The U.S. Surgeon General is warning Americans that COVID-19 misinformation is an ‘urgent threat’ to public health as cases continue to rise across the country and vaccination rates continue to stagnate.
In his first advisory serving under the Biden administration, which released on Thursday, Dr Vivek Murthy said that false information about COVID-19 – and the vaccines to combat it – put ‘lives at risk.’
It suggests that misinformation has impeded efforts to get the U.S. population vaccinated, led people to mistrust health officials and have caused unproven treatments to be promoted.
The advisory states that combatting disinformation is a ‘moral and civic responsibility’ for not just individual citizens but also institutions.
‘Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic,’ Murthy said in a statement.
‘As Surgeon General, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk…tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation.’
U.S. Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy released his first advisory serving under the Biden administration on Thursday calling COVID-19 misinformation ‘an urgent threat to public health.’ Pictured: Murthy speaks during an event in Delaware, December 2020
The advisory suggested the pandemic has hindered vaccination efforts as rates of daily shots fall below one million per day (above)
The advisory also takes aim at divisions among Democrats and Republican and says partisan divides have contributed to the spread of misinformation.
Murthy does not call out any politicians by name, but does indicate that lawmakers have a big role in spreading accurate public health messages.
‘Misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust,’ the advisory states.
‘Distrust of the health care system due to experiences with racism and other inequities may make it easier for misinformation to spread in some communities.
‘Growing polarization, including in the political sphere, may also contribute to the spread of misinformation.’
Murthy’s advisory also discusses the role that social media platforms have played in contributing to ‘unprecedented speed and scale’ of misinformation spread.
He called on technology platforms to ‘take responsibility for addressing the harms,’ boost the monitoring of misinformation and detect repeat offenders.
With the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases rising 129 percent in the last two weeks, largely driven by the transmission of the Indian ‘Delta’ variant, the Biden administration has been pushing to get Americans vaccinated.
However, adult vaccination rates have stalled around 67 percent, which is especially troubling considering that infection rates are highest in counties with low vaccine uptake.
There are many factors that contribute to low vaccination rates including lack of public transportation, little internet access to schedule appointments and less supply in urban communities.
But misinformation also plays a role in vaccine hesitancy.
A May poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that two-thirds of unvaccinated adults believe or are unsure about vaccine myths including that the vaccines cause COVID-19, lead to infertility or alter DNA.
It comes as the seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases has risen 129% in the last two weeks (above) amid the spread of the Indian ‘Delta’ variant
Murthy says this is not only putting lives at risk but preventing the country from ending the pandemic sooner.
‘COVID has really brought into sharp focus the full extent of damage that health misinformation is doing,’ he told NPR in an interview ahead of the advisory’s release.
‘Every life that is lost to COVID-19 when we have vaccines available, is a preventable tragedy.’
The advisory also lists others way in which a Americans can identify health misinformation, avoid sharing it and spread accurate health messages..
It encourages health professionals to engage with patients by listening ‘with empathy’ and correct any misinformation that present respectfully.
For government agencies, Murthy advises to invest in tools to research and fact-check claims as well as partnering with health organizations to spread accurate information.
He also recommends that media organizations and journalist are trained in recognizing and debunking misinformation.