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COVID-19 ISO Insights

Medical Misinformation Prolonging Pandemic

October 12, 2021

By Travis Decaminada

Key Takeaway: Covid-19 misinformation may be prolonging the pandemic by increasing vaccine hesitancy, spreading dangerous information about faulty cures, and creating animosity between hospital patients and staff. Experts assert that understanding and preventing the impacts of misinformation may be critical to successfully overcoming the pandemic.

Misinformation surrounding Covid-19 has been a problem since the beginning of the pandemic. So much so that both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both maintain webpages dedicated to fighting Covid-19 related mis- and disinformation. The difference between the two being intent, disinformation is spread to intentionally mislead others whereas misinformation is often mistakenly repeated. Provided below is a diagram from the CDC about how to address mis- and disinformation (Figure 1).

How To Effectively Address Misinformation Cdc
Source: CDC

Misinformation is so problematic that, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), “defeating misinformation is key in ending the pandemic”. Per the article, vaccine misinformation is common on the internet and other media and may impact whether or not a person chooses to vaccinate. Unfortunate because, per the CDC, during this most recent Covid-19 wave nearly 99% of deaths, and cases with severe enough symptoms to require hospitalization, were associated with unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated patients.

The AMA is imploring media outlets to understand the role they play in influencing individuals' choice to vaccinate and to ensure that only accurate information is being shared with their audiences. Media outlets and personalities do appear to wield significant influence, the AMA notes that after certain newscasters publicly voiced their approval of vaccines vaccination rates among their audiences increased significantly. 

False Cures

Of specific concern to the AMA is misinformation related to unfounded or potentially dangerous Covid-19 treatments, from the article:

Reporting on unproven and potentially dangerous treatments for this virus, including ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and other treatments that have not been scientifically validated, confuses the public and puts lives at even greater risk.

Ivermectin in particular is a “popular” home-remedy for Covid-19; however, not only is the drug ineffective at treating Covid-19, but it can also cause severe side effects, and more, veterinarians who need the drug to treat their animal patients are having difficulty acquire it, reports the New York Times. In some instances, the price of ivermectin has doubled, and some retailers have begun restricting who they sell the drug to. The above is just one small externality created by misinformation.

The Times also notes that, despite warnings from the CDC, ivermectin is still being touted as an effective Covid-19 treatment on social media, in podcasts, and on talk radio. Purportedly, “[t]he inaccuracies have led to some people overdosing on certain formulations of the drug, which has then stretched doctors and hospitals”.

Mistreated Hospital Staff

Per  The Associated Press, misinformation is also leading to the abuse of nurses and doctors trying to treat Covid-19 patients. Reportedly, demands for alternative treatments and other misinformation related concerns have led to verbal and physical abuse of hospital staff. From the article:

“We’ve had reports of physical violence, verbal abuse, demands for alternative treatment that are not acceptable or approved. And those become very difficult conversations to have as the patient continues to decompensate,” Whitlock said. “We’re not frustrated with the misinformed. We’re frustrated with those who propagate the misinformation because it’s costing people their lives.”

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