Amid rising U.S. Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations and flagging vaccination rates, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Friday warned that the highly transmissible Delta variant is spreading rapidly in the United States, while President Joe Biden and top administration officials took aim at coronavirus misinformation disseminated on social media platforms and on right-wing news networks.
“There is a message that is crystal clear: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky said, noting that 97% of new Covid-19 hospitalizations are of people who have not had their shots. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage, because unvaccinated people are at risk.”
“The good news is if you are fully vaccinated you are protected against severe Covid, hospitalization, and death, and are even protected against the known variants, including the delta variant, circulating in this country,” she added. “If you are not vaccinated, you remain at risk.”
Friday afternoon, Biden accused social media companies of “killing people” by allowing Covid-19 and vaccine misinformation to proliferate on their platforms, adding that “the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated.”
Biden and Walensky’s remarks followed a Thursday White House press briefing at which U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called the Covid-19 and vaccine misinformation “an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”
Murthy implored social and traditional news media companies, as well as healthcare workers and the American public, to do more in the face of the “urgent” public health threat.
“We must confront misinformation as a nation,” said Murthy. “Lives are depending on it.”
While a Facebook spokesperson told Reuters that the company is taking “aggressive action against misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines to protect public health,” and that it has so far “removed more than 18 million pieces of Covid misinformation, removed accounts that repeatedly break these rules, and connected more than two billion people to reliable information about Covid-19 and Covid vaccines across our apps,” critics say it and other companies must do more.
Speaking at the White House briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki accused Facebook—which owns Instagram and WhatsApp—of taking insufficient action to combat misinformation. Psaki said that 12 people are responsible for nearly two-thirds of all anti-vaccine posts on social media.
“All of them remain active on Facebook,” she said.
“Information travels quite quickly on social media platforms,” said Psaki, “and Facebook needs to move more quickly to remove harmful, violative posts—posts that will be within their policies for removal often remain up for days. That’s too long. The information spreads too quickly.”
The administration’s concerns come as U.S. coronavirus cases have doubled over the past three weeks and the nation’s vaccination drive has stalled amid hesitancy partially driven by misinformation.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that states with lower vaccination rates had three times as many reported Covid-19 infections last week than states where more people are fully vaccinated, and nearly all new U.S. Covid-19 deaths are among people who have not received vaccines.
New reported U.S. coronavirus cases have soared from around 8,000 per day in late June to over 30,000 daily cases in recent days. More than 605,000 people have died in the United States during the course of the pandemic.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., warned earlier this week that he expects U.S. Covid-19 deaths to soon spike in places with relatively low vaccination rates.
“In places like Missouri where ICUs are packed, you’re going to see a surprising amount of death,” he predicted.
On Thursday, Murthy released a Surgeon General Advisory—which are typically issued in the face of physical health threats like tobacco or drugs—in response to what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic” of “false or misleading information in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.”
Entitled Confronting Health Misinformation (pdf), the advisory calls on “all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.”
“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health,” says Murthy. “It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”
The advisory asks social media companies to:
- Assess the benefits and harms of products and platforms and take responsibility for addressing the harms;
- Give researchers access to useful data to properly analyze the spread and impact of misinformation;
- Strengthen the monitoring of misinformation;
- Prioritize early detection of misinformation “superspreaders” and repeat offenders;
- Evaluate the effectiveness of internal policies and practices in addressing misinformation and be transparent with findings;
- Proactively address information deficits;
- Amplify communications from trusted messengers and subject matter experts; and
- Prioritize protecting health professionals, journalists, and others from online harassment.
As for traditional news media, Murthy’s advisory calls for:
- Training journalists, editors, and others to recognize, correct, and avoid amplifying misinformation;
- Proactively addressing the public’s questions;
- Providing the public with context to avoid skewing their perceptions about ongoing debates on health topics;
- Using a broader range of credible sources—particularly local sources; and
- Considering headlines and images that inform rather than shock or provoke.
Experts have been particularly alarmed by Covid-19 lies and misinformation disseminated by right-wing cable news and websites. Fox News has been a hotbed of anti-vaccine propaganda from both hosts and guests, but the network is not alone in spreading misinformation and sowing doubt. Earlier this week, Newsmax host Rob Schmitt argued that vaccines were “against nature.”
“If there is some disease out there, maybe there’s just an ebb and flow to life where something’s supposed to wipe out a certain amount of people, and that’s just kind of the way evolution goes,” Schmitt said. “Vaccines kind of stand in the way of that.”
This sort of reporting has incensed critics. On Friday, Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke wrote:
Hospital beds in Missouri, Mississippi, Alabama, and a number of other states are again filling up with Covid-19 patients, a crisis that was entirely preventable. Virtually every American hospitalized right now with Covid-19 is unvaccinated. People are dying unnecessarily, and it’s a crime, with a list of suspects that shouldn’t surprise anyone: Fox News talking heads attacking medical experts, Republican lawmakers stirring doubt about vaccines, and social media companies allowing vaccine disinformation to overwhelm sound medical advice.
Indeed, Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is sending fundraising emails with the message “Choose Freedom Over Faucism” that say, “I protected Floridians from getting Fauci-ed by keeping schools open, saving jobs, and preserving freedom,” a reference to U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“And now, yet again, corporate media are attacking me for having the backbone to call Fauci out for the damage he has caused,” the email continued. “I refused to blindly follow Dr. Fauci, an unelected career government bureaucrat, and allow him to strip Floridians of their God-given freedoms. I chose to lift Florida up, not follow the lead of Dr. Fauci and lock Florida down.”
In his advisory, Murthy said that “misinformation can sometimes be spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing something for financial gain or political advantage.”
“Misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health—it has also divided our families, friends, and communities,” he wrote, adding that “the only way to address health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in every sector of society, have a responsibility to act.”