- Misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 continue to flourish in the wake of the pandemic.
- A recent online survey of about 2,500 people found that 25 percent either showed a consistent pattern or “very high levels” of endorsing “conspiracy thinking” about the novel coronavirus.
- Medical experts urge people to listen to medically credible individuals who speak from knowledge and experience instead of following ideas and untested therapies from social media and even the White House.
- Knowledgeable professionals suggest simple interventions to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Seek medical care if you feel ill, and follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert in the United States, recently called the novel coronavirus his “worst nightmare” because it’s highly contagious and can cause many people to become sick or even die.
Some people may not believe that, because there’s been considerable efforts to downplay Fauci’s warnings — including the president — arguing that COVID-19 is simply a new flu.
Despite other infectious disease experts concurring with Fauci’s assessments, it’s all part of a late-breaking news cycle as scientists grapple to understand the virus. That takes lots of data, which takes some time to collect.
In the meantime, some are choosing to fill the void with their own ideas, many of them being misguided.
An online survey of about 2,500 people in England and published in May by Cambridge University Press found that while half of people didn’t engage in “conspiracy thinking” about the coronavirus, about 25 percent either showed a consistent pattern or “very high levels” of endorsing those ideas.
“Such ideas do not appear confined to the fringes,” the researchers from the University of Oxford concluded. “The conspiracy beliefs connect to other forms of mistrust and are associated with less compliance with government guidelines and greater unwillingness to take up future tests and treatment.”
But that’s bound to happen when you mix uncertainty, fear, economic despair, a contentious presidential race, social media trolls, including misinformation campaigns from foreign governments like Russia who seek to sow confusion.
The bad information even comes from top officials like President Trump, who wondered aloud during a coronavirus briefing in April about the potential of using light and disinfectant inside the body to kill the virus. That prompted companies like Clorox and Lysol to remind people not to ingest their products.
President Trump also instructed people to take hydroxychloroquine because, “What do you have to lose?” But soon medical journals like The LancetTrusted Source and the New England Journal of Medicine retracted studies on the drug because it relied on faulty data.
Those are just a handful of some of the most common myths surrounding COVID-19 that play out from the White House. Social media and the doctor’s office are different areas altogether.
Dr. Mike Sevilla, a practicing family physician in Salem, Ohio, says he fields a lot of questions from his patients — namely those who watch the news every day — and reminds them that, yes, the virus is real, but, no, there still is no vaccine available.
One major myth he deals with is that COVID-19 is just another flu.
“As the pandemic was starting around the world, I had a lot of patients say that COVID-19 should be nothing to worry about because it is just another flu. It is true that the symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza can be similar, with fever, cough, and shortness of breath,” Sevilla said. “But COVID-19 is definitely not just another flu.”
Dr. Moshe Lewis, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation in the San Francisco Bay Area, says he’s been asked about several conspiracy theories, including its connections to 5G broadband and billionaire Bill Gates.
“Science is complex, and when the public sees it unfold on a grand scale in front of their eyes, confusion ensues,” he said. “Various recommendations were put forth and then retracted, leading to mixed messaging. From these embers, fear, facts, and fiction get spliced into controversy.”
Lewis says as 5G towers went up and COVID-19 hit the United States, many confused correlation and causation, creating a “fertile ground to sow more seeds of concern.”
“The challenge with this approach is that some people have taken this so seriously as to go and burn down cellphone towers without clear and convincing evidence,” he said. “These types of actions can cause a greater danger than the unsubstantiated threat.”
Another area of controversy in the pandemic is the use of masks. First, health officials said there was no need for healthy people to wear them. Then Fauci recommended them, and many cities and counties now have orders that anyone — regardless of symptoms — wear them when out in public. This, too, remains a focus of conspiracists.
One large source of information was the 26-minute video “Plandemic.” It was first posted to social media on May 4, 2020, and — much like COVID-19 — went viral. It featured virologist Judy Mikovits, who has repeatedly been accused of being an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist.
The video has been pulled off most major social media platforms due to its inaccuracies, but it keeps resurfacing.
Science Magazine’s editorial team fact-checked many of the claims in the video, including that the virus is “activated” by face masks and that Mikovits was jailed for her research regarding HIV. They found those to simply be untrue.
Dr. José Morey works part time on the front lines as a radiologist in eastern Virginia and part time as a technology consultant for NASA, MIT, and other places. He says many of the claims in “Plandemic” are simply untrue.
“Judy Mikovits claims Bill Gates has killed millions with his global vaccination program. There is no evidence of this. This is just nonsense,” he said.
Morey has written about more advanced vaccines for Forbes, and counters Mikovits’ claims that there are no vaccines against ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses — like the coronavirus — by saying there are several, including rabies, measles, and polio, despite the fact they mutate rapidly, making vaccines to combat them tougher to make.
As to Mikovits’ assertions that COVID-19 deaths are “extremely exaggerated,” Morey says the death toll from COVID-19 is “largely being underestimated, as many countries do not have the capability to perform such wide-scale testing.”
“Even here in the United States, testing has been poor,” he said.
As to the theory that the coronavirus was created in a Chinese laboratory, Morey says studies from many nations all point to a natural source at this time.
“The virus is odd,” he said, “but just because something is peculiar, it doesn’t mean that it is fabricated.”
Morey says part of the problem is the White House has a continuing “disdain for science and the scientific method,” including “a systemic assault on science and facts.”
“This is endemic and we are seeing the ramifications of this underlying pathology. We will ultimately find treatments and interventions for COVID-19, of this I have no doubt,” he said. “However, the disease that ails the White House is deep seated and rooted in ignorance. For this, there is only one cure: vote.”
But until November, others recommend being selective of where people get their information, from social media to popular podcasts.
Gail Trauco, RN, an oncology nurse for 42 years turned patient advocate and founder of Medical Bill 911, describes herself as someone with liberal opinions who loves the comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan, who sometimes dabbles in unproven conspiracy theories.
Still, she says, his fans need to “be real” when listening to any kind of medical advice coming from him or others like him.
“Joe Rogan will not be paying any person’s medical bills or funeral expenses related to coronavirus, with the exception of his own family,” she said. “Joe Rogan will not provide testing to any individual, nor the information on how to obtain medical care.”
That means the responsibility of staying safe lands on the individual person.
“Listen to medically credible individuals who speak from knowledge and experience,” she said.
Instead of following ideas and untested therapies from social media and even the White House, Trauco and other knowledgeable professionals suggest simple interventions to keep yourself and others safe from COVID-19: Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Seek medical care if you feel ill, and follow the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Be ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ of your own health,” Trauco said. “The ‘bounty’ is your heartbeat.”