Eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination recently opened up in PA to include anyone age 16 and up. This is great news! Patience is still in order; it will take months yet to get everyone covered. After all, for both Pfizer and Moderna, two doses separated by 3 and 4 weeks respectively are required, plus an additional 14 days to allow the second dose to kick in. Even if everyone left got their first shot this week, it would take 5 to 6 more weeks for that cohort to reach immunity. And it’s going to take a lot more than a week!
Widespread vaccination paves the way for the return to normal, in combination with continuing other basic ways of stopping the spread of infection, like masks, distancing, hygiene, and paying attention to ventilation. No single shot or set of shots gets us to the level of community immunity we need to end the pandemic. But each individual vaccination is still a triumph, especially in the face of hesitancy encouraged by misinformation swirling in the free-for-all of social media.
Misinformation is the malign side of viral information. On the one hand, there are cat videos — mostly harmless, even if a bit of a waste of time – and on the other, there is misinformation – an alluring mix of fact and fiction, tapping into people’s insecurities and deep desires. Viral COVID-19 misinformation is rampant, having spread in tandem with the biological virus. Almost every false claim, specious argument, and misleading myth put forward about the pandemic or vaccines over the past year is still out there. Even those that have been debunked or recanted by their originators live on online, like zombies. And new ones arise by the hour.
Denial is one of the core themes of much misinformation. It hasn’t worked for the past year and it’s not any better as a strategy now. People who are peddling claims that infection mitigation was never needed have only been able to skate by thanks to other people’s sense of responsibility and community mindedness. Through great effort we kept disease at bay. We could have done better… And we could have done — could yet do — far worse…
There are also suggestions circulating that with vaccination now available for those who are concerned, we should just allow the infection to race through everyone else. This makes little sense for several reasons: 1) it just encourages and in fact incubates additional mutations, 2) getting those who want to be vaccinated to full immunity will take quite some time yet with the deniers in the meantime amping up the risk level for the rest of the community, and 3) while younger people are less likely to die from COVID if infected, they are still subject to a significant chance of serious long term health effects.
We can’t take on every single myth here, but we can look for alternatives to pretending everything is normal. Practicing information hygiene can help us avoid being taken in by viral misinformation and strengthen our informational immune system. It can keep us tethered to reality in the face of whatever hogwash moves through our networks next. One strategy offered by a digital information literacy expert at the University of Washington, which can help us in this, is to SIFT:
S – Stop. Resist being swept up by something just because it gives voice to your fears or hopes.
I – Investigate the source. If it isn’t familiar, look it up.
F – Find corroboration. Even dubious sources sometimes share good information. Look for confirmation of that information from other reliable sites.
T – Trace content back to original sources. Find out when it originated. With some of this undead misinformation, just checking the date should be sufficient to reveal its current irrelevance!
Thankfully, we now have vaccines against the virus, but they are only as good as their level of uptake in the community. They are therefore vulnerable to the depredations of viral misinformation, against which there is no vaccine. We must do the work to boost our immunity in the information sphere, too. The same way that washing hands, masking, distancing, and good ventilation can reduce the spread of the infection, we can reduce the spread of viral misinformation by deploying good information hygiene. Cultivate solid sources. Recognize the benefits of information that has not been crowdsourced, cat video-style. Look for well-researched journalism, peer-reviewed scientific studies, and input from trusted experts in your community.
Like the commercials often say, “ask your doctor whether the COVID-19 vaccine is right for you.” Talk through your concerns and questions. Your physician will be glad to address them and encourage you to protect the health of your family, friends, and community.
Samantha Pearson is the executive director of Lewisburg Neighborhoods, a non-profit in Union County; she is collaborating on regional public health messaging with the Lycoming-based Let’s end COVID! group.