Katie Gooch and her 3-year-old son were throwing rocks in a river not far from home in Richmond, Virginia. Not quite six feet away stood another mother and her young child. Neither child wore a mask. Nobody seemed to mind. That, by itself, seemed to mean Gooch and the other mother could trust each other.
“Within two minutes,” Gooch recalled, “she turned to me and said, ‘Do you know about the secret Facebook group?’ “
It was a group of “mothers for reopening,” more than 20,000 women who, like these two strangers, believed that despite risks posed by the novel coronavirus, schools should open up this fall for in-person instruction.
Seven hundred miles away, Mary Gail Lowery was fishing with her grandson in Tuscaloosa, Ala. A retired teacher, she carried a mask, but used it only in stores and only “as a courtesy,” because she’s decided that masks aren’t very helpful as a defense against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“I don’t just believe what I hear,” she said. “I do my own research. I check the facts.”
She checked and found support for that stance from Chuck Woolery, for three decades the host of TV game shows such as “Love Connection,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Scrabble.”
Woolery tweeted to his 691,000 followers that “Masks are nothing more than a symbol of capitulation,” and that “Everyone is lying” about the virus — “the CDC, Media, Democrats, our Doctors …”
Lowery tweeted back: “Thank you for taking a stand!” — one that matched her own.
More than four months into the pandemic, Americans are swimming — and sometimes drowning — in an ocean of information that, paradoxically, is also a desert of clarity and consensus. In the absence of consistent, authoritative advice from federal health officials, and with President Donald Trump and some of his top aides casting doubt on their own administration’s scientific guidance, many people have decided they are on their own, left to figure out for themselves how to live safely.
Amid the confusing cacophony, many now rely on recommendations by fellow parents, scientists, media commentators, local public health officials, celebrities, social media influencers, self-appointed experts, political activists or, in Woolery’s case, a TV entertainer.
Lowery said she was initially drawn to Woolery’s comments because “he’s a good conservative.” But Lowery, 63, said she didn’t take his posts at face value. Woolery has since deleted his Twitter account, after announcing that his son had tested positive for COVID-19. Woolery did not respond to a request for comment.
Lowery checked further. She used to rely on Fox News, “but they’ve gotten more liberal,” she said, “so I also watch One America News, and I Google, but you don’t know what’s right on Google. So I watch Bill O’Reilly — he’s more fact-based.”
She also rummages around Twitter and Facebook, finding doctors whose views seem right to her, such as one who wrote that masks aren’t effective protection against the virus. Numerous studies and the Centers for Disease Control say they are.
Lowery is far from alone in finding comfort by discovering experts who agree with a position she’s already drawn toward. Pretty much everyone does that, said Ross McKinney Jr., chief scientific officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.
“You want to rely on authoritative figures who do this kind of work,” said McKinney, a virologist. “But with this flood of information, we all have to realize what our own biases are. Do you want to believe something because it confirms your hopes?”
When New Mexico allowed gyms to reopen, Mikaela Kosich, an epidemiologist with a passion for roller derby, was eager to get back on the track. “I searched everywhere for information that would make it OK to go,” she said. “I really wanted to find it, but I knew I shouldn’t. Luckily, I couldn’t find it.”
Kosich, who works for the University of New Mexico, knows from her training that “in public health, there are often no certain answers,” but she said the contradictory signals Americans are getting from different arms of government send even medical professionals hunting for guidance on social media.
She follows infectious-disease specialists and local health officials on Twitter, but she sees friends and relatives relying on less-qualified sources.
“My family in New Jersey was planning a party, and they see the governor keeping things shut down and they see people they know not listening to those rules, and they weigh those things as equal,” Kosich said. “They pick the one they want to be true. It can be frustrating.”
The confusion in this crisis seems much worse than in previous epidemics, said McKinney. When SARS hit in 2003 and the H1N1 flu virus erupted in 2009, “we turned to the professionals and listened to the CDC, to people who have established reputations for being credible and straightforward,” he said.
Now, between the lack of certainty about how this virus will behave over time, the country’s sharp political polarization, and the widespread denigration of expertise in many fields, “people feel lost,” McKinney said. “They don’t know how to do the risk assessment.”
To fill the gap created by a government that has seemed to be at odds with itself, medical organizations and individual scientists have taken to publishing their own guidance. The Texas Medical Association, for example, put out a chart ranking the risks of 37 everyday activities, from low-risk opening the mail and getting takeout food to the highest risk choices of going to a bar or attending large religious services.
“With no clear direction from the federal government … there’s no right answer,” wrote Ezekiel Emanuel, a health policy adviser to President Obama who developed a COVID-19 Risk Index. “You just need to know the risks and how much risk you’re willing to take.”
Just as the Internet two decades ago opened the way for patients to search for data that had been available mainly to doctors, now the crosscurrents in government and science on combating the coronavirus have created information anarchy.
“This is very, very difficult for the layperson,” said Elliot Jacob, a microbiologist who is vice president of Medifocus, a Maryland company that guides lawyers through medical research. “We all saw those models of how many people would die — several million Americans in those early models. That scared a lot of laypeople into thinking, ‘Do the experts really know what they’re talking about?’ “
The Trump administration’s point man on the virus, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been the target of attacks by the president and some of his advisers. Scientific studies have raised hopes about treatments and vaccines — and dashed them.
