Thursday, March 4, 2021

Misinformation can be as contagious and harmful as COVID-19

At the end of August 2020, when around 1,000 Americans were dying from COVID-19 each day, I posted on my personal Facebook account a straightforward translation of the deaths statistic: averaged over 24 hours (86,400 seconds), one U.S. resident was dying every 86 seconds. In another post, I expressed my concern for the mental health and safety of hundreds of public health officials all over the country who were being threatened and harassed for recommending or enforcing measures aimed at stemming these horrifying losses, such as restricting restaurant capacity, banning large gatherings, and mandating mask-wearing when social distancing wasn't possible.

It didn't occur to me that either of these posts would be the least bit controversial among my friends and family. But later that night, a friend from college whom I've known for more than a quarter of a century commented that I was greatly exaggerating the death toll and "fear mongering." Do the math, I responded. He countered by claiming that doctors were inflating COVID-19 death counts for financial benefit and that just because thousands were dying with COVID, they weren't necessarily dying of COVID. The flu kills 100,000 people every year, he wrote, and we don't shut down the country for that. I gently pointed out that according to official CDC statistics, no more than 60,000 people have died in a single influenza season for the past decade, and those numbers are estimates, not actual case counts. We went back and forth like this for a while. Finally, exasperated, I observed that my friend is a lawyer, while I have medical and public health degrees and was probably a little bit more informed than he was. "Elitist," he taunted, your fancy education doesn't mean anything. The great thing about social media is that it's the ultimate equalizer - no one needs to "bow down" to your supposed expertise. By the way, he wrote, right before I wished him well and blocked him from posting more misinformation on my page, those public health officials you support all march in lockstep with the Democratic Party, so as for the harassment, well, they had it coming.

Six months later, more than half a million Americans have died from the pandemic, and though new infections have fallen from their post-holiday peak, we're still losing about 2,000 people every day (or one every 43 seconds). Despite the greatly increased pace of vaccination since President Biden took office, as of today less than 10 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and less than 20 percent has received at least one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna two-dose vaccines (the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a single dose). Nonetheless, the misinformed governors of Texas and Mississippi have declared victory, discarding their mask mandates and restrictions on businesses and sending the message that if COVID-19 was ever a serious public health problem, it isn't any longer.

Of course, online misinformation abounded well before COVID, infamously leading many parents to refuse the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine for their children because they feared, based on a single fraudulent, discredited and retracted scientific article, that it might cause autism. And I'm deeply concerned that the crazy myths now proliferating online about COVID vaccines - that they make changes to your DNA, they cause infertility, they contain tiny microchips to allow Bill Gates can track your movements, that their side effects are worse than the disease - pose a huge obstacle to achieving herd immunity through vaccinating 70 percent or more of the population. (And don't get me started on the barbaric "let's achieve herd immunity through natural infection." One might as well go back to the days of bloodletting and Hippocrates' four humors, for the immense harms that strategy would cause.) Let me be clear: I don't think that vaccination should be mandatory for every adult (or child, when it is shown to be safe and effective in children), but those who decline it for themselves or on someone else's behalf should do so because they have concerns that medicine can't yet answer (e.g., are there any side effects that don't show up for a year or more?), not because they fall for misinformation or conspiracy theories.