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The stakes for fighting misinformation are life and death

Nearly all deaths from COVID-19 in the United States are preventable

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The United States surgeon general published a report this week calling for a whole-of-society response to health misinformation, calling it a “serious threat to public health.” It took a sweeping look at a wide range of misinformation, on everything from masks to unproven drugs.

But the focus of Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s remarks circled back to vaccines. Daily vaccination rates have stalled out at around 500,000 shots per day, and in many pockets of the country, a majority of people aren’t getting immunized. The US is struggling to bump those numbers up.

Misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines spreads fast, and so do the accompanying consequences. The rapid spread of the more transmissible Delta coronavirus variant makes them even easier to see. Case counts are going up around the country, particularly in areas with low vaccination rates. Every person hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County is unvaccinated. In Louisiana, 94 percent of COVID-19 cases since May were among the unvaccinated.

In Missouri, the new center of the Delta-driven US surge, health care workers are exhausted by the avoidable COVID-19 cases and deaths they see every day. They’re frustrated that people in their communities aren’t getting vaccinated. In addition to fighting the virus, health officials are battling theories that the vaccine is causing the spike in cases, apathy from young people who think they don’t need to get vaccinated, and the false idea that the vaccine contains a microchip. With much of the population in the state avoiding shots, the virus is inevitable.

“We are going to see more people get really sick. We are going to see a lot of people die,” Katie Towns, the acting health director at the Springfield-Greene County Health Department in Missouri, told The Washington Post.

Misinformation is also winning in Tennessee, where the health department stopped all vaccine outreach to young people after pressure and backlash from conservative lawmakers. Anti-vaxxers and others opposed to public health measures have the ear of people in power, and it’s frightening, psychologist and anti-vaccine researcher Seth Kalichman told The Verge.

Vaccines are some of the most powerful public health tools at our disposal. Because they’re so good, and particularly because the COVID-19 vaccines are so good, the fallout from any drops in vaccination rates is predictable. When people don’t get vaccinated, people get sick, and people die. That means the stakes for proposals and efforts to curb vaccine misinformation — crack down on social media platforms, distribute correct information, develop health literacy programs — couldn’t be higher.

Here’s what else happened this week.

Research

Flu jab may reduce severe effects of Covid, suggests study
COVID-19 patients who had a flu shot were less likely to have a stroke or admitted to emergency departments than patients who didn’t, a new study found. It’s not a substitute for COVID-19 vaccine. (Ian Sample/The Guardian)

Why the most unusual Covid cases matter
Unique, outlier cases can help researchers and doctors understand the disease. Studying people who don’t respond to the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, can help us understand the immune system. (Roxanne Khamsi/The New York Times)

Bat Scientists Warn That the World May Never Know Covid-19 Origins
Research that tries to track down a smoking gun is challenging and often fails. Scientists also often disagree on what various data means. (Amy Dockser Marcus/The Wall Street Journal)

Development

Quarter-dose of Moderna COVID vaccine still rouses a big immune response
A smaller dose of the vaccine could still help protect people from COVID-19. That could make limited supplies of the shot stretch further. (Elie Dolgin/Nature)

When and how will we know if we need Covid-19 booster shots?
Pfizer and BioNTech are pushing for a third shot in the COVID-19 vaccine regimen. Federal agencies in the United States are pushing back, saying that the data doesn’t show a need yet. The booster debate also raises issues of vaccine equity. (Stat News)

FDA adds warning about a nerve condition to the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine
People who got the Johnson & Johnson shot have slightly higher rates of a condition called Guillain–Barré syndrome, which can cause weakness and coordination problems, than would be expected in the general population. (Nicole Wetsman/The Verge)

Perspectives

And I went back and forth about it for a while. It’s almost like I was paralyzed from trying to do the right thing, if that makes sense……… it was torture. But it just seemed like the advice about vaccinations and pregnant women, at that time, it was still up in the air. It was still a situation where no one was telling me, you know, It’s undisputed, Cheyenne, these are the facts, this is what you should do. So I just tried to make the right choice, the best I could.

in The Player’s Tribune, Atlanta Dream star Cheyenne Parker wrote about grappling with whether to get a COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy.

More than numbers

To the people who have received the 3.5 billion vaccine doses distributed so far — thank you.

To the more than 188,726,053 people worldwide who have tested positive, may your road to recovery be smooth.

To the families and friends of the more than 4,062,486 people who have died worldwide — 608,336 of those in the US — your loved ones are not forgotten.

Stay safe, everyone.