No one has been diagnosed with the new coronavirus in Alabama, but unfounded social-media rumors run so wild that the state public health department assigned a staffer to stamp them out.
In Texas, Houston and Harris County officials have been fighting misinformation since January, after false claims that the virus was circulating in the Asiatown neighborhood. Time and money is also being frittered away in New York, where the attorney general demanded that televangelist Jim Bakker stop promoting pricey pills as a cure. Bakker’s company was one of seven that received letters Monday from a federal task force, warning them against claiming that their teas, oils and tinctures will cure the virus.
Across the U.S., government officials fighting the disease are wrangling with a population made dubious by years of internet misinformation and a politics based on the debasing of facts. The World Health Organization has said that a global “infodemic” makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.
“We are all working fastidiously to get communication out,” said Trevor Thomas, an epidemiologist with the Georgia Department of Public Health in Waycross, where officials have been trying in vain to dissuade people from buying every face mask in sight, even though basic hand-washing and cough-covering are more effective. “There’s a disconnect with the public, particularly on the preparedness side of things.”
The disconnect starts at the top, with President Donald Trump’s repeated undermining of health officials’ assessment of coronavirus risks. With no evidence, Trump last week disputed the death rate from the WHO and downplayed the virus’ dangers on national television.
A Republican congressional candidate recently tweeted a coronavirus conspiracy involving Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates, George Soros and Pope Francis. Radio host Rush Limbaugh told millions of listeners last month that the virus was nothing more than the common cold, politically weaponized to hurt Trump’s reelection chances. Trump aides Kellyanne Conway and Larry Kudlow have said the virus is largely contained.
Public fear is increasing and people “desperately want and need accurate, concise, reliable information,” Lisa Lockerd Maragakis, senior director of infection prevention at the Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore, said Saturday. There are serious discrepancies between the statements of scientists “and some of the political leaders,” she said. “I’m trying to be careful in how I say that.”
Skepticism resonates in Trump country as the president has lashed out at Democrats, calling Washington Gov. Jay Inslee “a snake” for criticizing the administration’s response. He has said he will continue staging large campaign rallies despite the risk of transmission. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted last week found Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the virus poses an imminent threat to the U.S.
“It’s political for sure,” said Terry Hendrix, a county commissioner in Cleburne County, Alabama, where Trump won 87% of the 2016 vote. “That’s pretty much what everyone is saying here, that it’s being exaggerated.” If the virus did become something to worry about, I don’t think we would be trusting the federal government as much as we would the local politicians.”
The internet is awash with oddball cures, false infection reports and conspiracy theories about the motives of health experts and the federal government. That has real consequences, because cynicism degrades “the chief tool of public health, which is trust,” said Jim Thomas, a pandemic expert and epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. “Without that trust, it can do nothing.” The volume of misinformation churning around Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, makes this “different than other epidemics in my lifetime,” Thomas said.
On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission said in a statement that their joint task force had already worked with major retailers and online marketplaces to take down listings for more than 35 scam cures. Such products “defraud consumers of money and can place consumers at risk for serious harm,” including delays in getting properly diagnosed and treated, the statement said.
Vincent Covello, a doctor who directs the Center for Risk Communication in New York, said panic and rumors increase exponentially when the public gets conflicting information. He wouldn’t comment on Trump’s dispute with the WHO, but said dissonant assertions of fact erode trust in all sources of information. More than 110,000 people around the globe have been diagnosed with Covid-19 since it surfaced in China in late December. More than 3,800 have died. The first U.S. case was diagnosed January 20. As of Monday, 515 people had been diagnosed in the U.S. and 21 had died.
China had an advantage in combating the virus. After initial delays, the country contained it aggressively, using harsh measures like large-scale quarantines and preemptive testing. The WHO called the campaign a model for successfully slowing transmission, but conceded that its methods won’t likely work in countries that lacked the same “mind-set and materiality” — in other words, where democratic governments have less control over the public.
In the U.S., suspicion of public-health officials’ statements on coronavirus extends beyond politics. It has found fertile ground with so-called anti-vaxxers whose opposition to mandatory inoculation has been blamed for measles making a comeback in the U.S.
A Voice for Choice, a San Francisco group formed in opposition to California’s 2015 law eliminating vaccine exemptions, tweeted a link last week to a YouTube video purporting to show a Federal Emergency Management Agency “concentration camp” and tagged @RealDonaldTrump. “They need #WeThePeople to be hysteric in order to implement martial laws.”
In an interview, Voice for Choice founder Christina Hildebrand downplayed the tweets as a ploy to get attention and “play the social media game.” But she also called the coronavirus a possible “false flag,” designed to distract the public, and accused “the media” and pharmaceutical companies of having financial interests in hyping it.
Kenneth Stoller of Santa Rosa, California, is a member of the vaccine-critical group Physicians for Informed Consent who claims he cured himself of SARS 17 years ago using oregano, olive leaf extract and garlic. He railed against the CDC and its pursuit of a coronavirus vaccine. “They are a corrupt, inefficient and compromised agency. I would be more scared of the CDC than the coronavirus,” he said.
For state and local health officials, such reflexive distrust makes things harder. Scott Packer, who handles communications for Houston’s health department, has gone so far as to dispute false information on individual Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. He also works with local news outlets to correct the record. He said some of the misinformation comes from people who genuinely think they’re helping. Others spread falsehoods maliciously: The rumors about the virus in Asiatown, for instance, singled out one Chinese restaurant by name.
Maragakis, the John Hopkins official, said public officials must get people’s attention “in a way that activates them to take the appropriate steps to protect themselves, but it’s not so overwhelming that it engenders panic and inaction.”
Disinformation, Maragakis said, “is a phenomenon that seems to correlate with the degree of fear.”
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With assistance from Bloomberg’s Vincent Del Giudice and Christopher Yasiejko.