How to combat vaccine misinformation and beat COVID-19: Opinion

DR. JAY BHATT and DR. HUSSAIN LALANI
·4 min read

Last week marked one year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. For more than 500,000 Americans, the pandemic ended their lives. And for the millions of family members and friends who lost a loved one, the suffering and hardship will remain a part of them.

Today's safe and effective vaccines are our way out of this pandemic, yet the extent of misinformation and disinformation around them and experts' recommendations has been significant, even somewhat surprising. It’s time to unify all trusted messengers and vaccine advocates to combat misinformation and beat COVID-19.

As primary care doctors in Dallas and Chicago, we hear the myths perpetuated on Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube in the form of questions from our patients every single day. As health care providers, we're used to answering questions from patients about prevention, diagnoses, treatments, and complications. However, there has been a noticeable shift where some patient questions seem to reflect targeted efforts to undermine trust in the vaccine.

For example: a patient was concerned that his preexisting conditions would lead to side effects from the vaccines when, in fact, exactly the opposite is the case. This patient with several underlying conditions had an even higher risk of hospitalization or death from COVID. These patients are exactly the ones who benefit greatly from vaccination and help curb the spread of the disease.

It’s hard to blame patients for asking these questions, as many of them are unknowingly targets of coordinated disinformation campaigns online. The false information not only influences medical decisions on an individual level, but also when perpetuated through a community can further contribute to vaccine hesitancy.

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Hesitancy may be particularly acute in communities of color, like the ones we serve, due to a mistrust of the medical system due to unethical medical experiments among other factors. Meanwhile, polling shows that many white Americans -- particularly white conservatives -- may have reservations about getting vaccinated.

Apart from that, experts have told ABC News that social media posts with vaccine misinformation have become normalized since the start of the pandemic -- increasing in frequency and appearing alongside content that is less extreme. Even though Americans become more willing to get vaccinated, 1 in 5 said they were reluctant to do so, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll last month.

In order to unify our country and get back to doing the things we love and miss most, we need trusted messengers to deliver trusted messages. That includes not only physicians and health care providers who are trusted by more than 85% of Americans when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, but also church leaders, educators and community leaders. It includes everyone and anyone who supports science.

It’s going to take each and every one of us to share and spread accurate, high-quality information about the vaccine, answer important questions, and shift the focus away from misinformation.

That is why we and our colleagues in health care across the country have teamed up to start #ThisIsOurShot, a grassroots social media campaign to elevate the voices of health heroes to build vaccine trust for a COVID-free world.

We are in a race between the virus and vaccines. If we want to reach herd immunity and get back to things we love and miss, as well as keep people safe, we have to take on the critical task of sharing accurate information about the vaccines so that, when the time comes for our community members to get vaccinated, they’re confident in their decision to get the shot.

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Some key messages to share to help in this effort:

-All three approved vaccines are very effective and will protect us from COVID-19.

-1 in 3 Americans have safely gotten at least one shot.

-According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, once vaccinated, we can safely socialize with other vaccinated individuals without masks.

-Urge those with questions to speak with their personal health care provider. They can also visit getvaccineanswers.org to get answers to common questions from trusted scientific experts.

We encourage all health heroes and vaccine advocates to join us in this effort to reach our friends, family, and communities. It’s now or never. If indeed, we have enough vaccine for every adult in America by the end of May, then we have just a matter of months to make 2021 that year we can celebrate in the future as the one where we beat COVID-19.

Dr. Hussain Lalani, MPH, is an internal medicine physician in Dallas and co-founder of #ThisIsOurShot. Dr. Jay Bhatt is an internist in Chicago, an ABC News Contributor and a National Leader for #ThisIsOurShot. The views of the authors are not those of ABC News.

How to combat vaccine misinformation and beat COVID-19: Opinion originally appeared on abcnews.go.com