COVID-19 misinformation is a public health crisis

As a medical student, I have discussed with classmates and faculty how to handle a potential patient interaction on vaccinations. Learning how to handle a patient who may be misinformed may be best through experience rather than lectures. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this experience may come sooner and be more commonplace than I previously expected.

While anti-vaxxers currently make up a small percentage of the United States, their influence could affect American’s willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) of responders to an early May poll stated they would not be willing to get vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available. The anti-vaxxer movement was influenced by the incorrect link between vaccines and autism in a 1998 Lancet paper, which took the medical journal 12 years to retract.

Although patients may have serious concerns about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, deep-rooted in a history of medical mistreatment — Tuskegee syphilis study, Henrietta Lacks, James Marion Sims. After two French doctors suggested a COVID-19 vaccine could be tested in Africa, some may doubt the ethics of its development.

Dr. Christopher Swingle wrote, “Patients will continue to trust physicians who listen to their concerns. If we do not have that trust, we cannot reasonably hope to persuade on the real risks and benefits of vaccination.” A balance must be struck between respecting a patient’s concerns and correcting misinformation. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the pervasiveness of public health misinformation has been brought to the forefront.

After a unanimous vote at a commissioner’s meeting to make masks mandatory, residents of Palm Beach County in Florida erupted in anger, which included threatening to arrest a doctor for “crimes against humanity” for their vote. Two Twitter accounts — BadMedicalTakes and BadCOVID19Takes – a YouTube study, and Facebook posts promoting bogus COVID-19 cures highlight some of the public health misinformation being spread on social media platforms. The political nature of wearing face masks for public health safety has resulted in misinformation about their effectiveness. Those who wrongly believe face masks have detrimental respiratory effects are interfering with the ability to scale our nation’s public health response. During this unprecedented time of dealing with a viral outbreak and its economic effects on such a large scale, our nation should be experiencing strong unity in championing public health safety measures. Instead, the decision to wear a mask outside the home is influenced by gender, political party, and education level.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should be considered a focal source of reliable information. The good news is Americans overwhelmingly trust the CDC as a source for COVID-19 information. However, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield expressed he is “concerned that our public health message isn’t resonating” on masks and social distancing at the June 4 House appropriations subcommittee hearing.

News media plays an important role in harnessing public trust. While an overwhelming number of Americans are following news on COVID-19 either fairly or very closely, the country is divided on whether to trust the accuracy of news reports. On June 19, Tennessee’s House of Representatives passed Resolution HR0340, penned by Rep. Micah Van Huss (R-Jonesborough), condemning the “mainstream media” for sensationalizing the COVID-19 pandemic to push a political agenda. Three studies have explored how conservative media misinformation may have intensified the severity of the pandemic. News media, across the political spectrum, should provide accurate information regarding COVID-19 and be accountable for correcting erroneous information from themselves and others.

There is a need for self-accountability for the assertion, despite no corroborating evidence provided, that “more testing accounts for the rise in cases.” While Houston’s COVID-19 positivity rate increased from 15.35 percent on June 1 to 24.82 percent on June 28, Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Authority said, “The problem is that the virus is spreading at a faster rate than we’re increasing the testing.” Increased testing actually leads to a more accurately reported case count. According to the CDC, COVID-19 cases in the United States may be ten times higher than reported. Therefore, ramping up our testing capacity would detect cases that are currently not being reported. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, tweeted, “This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you are doing enough testing, cases should start to go down because you are finding people early before they spread it.” People who test positive should self-quarantine for 14 days, thereby limiting their ability to infect others.

Government officials, regardless of political affiliation, should seek sound medical advice before communicating with their constituents. Appropriate public health information should be shared so that constituents are not harmed by following misinformed medical information. Government officials, news media, and social media platforms should account for the health information they spread. We must combat misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic so that we are better prepared to handle a potential second wave or any viral outbreaks in the future.

How to combat the impending public health crisis of misinformation?

Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “So I think you’d have to make the assumption that if there wasn’t such divisiveness, that we would have a more coordinated approach.” This divisiveness is prominently displayed in the misinformation campaign waged against appropriate public health measures.

The way political officials discuss COVID-19 affects how future generations will learn from this pandemic. Combating misinformation should be considered critical in resolving some of our most daunting public health challenges. Social media platforms should create public health misinformation disclaimers, expanding upon Twitter’s civic integrity policy. In confronting information that doesn’t sound right, Dr. Ranit Mishori encourages people to ask for the evidence behind a claim and speak out.

Receiving proper medical information allows for sound decision making. Misinformation sows discord; debating a false premise disrupts the effectiveness of public health. In the long term, we should examine how health literacy is taught in our K-12 educational system.

Future generations will undoubtedly learn about the COVID-19 pandemic; a non-partisan, objective public health education is necessary for them to avoid repeating our missteps. We still have time to fix our failures in the short term. In addition to more accountability in correcting misleading claims, we must drown out misinformation by increasing the messaging bandwidth of appropriate public health information.

Jacob Uskavitch is a medical student.

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