scripps Research immunologist Dr. Kristian Andersen.

Andersen is part of a team that’s advising policymakers at the federal level and he’s offered the group’s expertise locally as well. Andersen said he was inspired to go on Desmond’s podcast after he heard the things Victory was saying to a mass audience. He tweeted at Desmond, asking to be on the show, and Desmond agreed.

Both Desmond and Andersen said they want the same thing: to reopen schools and the economy safely. But they fundamentally disagreed over how the county — and the rest of the country — will get there.

One particular sticking point was herd immunity, which occurs when a large percentage of the community is immune to a disease and ends up protecting those who aren’t. And in the course of the conversation, Desmond revealed that he didn’t actually know what it meant.

Desmond said the growing number of positive cases was a good thing because healthy people would build up a tolerance to the virus and protect the vulnerable. He estimated that the region could achieve herd immunity if more people get the virus.

“The herd needs to get it and we’ll have a better handle on it,” Desmond said on the podcast. “So to me, the number of cases means the herd’s getting it, so is that not a good thing?”

Andersen replied, “No, that is not a good thing, Jim. That is not a good thing.”

Desmond scoffed and said, “OK.”

Andersen then explained that herd immunity will only work if at least 70 percent of people are vaccinated.

In a more recent phone interview with me, Andersen called comments made by some of Desmond’s guests “either outright lies or speculation.”

“When we’re eight months into the pandemic, and one of the supervisors who’s in charge of policy in San Diego suggests that people getting infected is a good thing, it’s unbelievably shocking to me,” Andersen said. “It’s really important that by now we understand if people are getting infected, that means people are dying and people are going to have very long-term health effects.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized a quote from Dr. Kristian Andersen. He said comments made by some of Desmond’s guests were ” either outright lies or speculation.”

An earlier version of this story also mischaracterized a statement from the CDC. The latest science, it said, did not imply that a person is immune in the three months following infection.

This post has also been updated to correct a word in a quote from Nathan Fletcher that was mis-transcribed.