Misinformation about COVID-19 has been part and parcel of the pandemic since the beginning.
People have died as a result and more are becoming ill — lately, because of pushback against the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.
The problem is so great that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is asking the nation to wage a war against “health misinformation” in issuing his first surgeon general’s advisory since taking the job. An advisory is reserved for significant public health challenges deserving immediate attention.
What is happening in Tennessee is an example of what must be stopped in the rest of the United States.
Republican lawmakers there pushed against COVID-19 vaccinations for minors, including halting clinics at schools and stopping the mailing of postcard reminders for teens to get their second shot. The prohibition against shot clinics at schools affects adults, too, since in rural areas of Tennessee, a school gym is the best place in town to handle large numbers of people who need vaccinations.
The efforts to stop adolescents from being vaccinated were part of a broader campaign against the vaccine. In Tennessee, only 38 percent are fully vaccinated, well below what is necessary to protect vulnerable populations. It’s a terrible mix; cases are rising.
If that weren’t bad enough, agency bosses in Tennessee ordered workers to stop promoting routine vaccinations, including those that should not be controversial. Instead, the state’s top medical official told staff members to conduct “no proactive outreach regarding routine vaccines” and “no outreach whatsoever regarding the HPV vaccine.”
This comes right before back-to-school preparations, a time when children routinely receive checkups and get their vaccinations. What’s more, vaccination rates dropped during the pandemic because so many doctor’s offices in Tennessee and the nation were closed. More publicity, not less, is needed now.
Routine immunizations against disease — flu, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and polio — are among the great public health success stories of our time. Countless lives have been saved and suffering reduced.
Tennessee knew this at one time, with effective outreach that led to 95 percent of kindergartners showing up for class fully vaccinated. The health department there routinely sent out tweets, advertised vaccine clinics and reminded adults to make sure their children were protected from disease. That’s as it should be. Now, the state has fired its vaccination manager, angry that she issued a memo stating that minors did not need parental permission for a COVID-19 vaccination. That’s based on a decades-old Tennessee court ruling.
The surgeon general, in pointing out the danger of health misinformation, is identifying a stumbling block to our nation pushing through this pandemic. “COVID has really brought into sharp focus the full extent of damage that health misinformation is doing,” Murthy told NPR.
But we don’t have to accept the damage. People who are driven by common sense and the common good can talk to friends and family who are vaccine-hesitant. The biggest responsibility is with big tech companies, which must do more to stop the spread of bad information — especially by shutting down social media accounts that spread the bulk of rumors and lies. A dozen users have been identified as the biggest online liars about vaccines, yet many of their accounts are still operating.
Misinformation can kill. Now, to stop this other pandemic before more lives are lost.