U.S. Surgeon General Issues Report on Dangers of Health Misinformation During the COVID-19 Pandemic

August 04, 2021 by Alec Stone MA, MPA, Former ONS Director of Government Affairs and Advocacy

In today’s digital age of news, the public often struggles to decipher real science from misleading or incorrect information—and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has only magnified the situation. Seeing a detrimental impact to the health of the nation, U.S. Surgeon General (https://www.hhs.gov/surgeongeneral/index.html) Dr. Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA, issued his first advisory report (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-misinformation-advisory.pdf) of the Biden administration on the topic of misinformation in public health.

The report (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-misinformation-advisory.pdf) draws a correlation between misinformation online and confusion about the COVID-19 virus and methods proven to help stop the spread, including vaccinations and public health measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing. In his report (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-misinformation-advisory.pdf), Murthy said information about the virus has evolved rapidly since COVID-19 was first recognized in 2020, leading to changes in public health recommendations.

According to the report (https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/07/15/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-during-covid-19-vaccination-push-warning-american.html), as of late May 2021, 67% of unvaccinated adults (https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/perspective/persistent-vaccine-myths/) had heard at least one COVID-19 vaccine myth and either believed it to be true or were unsure of its accuracy. Furthermore, Murthy said that another analysis found that false news stories were 70% more likely to be shared (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146) online than truthful articles.

"Health misinformation can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic," Murthy said (https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/07/15/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-during-covid-19-vaccination-push-warning-american.html). "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. From the tech and social media companies who must do more to address the spread of misinformation on their platforms, to all of us identifying and avoiding sharing misinformation, tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation."

In the report (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-misinformation-advisory.pdf), Murthy suggested strategies to address health misinformation (https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-misinformation-advisory.pdf), including direct conversations between trusted community members, health professionals, and the public; further research and resources to identify and debunk misinformation; improvements from technology platforms to monitor and address misinformation; and an increased push from governments to disseminate public health information in partnership with trusted messengers. On a smaller level, Murthy recommended that all Americans verify that the information they’re sharing is accurate before posting it to social media and to talk to friends and family who have misperceptions about COVID-19 and vaccines.

Squashing systematic racism (https://voice.ons.org/advocacy/racism-and-covid-19-nurses-in-politics-combat-social-determinants) and addressing health inequities (https://voice.ons.org/news-and-views/nurses-are-the-key-to-achieving-health-equity) and social determinants of health (https://www.ons.org/podcasts/episode-107-social-determinants-lead-unequal-access-health-care) will help oncology nurses reach more patients and communities (https://voice.ons.org/news-and-views/address-social-determinants-by-meeting-patients-where-theyre-at) during the pandemic to teach them about the importance of vaccines. By accessing resources (https://www.ons.org/coronavirus) and learning more about COVID-19 and its impact, healthcare workers can guide patients who remain uncertain about the vaccine and help to eliminate false or misleading information about the virus.

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