Wisconsin Public Radio

Public Health Officials Warn Against COVID-19 Misinformation

U.S. Surgeon General called misinformation a "serious threat to public health."

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - Aug 10th, 2021 11:46 am
2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

2019 Novel Coronavirus. Image by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Milwaukee resident April Hill got vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as she was eligible. She hoped the rest of her family would follow suit, but her daughter and six grandkids, who live in Kentucky, remain unvaccinated.

The situation became all the more dire when Hill’s cousin in Georgia was put on a ventilator due to complications of COVID-19. That same cousin’s son recently died of COVID-19.

“When they got to the hospital they asked, ‘Can I get the vaccine now?'” Hill recalled. “And they said, ‘No, it’s too late.'”

Hill’s partner, John Spirewka, has also been dealing with vaccine-hesitant family members. His adult son doesn’t plan on getting the vaccine, while his other four children are vaccinated.

“I was excited. Like, ‘Hey, you know what? Everybody gets a shot, and we can do things again. We can actually get together as a family again.’ But we can’t.” Spirewka said.

Milwaukee residents John Spirewka and April Hill both have relatives in Wisconsin and elsewhere who don't want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 despite pleas from family members. Shown in this 2017 photo, Spirewka and Hill relax at Little Amerricka Amusement Park in Marshall. Photo courtesy of John Spirewka/WPR.

Milwaukee residents John Spirewka and April Hill both have relatives in Wisconsin and elsewhere who don’t want to be vaccinated against COVID-19 despite pleas from family members. Shown in this 2017 photo, Spirewka and Hill relax at Little Amerricka Amusement Park in Marshall. Photo courtesy of John Spirewka/WPR.

Health officials from the U.S. Surgeon General to local health departments have called on the public to counter misinformation and encourage family and friends to get vaccinated against COVID-19. They acknowledge it can be difficult to do, but say it saves lives.

However not everyone is willing to join the pitched battle over facts, even if they’re vaccinated and want others to be.

On social media plenty of people stake out their stance on all things pandemic, including Facebook picture frames decrying “Disinformation is Deadly. Vaccines Save Lives.” Many even engage with those who wrongly claim COVID-19 is just like the common cold, vaccines for the disease don’t work or could be harmful.

Pete Loerke recognizes those false statements when he sees them. Both he and his spouse are vaccinated, but he’s reluctant to urge others to get a shot.

“I just don’t think it’s my call to tell someone else what to do with their body,” says the 54-year-old Madison resident who has “quite a few” friends who refuse to get vaccinated.

That hesitancy has public health officials concerned, and they’ve encouraged the public to help out.

Dr. Ben Weston, medical director of Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, is one of those officials.

“It may seem like an awkward conversation to start but it’s a critical one. Share your experience with the vaccine, tell your story,” Weston said during an Aug. 3 media briefing. “You can help them to protect themselves and their community.”

The main argument Loerke has heard from friends is they don’t think vaccines work.

Pete Loerke poses on the Capitol Square in Madison next to a Bucky Badger statue in this 2018 photo. The Madison man is hesitant to call out people who post pandemic misinformation even though he wishes more people would get vaccinated against COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Pete Loerke/WPR.

Pete Loerke poses on the Capitol Square in Madison next to a Bucky Badger statue in this 2018 photo. The Madison man is hesitant to call out people who post pandemic misinformation even though he wishes more people would get vaccinated against COVID-19. Photo courtesy of Pete Loerke/WPR.

“They use this convoluted logic, like ‘If we have to wear the mask, we don’t need the injection. If we get the injection, then we don’t need the mask.’ They try to find flaw in the logic of the government and the medical professionals who say these steps are necessary,” said Loerke.

It’s a common misconception, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll which found most unvaccinated adults don’t believe the vaccines are very effective and that they are a greater health risk than COVID-19.

But, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said studies continue to show that vaccines are not only effective against the virus, they’re also highly effective at preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death.

Misinformation Dubbed ‘A Serious Threat To Public Health’

State health officials say they are trying to be “honest and upfront” in explaining how mask-wearing and vaccination can protect people, but concede their communication efforts are being thwarted by misinformation.

Misinformation was described as “a serious threat to public health” in a July 15 U.S. Surgeon General’s report which noted misinformation can spread “at an unprecedented speed and scale” through social media.

“Unfortunately, that has led many to believe that the most important tools are not effective or not safe,” despite millions of people being protected from severe disease by getting the vaccine and a very small number having complications, said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk during a July 28 briefing.

Politics, too, has played a role with skeptics thinking both sides have an agenda in either downplaying the pandemic or exaggerating the number of cases or their severity.

“Unfortunately that makes it more difficult to decipher what’s real scientific information and what’s a political agenda,” said Loerke.

And that uncertainly can determine whether people accept or reject the vaccine. A Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday found 33 percent of Republicans don’t plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 22 percent of independents and 5 percent of Democrats.

Spirewka said he believes his son has conservative friends who are influencing his decision not to get a vaccine.

“It’s peer pressure,” he said.

Epidemiologist Ajay Sethi teaches a class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison called conspiracies in public health. He says misinformation can have serious consequences and if people see or hear something that’s wrong, they should try and counter it, similar to rejecting racist remarks or actions.

