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'Ridiculous': Vaccine myths cripple US uptake as delta surges

Josh Wingrove, Kristen V. Brown and Daniel Zuidijk, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

But in communities where fewer people are vaccinated overall, there’s less encouragement or pressure from peers.

“These people have had the opportunity to vaccinate for months. At this point not vaccinating is deeply ingrained in their beliefs,” Callaghan said. Changing people’s minds at this point, he said, is “about building trust and building relationships.”

Corrosive social media

In those places, social media is having a corrosive effect on the vaccination campaign. The large social networks have been slow to take action against unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19 and the vaccines, and when interventions do happen, they’re often half-measures.

Instagram, for instance, banned celebrity vaccine opponent Robert Kennedy Jr. in February — but he remains on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, and his organization is on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

In Springfield, Missouri, the city health department’s Facebook account has found itself beating back ridiculous allegations, including that the vaccine itself spreads the virus.

“Honestly, I don’t know how to find all of the sources because we don’t see them,” said Katie Towns, assistant director of the Springfield-Greene County health department. “I don’t know how to even get to some of this stuff.”

Complicating the situation further, the misinformation spread by vaccine opponents has begun to overlap with that of anti-government conspiracy theorists and figures in the far right, including the QAnon movement.

 

Misinformation about the effect of coronavirus shots on kids has found particular resonance among QAnon adherents, who maintain that prominent Democrats are involved in convoluted conspiracies to traffic children.

Some of the disinformation spread by vaccine opponents is simply odd, like a claim the shots will magnetize patients that’s popular on TikTok in particular. In the Midwest and South, regions where hesitancy runs deep, questions circulate about whether the vaccines affect fertility (there is no evidence for it) or alter human DNA (they do not).

Politicians could help, especially if more high-profile Republicans would endorse vaccination, work with local leaders to promote shots and stop spreading misinformation themselves, said Matt Motta, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater.

But in many cases, the absence of politicians might be even more helpful. In Springfield, for example, Towns said one of the city’s most successful vaccine clinics was an event held at a fire station — Americans still trust firefighters.

In Alabama, one of the country’s least vaccinated states, the state health officer, Scott Harris, said that pharmacists, doctors and religious leaders are some of the best proponents for shots.

“These folks who are struggling with getting vaccinated or are opposed to it,” he said, “they just have such a low level of trust for everybody – and that includes politicians.”

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