Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines meant Carlsbad’s local hospital continued to work to reassure the community about its safety and effectiveness, said Melissa Suggs, spokesperson for Carlsbad Medical Center.
“We know the vaccine is safe, and the hesitation behind the vaccine is one of the difficulties we experience as healthcare providers—the severe illness and deaths are unnecessary and could likely have been prevented by taking a vaccine,” Suggs said.
The question of COVID-19 misinformation came to the forefront in Carlsbad during a recent local demonstration.
Supporters of Unmask NM Kids gathered on July 31 in Carlsbad outside the Eddy County Courthouse as part of a statewide protest.
Participants held signs that read “no mask, no vaccine,” as some passersby honked in support.
Members of the group said its goal was to advocate for freedom of choice in whether to use a face mask. On July 27 the New Mexico Public Education Department released new guidelines for schools requiring elementary schools and the unvaccinated to wear masks indoors.
Carlsbad Mayor:COVID-19 resurgence in community ‘of high concern’
The following day the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended everyone wear a mask in public spaces regardless of vaccination status.
Artesia mother, Unmask NM Kids member and Support Artesia organizer Stacey Turner pointed to SupportArtesia.com as a source of coronavirus and vaccine information.
The website links to articles and viral videos made by medical professionals which were largely discredited.
The website cited Dermatologist Dr. Ryan Cole, who was the subject various fact checks for saying mRNA vaccines cause cancer according to FactCheck.org, a Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and Chief Executive Officer of CatalystMD Dr. Jim Meehan, who was disqualified from testifying as an expert witness on masks by a Connecticut court.
Both Cole and Meehan promoted ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasites in animals, as a cure for COVID-19.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ivermectin was not approved to treat coronavirus and Merck, a manufacturer for the drug, said there is no “no scientific basis for a potential therapeutic effect against COVID-19.”
Cole claimed that some COVID-19 vaccines could cause cancer or autoimmune diseases and said public health officials should encourage people to take Vitamin D supplements rather than wear masks and social distance according to FactCheck.org.
A 2017 article by NBC News showed Meehan has a controversial history of opposing vaccinations and attacking pediatricians on social media. Along with his medical practice in Tulsa, Oklahoma he operates a website that sells vitamin supplements and $250 vaccine consultations.
Court records show that Meehan ran a personal blog where he recommended taking vitamin supplements instead of wearing masks and provided links to purchase the products. Meehan told the Hartford Superior Court in Connecticut he makes money anytime these supplement’s are sold through his links.
Leaders speak out against false COVID claims
President Joe Biden criticized social media platforms like Facebook for allowing misinformation to spread, and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory calling COVID-19 misinformation an “urgent threat.”
But Republican New Mexico Sen. David Gallegos, who attended the protest in Carlsbad, said he gets his information about COVID-19 by talking to doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
He said government organizations like the CDC and New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) spread misinformation and are “skewed by the government.”
Gallegos cited Las Cruces resident Sarah Smith, a former NASA engineer turned blogger and natural healthcare practitioner as a source of information. Smith is an active member of Unmask NM Kids who promoted anti-mask protests on social media.
Smith shared via social media a now-redacted study that assessed levels of carbon dioxide when wearing a mask.
She also pointed to a German survey that claimed 68 percent of children are impaired by wearing masks and tabloids that read “letting kids catch COVID may be safer than giving them a vaccine.”
According to the John Hopkins Children’s Hospital masks are safe for most children and do not cause illness, and While children usually have milder symptoms they are still able to catch and spread the virus.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics over 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 in the U.S. Some children develop a rare inflammatory syndrome called MIS-C which can affect the heart, blood vessels and other organs, according to John Hopkins.
The German study was criticized for having multiple limitations because it was conducted as an online survey according to PolitiFact, a nonprofit project operated by the Poynter Institute.
Research Gate said in an editorial note “most of the respondents were parents, and the survey was distributed preferentially in social media forums that, according to the authors, ‘criticize the government’s corona protection measures in principle.’”
Handouts with information from the study, along with other claims like “masks do not stop viral transmission,” were passed around at the protest in Carlsbad.
Smith said she believed in the accuracy of the information she shared but said in a phone interview she knew some of it was redacted after it was posted on social media.
How COVID misinformation spreads
New Mexico State University virologist Kathryn Hanley said she thinks most misinformation comes from bad actors who deliberately misinform the people who trust in them.
“Misinformation has driven this pandemic as much as the virus has,” Hanley said.
The Surgeon General’s Advisory pointed to a study that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be shared than true stories.
Barbara De La O, an Unmask NM Kids supporter, said she gets most of her information from social media and online.
“All the people that are censored I follow,” De La O said.
Hanley said people can also misunderstand accurate information.
“They’re getting some real information that says if you’re under 65, then your chances of dying of COVID-19 are quite low,” Hanley said. “They’re misunderstanding that there are long term consequences of COVID-19. If you survive it, they’re very unpleasant.”
Some of these long-term effects include cognitive impairment, memory loss, muscle aches and persistent exhaustion, according to Hanley.
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According to the CDC, some patients who became ill due to COVID-19 experienced autoimmune conditions which affect heart, lung, kidney, skin and brain functions.
Raven Hayworth, a Carlsbad resident also attending the protest, cited outdated information from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Early in the pandemic Fauci advised people to not wear masks due to concerns of PPE shortages. Fauci updated his recommendations stating everyone, even those who are vaccinated, wear a mask indoors in regions with high transmission rates during an interview with MSNBC on July 27.
Hanley said mistrust in the medical community has also led to misinformation and that people sometimes refuse to listen to her because she is a scientist.
“They have this feeling that I have a malicious agenda and that I’m somehow trying to mislead them,” Hanley said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
How can we stop misinformation?
Hanley said she thinks the best way to combat misinformation is to tap into trusted sources in a community.
“There are often thought leaders in a community, be they the lead physician or the respected teacher, and I think they can really drive acceptance or rejection of misinformation,” Hanley said.
Suggs advised “anyone who is concerned about getting the vaccine to talk with their doctor to be sure you are getting information from an accurate and credible source.”
Some reliable sources include the World Health Organization, the New Mexico Department of Health and the CDC according to Suggs.
Claudia Silva is a reporter from the UNM Local Reporting Fellowship. She can be reached at [email protected], by phone at 575-628-5506 or on Twitter @thewatchpup.