“I don’t tell my students to do this, but I tell them maybe we should draw on the principles of calling out racism,” said Sethi. “If you see something, say something, recognizing you may be talking to a Russian bot online. So, we have to decide when our efforts are worth it.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips on how to identify and effectively address misinformation.

Listen to the WPR report here.

Health Officials To Public: Countering COVID-19 Misinformation Saves Lives was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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8 thoughts on “Public Health Officials Warn Against COVID-19 Misinformation”

  1. NieWiederKrieg says:

    I have nothing against COVID vaccines and I hope everyone that wants a COVID shot, gets a COVID shot. That being said…

    This U.S. government propaganda campaign for COVID vaccines reminds of the two U.S. government propaganda campaigns that lied us into two wars against the men, women, and children of Iraq.

    *1991 – George Bush Sr. hires PR firm Hill & Knowelton. Hill & Knowelton starts a propaganda campaign in the main stream media saying that Saddam Hussein’s troops are killing babies in incubators in Kuwait. A complete lie… Then Congress voted for war against Iraq. Bush bombed all of Iraq’s power plants, water pumping stations, and sewage treatment plants. Bush dropped bombs on thousands of women and children. Then Clinton cut off food and medical supplies to Iraq and killed one million women and children over 8 years (starvation and disease).

    *2003 – George Bush Jr. said that Saddam Hussein attacked America on 9-11. Another lie. WTMJ and the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel sent Charlie Sykes and Jeff Wagner to stage pro-war rallies in downtown Milwaukee. Then Congress votes to start another war against the men, women and children of Iraq. Bush drops bombs on millions of Iraqi women and children. Obama, Trump, and Biden continue to kill women and children in Iraq.

    This is the reason why I gave away all my TV sets in the year 2000 and I cancelled my subscription to the Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel. I refuse to listen to propaganda and lies – like the U.S. government propaganda campaign to kill men, women and children in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, Egypt, Lebanon, Haiti, Yemen, Panama, El Salvador, etc…

    And I refuse to listen to the U.S government propaganda campaign for COVID vaccinations. I’m not against COVID vaccines but I won’t get one. I prefer to protect myself with a mask and vitamin D. My body, my choice.

  2. TransitRider says:

    Question…Do you think other common vaccinations (chicken pox, shingles, measles, German measles, whooping cough, mumps, tetanus, flu) are phony, too?

    Do you think it was just a coincidence that smallpox and polio were wiped out shortly after massive vaccination campaigns?

  3. NieWiederKrieg says:

    @TranstRider

    I’m not against COVID vaccinations for other people. But I won’t get one. There have been too many adverse reactions, injuries, and deaths caused by the shot.

    Hank Aaron and Marvelous Marvin Hagler were killed by the COVID shot.

    These COVID vaccines are approved for emergency use only. The drug companies are 100% absolved of liability for injury or death caused by their vaccines.

    When the drug companies are held liable for death, illness, and injury due to their vaccines, I’ll think about taking a COVID shot. I’d call my lawyer before i take the shot so that he can sue the pants off Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson if I get injured or killed. Until then, I’ll wear a mask and take vitamin D.

  4. Larry Krolikowski says:

    It isn’t just the U.S. government that is promoting vaccinations. Are you suggesting a world-wide conspiracy?

  5. Dave Reid says:

    @NieWiederKrieg

    Hank Aaron did not die from the COVID vaccine.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/31/us/hank-aaron-death-covid-vaccine.html

    Marvellous Marvin Hagler did not die from the COVID vaccine.

    https://www.reuters.com/article/factcheck-marvin-hagler/fact-check-boxer-marvin-haglerwas-notmurderedbythe-covid-19-vaccine-he-died-of-natural-causes-idUSL1N2LH22J

    Just because someone ate lunch then died shortly thereafter does not mean eating lunch killed them.

  6. NieWiederKrieg says:

    @ Dave Reid

    Hank Aaron and Marvelous Marvin Hagler were rushed to the hospital after receiving their COVID shots and died two weeks later.

    What was the official cause of their deaths? The links you provided didn’t say. And I don’t have a subscription to the corporate war mongering rag New York Times.

  7. NieWiederKrieg says:

    @Larry Krolikowski – The U.S. and British government might be putting paid actors in hospital beds. The actors say that they were against COVID vaccinations and now they are in the hospital with the Delta COVID virus.

    Anti-vaxxers attack BBC again…this time online, over string of stories on hospitalised vaccine sceptics…. https://www.rt.com/uk/531769-bbc-antivax-covid19-twitter/

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @NieWiderKrieg,

    https://www.factcheck.org/2021/01/scicheck-hank-aarons-death-attributed-to-natural-causes/

    The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office said he died of natural causes. He was 86 years old.

    Also, he was not rushed to the hospital. He died at his home in his sleep.

    Marvin Hagler’s wife has said he died at his home of natural causes. He was 66 years old.

    The UM comment section is not a platform to spread conspiracy theories that the families of these men have been trying to dispel.

    Please stop spreading conspiracy theories and misinformation.

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