‘All I want to do is help people get over this pandemic’

Tsun Sheng Neil Ku, a doctor in Billings, Montana, shares his experience battling both the virus and online misinformation.

 

Ellen Edlund, a nurse at the Billings Clinic, is cared for by Katie Kukowski in the intensive care unit at the Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana, last December. With a surge in delta variant cases and only about half of the state vaccinated, the hospital is currently overcrowded with COVID-19 patients.
Larry Mayer/The Billings Gazette via AP

Dr. Tsun Sheng Neil Ku doesn’t have much time for fly fishing these days. The epidemiologist, who works at the Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana, is too busy acting as a point person on all things COVID-19 not only for his hospital, but also for Yellowstone County officials and medical providers in the broader region. On top of that, he’s taken to social media — and appeared at public meetings — to combat misinformation about masking, vaccinations and testing. 

As of Monday, the Billings Clinic had 70 inpatients with COVID-19, most of whom are unvaccinated; 25 of those were in the ICU and 13 were on ventilators. The hospital's ICU is also overcapacity, with 28 beds but 45 patients total. More than half of the hospitalized coronavirus patients there are under the age of 60; some are in their early 20s. Tomorrow, National Guard soldiers will deploy to assist at the Billings Clinic, which is so full it’s now diverting patients to other hospitals. (More broadly, Montana’s 14-day COVID-19 case count was up 61% and hospitalizations were up 42% on Tuesday.)

In the face of an overcrowded and understaffed hospital, Ku spoke with High Country News about navigating misinformation and burnout during the delta variant surge.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

***

Dr. Tsun Sheng Neil Ku, an epidemiologist at the Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana. Of the COVID-19 surge in Montana, he said, “I had to really sit down and think about how we’re going to approach this, because I already knew that about six months ago, this is not going to go away any time soon.”
Courtesy photo

You really don't learn that much until you get thrown into this. How do you deal with a huge population who believes in this misinformation? Or thinks this is politically motivated? Oh gosh, all I want to do is just help people get over this pandemic. For me, that’s the biggest challenge.

I see a lot of the public get frustrated. We want to give the right answer, but we can’t really give you the confidence that it is the right answer. Until we get through the pandemic and look back and say what we did was right or not, we don’t have that luxury. Unfortunately, they’re kind of using that against public health because they say, “Well, you clearly don’t know what you’re doing.” 

One thing that I’ve never experienced is the number of voices with so many different views and interpretations of scientific data — what they consider valid, what they consider invalid. It becomes a real struggle as we’re trying to educate the public about what is the right thing to do. Earlier today, someone [sent me] a viral video on YouTube that had someone with a Ph.D. in molecular biology and biochemistry who was totally against the vaccine. Now you’re not just dealing with someone who went to “Google University,” you’re dealing with someone who is very educated but has a completely different view about what is the right thing to do and what should be done. 

It’s very challenging from my standpoint, trying to coordinate public health efforts and trying to get us over the pandemic. And now it becomes a lot more serious, because we’re seeing more cases, patients being hospitalized for COVID-19, overwhelming our current system. Now, we’re in the thick of it, and we’re trying to muddle our way through. How do we maintain the best standard of care we can ever provide to all our community, and yet with fewer people and a lot more patients? 

I’m doing a bit more on Twitter and Facebook. For me, it was in response to some of the frustration I was getting, especially in Montana, where no one has really spoken up, at least on social media, to try and counteract some of the misinformation. So many people hear about “science.” We use that term so loosely. You can make any claims you want, but you better be able to back it up. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, (saying) “these are the studies.” It’s not just showing the paper but actually showing the papers meet certain standards. That’s a lot of work because that’s really critically looking, almost line by line, at what they’re trying to say. It boils down to the details. That’s the problem: we read the headlines, but we don’t read what’s in them. 

I had to really sit down and think about how we’re going to approach this, because I already knew that about six months ago, this is not going to go away any time soon. I do meditation; I try doing about 15 minutes. I bought a Peloton bike; I try to do that four to five times a week. One of my passions is traveling and fly fishing, and not doing that has been difficult for me. Physicians are terrible about figuring out how to balance things; right now, it's even harder to break off because there’s so much more expected of us because of being short-staffed. Same thing with the nurses and everyone else in the hospital. That’s where I’m really concerned.

This pandemic has really tested a lot of things about ourselves. And I think one of the biggest things is that we want to come across as being unified. But this pandemic, I’ve never seen how divided we are. As I’ve said, now the virus doesn’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat or Independent. It’s an equal opportunity pathogen. 

We have a common foe. What we really want is just everyone to be cohesive. Let’s just get over this.


Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for
High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

 

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