For millions of Americans, the pandemic is still the dark shadow hovering over everything they do, in spite of over 160 million people being fully vaccinated and COVID-19 deaths dramatically down from the horrors of last year. Yet just when it looked as if there was light at the end of the tunnel, came the Delta variant and the fear is that the progress may be lost, after having achieved great success in the battle against the virus which seems to continually reinvent and replenish itself.
“But we are not out of the woods yet,” warned US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, speaking to the country at large at a White House press briefing. “Millions of Americans are still not protected against COVID-19, and we are seeing more infections among those who are unvaccinated. And that’s why I want to talk to you today about one of the biggest obstacles that is preventing us from ending this pandemic.”
And this ‘biggest obstacle’ is the blight of our technological age – misinformation which spreads like a forest fire and can sway entire cities and communities. Dr. Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on the dangers of health misinformation. As he pointed out, “Surgeon General Advisories are reserved for urgent public health threats. And while those threats have often been related to what we eat, drink, and smoke, today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”
He added, “Health misinformation is false, inaccurate, or misleading information about health, according to the best evidence at the time. And while it often appears innocuous on social media apps and retail sites or search engines, the truth is that misinformation takes away our freedom to make informed decisions about our health and the health of our loved ones.”
Indeed, during the pandemic, the country has often seemed like two Americas – with one America refusing to wear masks, get treatment or vaccinations, all due to following and believing the misinformation.
As Dr. Murthy put it in clear-eyed terms, “This has led to avoidable illnesses and death. Simply put, health
Dr. Murthy suggests fighting back with accurate information. In his 22 page advisory he has laid out ways for individuals and families to make it their mission to impart real information by checking sources and ensuring the information is credible and scientific.
Dr. Murthy wants an all hands on deck approach with health organizations and physicians communicating with their patients to make sure they have the facts, and educational institutions and foundations improving health information literacy. The Rockefeller Foundation has announced a $13. 5 million commitment to counter health misinformation while the Digital Public Library of America is convening scholars and leaders to combat health misinformation.
A major player in the information/disinformation battle are the big tech companies which are being asked to operate with greater transparency and accountability and take action against misinformation super-spreaders. The surgeon general has asked them in his advisory to step up their efforts to reduce misinformation and take aggressive action “because it’s costing people their lives.”
People also get their information from news organizations and the Administration is asking them to take a more proactive approach to ensure that misinformation is not spread in the name of news.
Across America, families have been affected by COVID-19 and the Surgeon General himself is no exception. He said, “On a personal note, it’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated. I say that also as a concerned father of two young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but I know that our kids are depending on all of us to get vaccinated to shield them from this virus.”
He added, “Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated — all too often because they were misled by misinformation. And I hope that you will see it as I do — as a starting point from which we can build a healthier information environment, safeguard our nation against future threats, and ultimately, empower people to lead healthier lives.”
After his briefing, he answered some questions from White House reporters about whether the misinformation might be a form of ‘hybrid warfare’ or the work of nation states creating the disinformation. Dr. Murthy responded, “The misinformation that we’re seeing comes from multiple sources. Yes, there is disinformation that is coming from bad actors. But what is also important to point out is that much of the misinformation.”
Indeed, misinformation seems to be the key reason people are not getting vaccinated in spite of there being ample vaccines and incentives to get them. Dr. Murthy pointed out that two thirds of people who are not vaccinated believe common myths about the vaccine such as “You can get COVID from the vaccine.”
Dr. Murthy was also asked if he felt that public figures and public companies that are helping spread misinformation about the vaccine should be held accountable. He responded, “Well, I think in a moment like this when we see misinformation literally costing us our loved ones, costing us lives, all of us have to ask: How we can be more accountable and responsible for the information that we share?”
He added, “Sometimes the most trusted sources are a mother or father or a faith leader or a local doctor or a nurse, and that’s why, to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices.”
Asked in a television interview about Surgeon General Dr. Murthy’s advisory, William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) put it succinctly: “It certainly is a wonderful start. He's acting as the conductor of an orchestra - he wants everybody out there to participate, and to play the music of really solid scientific information.”
Pointing out that the Latin root of the word ‘doctor’ is to teach, he said, “This is a major opportunity for every doctor, every nurse, and every pharmacist out there to be a teacher to reach out and give good information to people.”
Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who blogs at Lassi with Lavina.
Read her columns here.