Opinion | Healthcare

Communities are the front lines in the battle against misinformation

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

COVID-19 vaccines have not killed tens of thousands of Americans. 

Vaccines will not change your DNA. 

Wearing a mask does not cause carbon dioxide poisoning.  

We have to say these things out loud because we hear false narratives in our community, from folks we know. Many are coming from people like us - business owners, teachers, first responders, fellow church members, community volunteers - our neighbors, friends and family. The false narratives of the pandemic have infiltrated our neighborhoods and everyday life. 

Critical thinking is a good thing and healthy skepticism is important but our exhausted medical professionals would point out that there are also dangerous falsehoods circulating that threaten people's lives. 

The costs of misinformation and disinformation are enormously high. Five months after vaccines became widely available to the public, over one-third of adults in this country are not fully vaccinated and approximately 1,500 Americans are still dying from COVID-19 daily. Nearly all of these are preventable deaths. The impact of health misinformation is a public health crisis

The cost of this crisis is measured in friends and loved ones who have lost their lives and weeks and months of delays, closures, restrictions and uncertainty. On top of hundreds of billions of extra healthcare spending each month. 

Vaccines are free, accessible and safe.  Extensive clinical trials and the experience of more than 200 million vaccinated Americans tell us that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing serious illness and death. Yet, we find ourselves in the middle of a devastating wave of illness as the newly infected, primarily unvaccinated, fill hospitals and morgues. 

We have more to do to close the gap in trust to effectively quell this pandemic. We need to help people become resilient to misinformation so that they know it when they see it, can separate truth from misleading messages and are able to help their friends and neighbors sort through the onslaught of information we all encounter daily. 

We know that real change begins at the local level. The work of changing hearts and minds starts with local leaders rallying their communities in support of following the best science, gathering research and best practices, doing outreach through faith leaders, business leaders, youth champions and key trusted figures in the community. 

As we begin what looks to be a difficult fall and winter battling a pandemic that could have been over by now, the once-fringe anti-vaccination, alternative science movement has never posed as great a threat to our safety and well-being as they do now. 

Building off of the work of the guidance of U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the leading public health researchers in the field, San Diego County became the first in the nation to declare health misinformation a public health crisis and committed resources to researching, debunking, and changing the conversation on the ground. Focus areas included targeted community engagement strategies, data on the impacts and costs of unproven alternatives and the establishment of working groups with federal, state, tribal, private, nonprofit, research and other local entities to activate countermeasures. Others quickly followed.  

These are the critical final steps to a pandemic exit strategy for now and future threats. Misinformation can travel at the speed of social media, but we know that trust is found more locally. When counties and cities act to equip their residents with tools to identify misinformation in ways that match the values and beliefs of their communities a better path forward is forged. A one-size-fits-all approach to misinformation and disinformation will miss the nuanced needs of local communities and is unlikely to succeed.

The cities, counties and communities that take on this fight against misinformation will hear first from a loud, organized, anti-vaccine crowd. Expect to hear from them in the days before, during and after any steps are taken. Expect to hear that examining online claims against scientific evidence is a First Amendment violation. Expect to hear vicious ad hominem attacks on your character, on your patriotism and on your motives. Expect to hear false comparisons likening public health measures to stop the spread of the delta variant to war crimes and historical atrocities. But know that building resilience against health misinformation and helping our communities distinguish between evidence-based information and unsupported theory will literally save lives.

If we're to see the end of this pandemic we must counter misinformation on the ground, where we live, at work, in our barbershops, in our places of worship and in our households. Every community in this country has a responsibility to challenge health misinformation. If we don't, the work of ending this pandemic will stay with us and result in greater harm 

It's time to come together to engage, seek truth, trust our doctors, and build a better health information ecosystem through local policies; we can and will come out of this stronger, sooner.  

Nathan Fletcher is the Chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. He led the passage of a measure making San Diego the first local government in the nation to declare health misinformation a public health crisis.

Dr. Tara Kirk Sell is a professor and Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She was the lead author of a report entitled "National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy."