Social Media Incites the COVID-19 Misinformation Epidemic

Drug Topics Journal, Drug Topics June 2021, Volume 165, Issue 6

Many Americans still do not want to get vaccinated. Vaccine myths spread on the internet are a major part of the problem.

I have never golfed in my life.

However, my 4-year-old grandson Luke lives near a golf course, and one of our favorite activities is walking through the woods searching for golf balls. Luke describes these golf balls as the ones hit by “bad golfers.” We have collected more than 250 golf balls, and about 200 of them are white. Therefore, Luke feels it is safe to conclude that bad golfers buy white golf balls, since that is the predominant color we find. If you want to be a great golfer, don’t buy white golf balls.

As failed as this logic appears, we have individuals with vaccine hesitancy applying the same logic. Many nonexperts frequently take to social media to express their antivaccine views, with virtually no understanding of virology or immunology. It’s like getting golf advice from a 4 year old.

One simple statistic should convince everyone who is reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. According to an analysis conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “Since vaccinations began in mid-December 2020, the number of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities across all states in this analysis has declined by 89% as of April 2021.”1

Currently, our nation doesn’t have half of our citizens fully vaccinated. We community pharmacists are seeing vaccine hesitancy with the same zeal we saw for getting the vaccine 6 months ago. I’ve even had discussions with pharmacists who have no interest in getting vaccinated. For the first 4 months of this year, there has been little movement of getting the “definitely nots” vaccinated. According to epidemiologists, we need to vaccinate 80% of the population to reach herd immunity. And to think we have 13% of Americans who are “definitely nots” that will never accept vaccination.2 Will we ever reach herd immunity?

In my 40 years of health care, I’ve seen nothing like this. I remember that mysterious disease in the 1980s that devastated many communities in our nation. Three years after the first cases were reported, the etiology was discovered and named human immunodeficiency virus. Yes, it took a worldwide effort of 3 years to even name and elucidate the cause of HIV. It took another dozen years to have effective treatment protocols to include combinations of different HIV drugs to save lives. Today, treating HIV is easier than treating type 2 diabetes; patients simply need to be adherent to their medications

Here we are 15 months after the pandemic, and we have a vaccine that is 95% effective in preventing disease and nearly 100% effective in preventing death due to COVID-19. We pharmacists are struggling to find arms to get vaccines into from our overstocked refrigerators and freezers. Individuals read posts on social media, get advice from family members and friends and apply it to their decision whether to get the vaccine or not. Thanks to social media, everyone is an expert and has a forum to post their unsubstantiated opinions. 

I’m glad that in the middle of the HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, we had no such venue as social media. We listened to the experts and waited for the scientists to come up with treatment protocols and then treated our patients accordingly.

We are blessed to have a number of COVID-19 vaccination options, all efficacious, with the only substantial differences among them being storage requirements. We community pharmacists need to engage our patients and encourage them to get vaccinated; we don’t need them to turn to social media. 

If they believe everything on social media and they need to improve their golf game, I know a 4 year old who can give them advice from his scientific study. “Don’t buy white golf balls.”

References

  1. Chidambaram P, Garfield R. COVID-19 long-term care deaths and cases are at an all-time low, though a rise in LTC cases in a few states may be a cause for concern. Kaiser Family Foundation. April 22, 2021. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/covid-19-long-term-care-deaths-and-cases-are-at-an-all-time-low-though-a-rise-in-ltc-cases-in-a-few-states-may-be-cause-for-concern/#:~:text=Since%20vaccinations%20began%20in%20mid,1%20and%20Appendix%20Table%201
  2. Huetteman E. Covid vaccine hesitancy drops among all Americans, new survey shows. Kaiser Health News. March 30, 2021. Accessed May 11, 2021. https://khn.org/news/article/covid-vaccine-hesitancy-drops-among-americans-new-kff-survey-shows/
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