That’s the nature of preliminary work, but in the meantime, the country’s institutions must make decisions. Sports leagues start and stop reopening efforts. Governors and mayors tussle over who can mandate safeguards. Schools and colleges announce one policy, then almost instantly pivot to another.
“We’re dealing with irrationality on all sides,” said Babur Lateef, an ophthalmologist in Northern Virginia who is chairman of the school board in Prince William County and a member of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors. In both positions, Lateef said he hears from parents who insist that school reopen entirely in person (“Get my kids in five days a week or give me my tax dollars back,” one father demanded), and from those who tell Lateef “I’ll have blood on my hands if we bring students back to school.”
Both sets of parents cite experts they’ve found online or on TV to back their positions.
“They’re quoting people they’ve found on social media or seen on Fox News, but we cannot let ourselves be influenced by emotional tweets and frenzied posts,” Lateef said. “We have to look at the science, and we did surveys of students and teachers.” (Not that it settled anything: Students and teachers were both evenly split between those who favor in-person instruction and those who want an all-virtual approach.)
For decisions about his own family, Lateef and his wife, who is also a physician, rely on the Johns Hopkins University and University of Washington tracking sites and Virginia’s health department. He tries to steer clear of social media.
But for his school board job, Lateef needs to keep an eye on what’s popular online. He knows that whatever course his school system takes, many people will reject the decision. “With this abject lack of national leadership, people don’t know who to trust,” he said. “The CDC? My governor? The trust is being undermined on all sides.”
Add in the fact that the country is at high tide in its perpetual struggle between liberty and security — what’s more important, the individual right to go maskless or the collective need to protect against transmission of the virus? — and the result is a hodgepodge of practices and beliefs.
It’s no wonder many people are crowdsourcing the information they need to make decisions for their own families — and grabbing onto sources they consider trustworthy.
Jessica Sandfort, a mother of two in Vancouver, Wash., discovered Andy Slavitt’s Twitter feed in early March and was impressed by his credentials — he ran Medicaid and Medicare under Obama — and his willingness to challenge the government’s failure to respond aggressively to the virus.
“There’s been a real lack of information coming from the White House,” Sandfort said. “So Andy’s insights have helped to fill that void. He speaks with experts in different areas to gather information about everything from vaccine development to food distribution.”
But much as Slavitt, who now hosts a podcast, “In the Bubble,” enjoys his large audience, he warns his more than 500,000 Twitter followers that “we all, including me, are giving the impression of far more certainty than actually exists. The more credible the source, the more uncertain they should be. And even then, we’re going to bring our own beliefs to whatever we say.”
If Trump had allowed government scientists to lead the way on combating the virus, Slavitt said his own efforts and those of many other self-appointed virus information sources might have been unnecessary.
“If the core of Trump supporters saw him supporting Fauci and being all about the mask and making fun of people who don’t wear it, that would have made an enormous difference,” Slavitt said. “As it is, I frequently say, ‘You need more sources than me.’ “
Everyone should choose at least three people to rely on, Slavitt said, focusing on sources who “say ‘I don’t know’ a lot, who let you know their opinion and who cite their sources.”
Slavitt and former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson, a novelist who has become a go-to source for many who believe that COVID-19 isn’t the menace it’s made out to be, differ on nearly everything about the coronavirus. But they both say people should base their decisions on scientific studies.
“I believe my overall view of the virus is correct, but adults should always make their own decisions,” said Berenson, who has won a large Twitter audience with posts that deride worrying media reports on the virus as “panic porn.”
Berenson said people rely on him because he provides “data and information they do not see anywhere else. I do not traffic in conspiracy theories; I provide facts and figures from local, state and national governments.” He said people “want to know why a few months ago they were told masks were useless except for health-care workers and now masks are required.”
Health officials concerned about mask shortages told the general public early in the pandemic not to wear masks, but they reversed course within weeks. Recent research has supported mask use as effective in helping control the spread of coronavirus.
Berenson says he lives by his own recommendations: “I take no special precautions and I wear a mask only when shops require me to do so. We are considering moving to a state where our children can have full-time schooling, ideally without masks.”
Gooch, the Richmond mother who checked out the “mothers for reopening” Facebook group, subscribes to The New York Times and Richmond Times-Dispatch and regularly listens to NPR. She considers the coronavirus a serious danger, but not reason to keep kids out of school. She doesn’t have time to dig into scientific studies on her own, but she turned to Fox News to try to understand the perspective of her relatives from Oklahoma, who have a very different view of the virus from what she hears in Virginia.
She has read about children having a rare inflammatory syndrome associated with COVID-19. “But for me that is such an unknown; but a clear known is that my child is not developing socially, academically, behaviorally — that is known,” she said.
She concluded that, at least on the question of reopening schools, Trump has a point. Gooch, a campus pastor at Virginia Commonwealth University, decided that many public officials and news reports focus too much on the worst cases of coronavirus and not enough on the dire impact of the shutdown. It has left parents like her scrambling to work while providing child care and attempting to figure out how to safely live their lives — often by relying on the advice of others with children.
“It’s such a taboo thing to question the CDC right now, especially in more progressive circles or academic circles or more educated circles,” she said. “I’ve been saying the taboo things.”
Over time, good information rises and bad information collapses as reality proves it wrong, McKinney said. But in this time of high stress and low trust, the usual road to consensus is clogged.
This time, it’s possible that “people may not come around to believing the experts,” McKinney said. “We as a culture are in the midst of an evolution in how we gather and consider information, and this epidemic came at exactly the wrong time in that evolution.”