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The Age of (Mis)information

Man reading newspaper

During this pandemic I have been surprised by the amount of misinformation regarding COVID-19, and amazed that intelligent people have supported treatments or misinformation without scientific support. 

How does this happen?

Researchers have found that we tend to believe what we hear or read, and only about 30 percent of Americans are able to recognize misleading articles about COVID-19. It is very difficult to sort through it all. It’s also worthy of mentioning that if misinformation plays on your anxiety or makes you angry, then you will likely share it with others. In fact, researchers have shown that topics that go viral stimulate our emotions, and we tend toward sources of information that fit our point of view and bias. 

In March of 2020, researchers noted Twitter contained 46,000 new posts propagating misleading information every day. Personally, I know that I am biased to find a vaccine that will save all my patients, and I want to give them hope for a better future. But I know I must guard against being overly optimistic and, therefore, I guard against my bias by consciously looking for the “bad” or “downsides” of any treatments I recommend for my patients. I believe that I am more credible by recognizing and sharing both the up and downsides of treatments and accept that no course is perfect. 

Weighing the risks and playing the odds

You need to go outside and cross the street to get to the post office. But there is a definite chance of getting hit by a car or hit by lightning (1/15,000 lifetime Florida). We all manage such risks every day.  Those over 65 years of age have a 40 percent risk of fall every year, and 50 percent chance of injury when they do fall. So, do you just stay on the couch? Most don’t.

The same can be said of COVID-19 vaccines. You can face a very small risk of side effects from a vaccination or risk getting an illness. COVID-19 is about 5-10 times more deadly than influenza, with death rates rising sharply in those older than 65 and approaching 80 percent. With such a high risk of serious and long-term complications and death from COVID-19, the vaccine looks even better. Although there are risks from all vaccinations, I urge you to review facts regarding vaccination risks on the CDC website and talk to your doctor, not Dr. Google or Dr. Facebook.

The rest of the story

I have heard misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines causing deaths. Realize that when 363 million doses are given, some of those folks have heart attacks, strokes, and acute medical events and die. If a death occurs after vaccination, we are required to report it so a possible link can be investigated. The only death so far linked to vaccination was blood clotting from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. COVID-19 has caused excessive blood clotting, lung damage, and death. We now avoid giving that vaccine to women under 50 years of age, if possible, because of a 3 in a million chance of clotting/bleeding. While this is a low risk, it is avoidable. But don’t forget that right now, COVID-19 is killing over 800 people a day in the United States. 

Proceed with caution

The way we get information has changed and further adds to the misinformation.  The pandemic has been so rapidly changing that the scientific community found the normal process of peer reviewing and thorough analysis prior to publishing was taking too long, often months to years. We needed information now to help direct COVID-19 treatments and control this virus. In response to this need, studies are now posted before being reviewed and validated (pre-printed). Many of these studies are poorly designed, without appropriate controls or blinding, or have insufficient participants and inadequate p values. I have read many articles that look “promising” and try to ask and answer good questions, but under a critical review are not giving adequate support for a change in how I treat my patients. These early articles are sometimes cited by people who do not dissect the data and simply publish as fact. This misinformation leads to patients taking an antiparasitic medication used on horses (Ivermectin) followed by a spike in calls to Poison Control Centers due to adverse side effects. Yes, I read the papers showing Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine decreased viral replication in a test tube in the lab, but Clorox works too.  Trust me when I tell you these internet recommendations have been tested in real humans and do not work against COVID-19 and could harm you.  Scientific studies have shown monoclonal antibodies help prevent hospitalizations and Remdesivir, steroids and convalescent plasma are helpful for sicker patients.  Avoiding severe infections with COVID by vaccinating and masking works the best.

Who can you trust?

I continue to recommend the most trusted source for disease control in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website as a source of factual information. Is the CDC perfect?  No. But what governmental agency is? The CDC contains our country’s brightest epidemiologists, infectious disease experts and researchers who are respected around the world as the best. You paid for it all with your taxes to the tune of a $7.9 billion budget for 2021! I recommend going to the CDC website at least once a week and becoming familiar with guideline pages for masking, testing, and how to manage quarantining after exposure and isolating when you or someone in your household is sick.  Guidelines change, so keep up with the best advice as it evolves. Recommend this website to your friends. The World Health Organization (WHO) is another trusted source with a “Mythbusters” page that is simple and factual. Follow data on Florida at floridahealthcovid19.gov where you can find treatment sites delivering Monoclonal Antibodies (MAB). Beware of misinformation and verify information that is important to you using the CDC or Department of Health websites. Stay healthy!

About the Author

Dr. James joined the Clinic in March 2018 and serves as Medical Director of the Clinic. A graduate of Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, he completed his residency at Metropolitan Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is board certified in emergency medicine and has been awarded fellowship status by the American College of […]

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