How the COVID-19 pandemic has increased misinformation of public health

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – University of Utah Health doctors are discussing how misinformation has led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures, and use unproven treatments.

The nation’s trust in public health has significantly gone down during the pandemic. And U of U Health doctors are seeing this happening all too often.

Research from the National Institutes of Health found misinformation and fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic has generated confusion and insecurity for people.

“Misinformation contributes to our distress as a country and as society quite a bit. When we are suspicious of each other when we don’t trust each other, it’s hard to form healthy relationships and that’s what we really need right now,” said Kencee Graves, MD, an associate chief medical officer for inpatient health at the U.

Earlier this year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a national poll asking Americans about their level of trust in public health groups.

Americans responded with the following percentages of trust: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52%; local health department, 44%; state health department, 41%; surgeon general, 40%; National Institutes of Health, 37%; Food and Drug Administration, 37%; and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 33%.

At the U, doctors said Thursday they feel this heightened level of mistrust.

“There’s so much information coming so fast people don’t know what to believe and so they’re turning to sources that may not be reliable to get that information,” Graves said.

“Some of this amplification of information is also inherent to the algorithms that these social media platforms use. And so, posts that elicit that strong response, fear, anger, sadness, those are more likely to be amplified through their algorithms than other types of information,” said Julie Kiefer, Ph.D., an associate director of science communications at the U.

And doctors want people to know they can turn to their physicians as a reliable source, but to also recognize that experts are still learning about COVID-19.

“This is our understanding right now, based on the information we’ve been able to gather to date. But things may change once we learn more,” Kiefer said.

With so much new and changing information constantly coming out about the coronavirus, Kristin Francis, MD, a psychiatrist at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the U, said it’s taking a toll on people’s mental health.

“People with anxiety may struggle more with worry and looking at all the information out there and having trouble sifting through what might be accurate information, what might be misinformation,” she said.

For people who already suffer from poor mental health, Francis explained why the pandemic may heighten their suffering.

“People with anxiety may struggle more with worry and looking at all the information out there and having trouble sifting through what might be accurate information, what might be misinformation,” she said.

Doctors said misinformation isn’t always spread intentionally, and that’s why it’s important to think critically and check the information for credibility and supporting evidence.

The U.S. surgeon general said the spread of misinformation is a serious threat to public health. He’s encouraging Americans to not share information they don’t know is true.

Other tips on how to avoid spreading false information are available through the general surgeon’s toolkit on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website.

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