Key Words: Vaccine misinformation ‘a serious threat to public health,’ U.S. surgeon general says

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The U.S. surgeon general issued a stark warning Thursday that people are dying because of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

“Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health.”

— U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy

In remarks at the White House and in a 22-page advisory, Dr. Vivek Murthy urged “all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” noting that misinformation “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 calls on news organizations to avoid spreading inaccurate or misleading vaccine information, to provide context to reports and to use credible sources, and for social-media companies to redesign algorithms so misinformation is not widely shared, to crack down on misinformation “super spreaders” and to amplify messages from experts and trusted sources.

The alarm comes as vaccination rates have dropped in the U.S., while less than half of the population is fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, new coronavirus cases in the U.S. have doubled over the past two weeks, with 47 states showing new cases up 10% or more over the past week, as the more transmissible delta variant spreads.

Murthy said larger platforms are not doing enough to stem the spread of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, health misinformation has led people to resist wearing masks in high-risk settings. It’s led them to turn down proven treatments and to choose not to get vaccinated,” Murthy said. “This has led to avoidable illnesses and death. Simply put, health misinformation has cost us lives.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaky also called out social-media companies Thursday, telling CNN that recent discussions between the White House and Facebook Inc.

have been “tense.” Citing a source familiar with the discussions, CNN reported that Biden administration officials have concluded that Facebook is either not taking misinformation seriously enough or has something to hide.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Psaki said: “Facebook needs to move more quickly to remove violative posts. Posts that will be within their policies’ removal often remain up for days. That’s too long. The information spreads too quickly.”