Recently, the nation was riveted by photos of the wall of Portland moms who were tear-gassed while forming a human shield of linked arms and bodies to protect Black Lives Matter protesters from federal agents. These moms represent the instincts that all mothers have — fiercely protective with a drive to stand up for what they believe in, especially when it comes to the safety of children. It is those same shared instincts that have motivated physician mothers in Illinois to battle misinformation, and particularly those who oppose masks and vaccines in schools.
“The Million Unmasked March” is a group organizing through social media and claiming over 7,000 supporters. The group is protesting in Springfield, Illinois to advocate for their demands: remove the mask mandate for Illinois school children and the requirements for a COVID vaccine when such a vaccine becomes available. In essence, anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers are uniting, and their agenda is putting our children and our communities in danger.
The collaboration of anti-mask and anti-vaccine groups is not unique to Illinois. In California, where anti-vaccine sentiment among parents was already suboptimal prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, parents who oppose vaccines have also taken up the anti-mask agenda. In Utah, a community meeting was dismissed after unmasked parents flooded the room to protest masks in school. At the heart of both the anti-vaccine and anti-mask argument is a deep mistrust of science, misunderstanding of the scientific process, a claim that public health measures have a hidden agenda, and a zealous desire to sway people to their cause.
Social media platforms, like Facebook, allow these groups to grow exponentially, spreading dangerous misinformation. However, the use of Facebook is not relegated to only those who oppose science; it can also be utilized as an effective tool by physicians working to fight misinformation and the infodemic. For example, a group of physician moms from the Facebook group, the Physician Mommies Chicago (PMC), came together at the onset of the pandemic and formed IMPACT, vocal advocates for science-based policy. These types of groups utilize social media to circulate petitions, gather support, advocate, develop social media initiatives, and disseminate evidence-based information.
When the anti-mask and anti-vaccine rhetoric in Illinois culminated in a protest planned for July 25, physician moms were not just outraged; they were downright baffled that a group would demand no masks in schools and vaccines exemptions at the same time we are engaged in the fight of our lives against COVID-19 and sacrificing so much to keep our patients and our kids safe. As one physician mom wrote, “Go against science AND endanger my child? I don’t think so.”
The few comments quickly turned into over 500 healthcare professionals’ signatures on a formal letter to the Illinois State Superintendent Dr. Carmen Ayala, the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois lawmakers. Given the public health focus of our state’s leadership, one may question why it was necessary to do this. After all, the likelihood that the mask mandate would be overturned for school children is low. But this is where complacency and inertia are hidden enemies. The anti-vaccine movement is narrow in its mission and gains ground whenever focus is turned elsewhere. When physicians and others become complacent, these movements have taken the opportunity to grow exponentially unchecked, and have led to outbreaks of measles and other previously eradicated diseases in areas with low vaccine rates.
After submitting the letter, we posted our initiative on a national COVID-19 Physician Mom Group. It turns out that Illinois physician moms are not alone in this fight. Florida physician moms reached out and adapted our letter to create a Change.org petition for universal masking in schools that is now circulating in Florida physician mom Facebook groups. Texas, California, and Iowa physician moms thanked us for sharing tools and resources and are actively utilizing them to petition their own state and local policymakers for universal masking in schools.
Social media platforms are starting to take notice of the misinformation movement taking place on their sites. In fact, Facebook recently made the decision to remove an anti-mask group, “Unmasking America,” for spreading dangerous misinformation. While this is helpful for those fighting the infodemic of misinformation, many other groups will replace it, highlighting the work is never done.
Advocacy by moms is not new, but advocacy by physicians has been less common. Moms have been fierce advocates on a variety of causes ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to Moms Demand Action, the anti-gun violence mom activist group led by Shannon Watts that has now helped launch moms into public office. As physician moms navigating a global pandemic, we are invested in ensuring that our patients, communities, and our children are safe. So, when misinformation threatens basic and effective public health measures, subsequently risking the health and safety of the public and of children, expect a wall of physician moms.
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