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Coronavirus

'A perfect storm' of COVID-19 misinformation spread frustrates local public health officials

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They've seen the debunked and discredited YouTube clips, the conspiracy theories, the memes, and the social sharing of misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local public health officials and medical professionals, already stretched thin from fighting the actual pandemic, are frustrated by what they see shared online. Some are fighting back. Others are offering advice on where to get reputable information and what to do when readers see misinformation.

Dr. Shelly Vaziri Flais is a board-certified practicing pediatrician with Pediatric Health Associates, an assistant professor of clinical pediatrics with Northwestern University Weinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Laurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

Flais is dismayed at the amount of misinformation circulating around the internet and has been vocal on social media, combating it with correct information. This helps to balance news feeds, she said.

Otherwise "people tend to see more of the fringe packaged as mainstream theories as opposed to quality medical advice,” Flais said. “I speak out for what is right.”

Facebook has started to remove content that can lead to imminent physical harm, though it hasn't been enough to keep dangerous content off the platform, even in its advertisements. Twitter has introduced new labels warning of misinformation, though it too struggles to remove misinformation, according to one Oxford study. YouTube has taken similar measures.

Flais understands why people latch onto misinformation. People are anxious and want answers; they want the pandemic to go away. Plus, information about the virus that causes COVID-19 is rapidly evolving.

“It’s a perfect storm for misinformation to spread,” Flais said.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Northwestern Medicine in McHenry, Huntley, and Woodstock hospitals, said there is a lot of misinformation going around.

“It is very frustrating, because here we are, spending all of our time trying to take care of the COVID patients,” Hafiz said. “All I can say is that it is real.”

Hafiz’s advice is to stick to reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Illinois Department of Public Health. 

“The numbers are real, and these are issues that we're facing all together,” Hafiz said. “I think the saddest part is that in this time we've seen some remarkable bravery and commitment from our staff, our physicians, and (misinformation) just minimizes that and that's shameful. These people have put in so much hard work.”

The people who have already made up their mind to believe misinformation can be hard to convince when it comes to facts, Hafiz admitted. But to combat this, it is a matter of making sure that the facts are getting out there, and letting people who want to listen to the facts understand where things are actually at. There are also many authorities who have gone in and debunked a lot of the myths that are out there, Hafiz added. 

“The reality is that this has been a terrible pandemic, something we've not seen in probably over 100 years,” Hafiz said. “I've seen just remarkable bravery and fortitude from people coming together and dealing with this. It's been very challenging, but I think we've done a lot of great things here as well.”

OAF Health Care Director of Infection Prevention and Control Lori Grooms said there is a line between good, healthy skepticism and outright conspiracy theories.

Chasing those conspiracy theories can give them more credence, Grooms said, so informing the public becomes a balancing act between knocking down bad information and not giving oxygen to viral theories that aren't based in science and can take root.

"Of course it can be frustrating any time there are beliefs out there that are not consistent with our science based knowledge," Grooms said. "I think with the majority of health care providers, we get very concerned and frustrated when it puts the public at risk.

"We get very upset about that. All of the mask suspicions. Young people saying they don’t need to wear masks because they won’t get sick. But the thing with masks isn’t about protecting myself, it’s about protecting those around me, that’s when I get frustrated. It puts others at risk."

Masks have become one of the latest flash points in the misinformation pandemic.

One of the biggest myths that Beth Squires, public health educator at Northern Illinois University, tries to debunk is about masks. Namely, how some say masks can prevent building up of the immune system.

“Really, no,” Squires told the Daily Chronicle this week. “The importance of wearing the mask is you might have been exposed to COVID-19, but you are currently asymptomatic, so you could be spreading it. And you can’t assume you haven’t been exposed. The testing just isn’t there.”

But because the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have changed protocols and guidance as they've learned more about COVID-19, people start to feel as if they cannot trust these respected sources, Flais said.

An example of this is face masks. First people were told not to wear face masks and to concentrate their efforts on frequent hand washing and social distancing; now they are told to wear them, she said.

But some of that advice stemmed from fear the general public would stockpile masks, making them unavailable for health care workers, she said.

Furthermore, the foundation of the message has not changed.

“Everyone over the age of 2 should now wear masks but they (face masks) haven’t replaced hand washing and social distancing,” Flais said. “You don’t wear a mask and cozy up with everybody.”

Dr. William Bird with CGH Medical Center in Sterling stresses that you have to wear the mask the right way, too.

"You see folks that are kind of wearing them around their chins," he said. "I was in a store the other day and they had their masks below their noses. That's not going to do a whole lot in terms of the stuff that comes out of your nose."

Another concern over misinformation is on contact tracing, which has been around for decades to track outbreaks of measles, HIV and other infectious diseases, but is now a widespread concept with which the general public hasn't had much. Public health officials say it is critical to establish where the coronavirus is, and robust contact tracing is a requirement of Gov. JB Prtizker's Restore Illinois plan.

Contract tracing does not mean the local health department is tracking everyone. It means that once they have a positive test, the department will talk to that person to retrace their steps in an effort to find the path of the virus and identify others who may have become infected.

"For COVID, when we get a positive, we would work with them two days prior to symptom onset and work with them to see where they've been, who they've been around," said Cheryl Lee from the Whiteside County Health Department. "We just don't want people to be paranoid that the government's tracking their every move. That's not the purpose of contract tracing."

But the contacts for contact tracing are limited. If a COVID-19 positive patient walks past another person on the street, that is not a contact. Someone they live or work closely with would be.

One more thing to keep mind, Flais added, is that doctors with busy practices typically aren’t making health care videos for YouTube.

When in doubt about the validity of a health claim, ask your family doctor, she said.

“They want to hear from you,” Flais said.

So why don’t more health care workers speak up on social media? Because many are working 12-hours shifts and they’re just too exhausted to debunk all the misinformation they see, Flais said.

“It’s quite demoralizing when you’re working long shifts taking care of COVID patients – doing everything you can do to protect patients and families – and then seeing all the work you’re doing as a health care worker being undermined,” Flais said. “That’s very difficult.”

In fact, the fallout when this pandemic has ended will be mental stress “for years to come,” Flais said.

“Especially for health care workers,” she said.

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