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Doctors fight 'infodemic' with Americans seeing virus as a hoax

By John Tozzi, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

There's a no shortage of what President Donald Trump might call fake news about the coronavirus floating around social media, with plenty of it coming from his own Twitter account. That's a problem for a growing number of U.S. doctors.

When the virus first hit the U.S., Trump said it would disappear "like a miracle." He's since touted unproven therapies, cast doubt on government scientists and denigrated masks. After his own recent bout with COVID-19, he told his audience, "you're going to beat it," referring to a disease that's killed more than 220,000 Americans.

Physicians must now add countering misinformation to their protocols for treating COVID-19. Michigan doctor Farhan Bhatti sees it in his daily practice. First his patients insisted the coronavirus was a hoax. Then they begged for a Trump-hyped malaria drug they thought would protect them. Now they say they won't get a vaccine that actually might.

Scientific inquiry over the months since the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerged has revealed a lot about how it spreads and how to treat the disease it causes. Yet every day Bhatti sees patients who reject that evidence, sometimes at the expense of their own health.

"The ones who had sort of succumbed to the misinformation have been very difficult to treat medically," said Bhatti, a 35-year-old family physician who runs a clinic for low-income patients in Lansing.

People's understanding of the facts shapes their behavior, which in turn affects their health and their risk of spreading the disease.

 

"Conspiracy theories and misinformation about science did exist before COVID, but they're more deadly now," Bhatti said.

Even before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March, the group warned of an "infodemic": a flood of information, both accurate and not, "that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it," the WHO said in a Feb. 2 report.

Growing distrust in science combined with a proliferation of wrong information have made it harder to take care of patients, said Susan Bailey, president of the American Medical Association and an allergist/immunologist in Fort Worth, Texas.

"We have never seen a devastating pandemic like this play out in real time on the 24-hour news cycle, with social media dominating the conversation," she said. "It's incredibly hard to filter out what's real and what's not."

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