MarkAlain Dery, DO, FACOI

How Physicians Can Help Stop the Spread of COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

by MarkAlain Dery, DO, FACOI
Infectious Disease Specialist

October 4, 2021

I have to laugh when I think of all the amateur want-to-be scientists out there who want to do their own research before they would consider taking the COVID-19 vaccine which, by the way, is a vaccine that is here due to the culmination of years of scientific research.

Unfortunately, it is that phrase “Do Your Own Research” that is emboldening individuals to make a life-and-death choice to avoid or delay getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It is a phrase that we hear on certain news channels, and that phrase can be traced back to the 1890s.

There was skepticism surrounding the Smallpox vaccine and that phrase was commonly uttered. Smallpox is the only human disease to have been eradicated by vaccination. Yes, being informed is always a good idea, but when people consider research to be scrolling through their social media feed or listening to their friend’s neighbor, we have a problem. Recently the Wall Street Journal discovered that Facebook has taken active steps in the past few years to make false information more likely to spread. The algorithm they’ve implemented actually determines what appears in users’ feeds to make people more likely to interact with posts. Because misinformation is likely to generate more interaction with reposts and shares, it accomplishes Facebook's goals of higher engagement.

The problem is that Facebook needs to connect the dots of their actions. Too many Americans look to Facebook and other social media outlets as their source of news and information, and it also affirms their own beliefs since their like-minded friends on Facebook tag and repost. With this massive power to spread information and misinformation to billions of people worldwide, social media outlets need to also take on the responsibility of seeing how people act upon the information they read on their channels. After all, we are still in the midst of a historic public health crisis.

In the old days before social media, small groups would interact among themselves and affirm each other’s beliefs. There were victims of those actions, but the impact was much smaller than it is today. Social media amplifies those small groups that once had a small reach and we end up with a world swimming in misinformation.

As a physician I am frustrated. You are frustrated. Our lives and our professions revolve around facts and data – scientific data – yet many of us encounter anti-vaxxers who prefer to believe unscientific claims. Unfortunately it takes a drastic event to have them see that what they believed was wrong.

Take the bride-to-be who happened to have been a surgical technician who wanted to wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine because she was hoping to get pregnant soon after her planned August wedding. She had heard that the vaccine would hurt her chances of getting pregnant – this is untrue.

She finally changed her mind and in July decided to go get the vaccine, but just days before her appointment she fell ill, testing positive for COVID-19. She had just returned from her bachelorette party in Nashville. She was hospitalized and was placed on a ventilator. She died September 10. Her funeral was held at the very church where she was planning on being wed. Her family has come out to say that misinformation killed her.

Another story that is just as frustrating is about a woman who labeled herself as a “free thinker” and who encouraged people to “question everything.” She was 40 years old and she proclaimed to be proud to be “unmasked, unmuzzled, unvaccinated, unafraid.” She even held up signs that said “Give a voice to the vaccine injured.” I think you can guess how this ends. Her family announced on September 15 that she died after contracting COVID-19. We are now at a point that one out of every 500 people has died of the virus. Those are the facts. That is the research that we need to promote to anti-vaxxers.

There are a litany of these stories out there. What is extra infuriating is when you get misinformation from a doctor. Now, it doesn’t happen much, but there are a handful of doctors promoting anti-COVID-19 vaccine messages and spreading lies. Some of whom are profiting big with their own “remedies.” There is a group America’s Frontline Doctors spreading misinformation that have a huge following of antivaxxers. That’s why we have to do anything we can to fight this dangerous trend.

One of our members, Dr. Humayun Chaudhry, who is the president of the Federation of State Medical Boards is recommending that medical professionals who spread coronavirus misinformation have their medical licenses revoked or suspended. I encourage you to listen to Dr. Chaudhry, who was recently interviewed by Robin Young on NPR’s Here & Now. False claims are not just harmful, but too often fatal.

The ACOI’s new podcast, Docs Off the Clock, will be featuring Dr. Chaudhry on an upcoming episode. He will be addressing the epidemic of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Tune in to that in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, what we can do in the realm of public health is to continue to spread the truth that the COVID-19 vaccines are the best defense in this pandemic. Recently it was announced that those who are unvaccinated are eleven times more likely to die of COVID than vaccinated Americans. That is a fact from the CDC. That’s the fact to spread.


Stay True to Why You Pursued Medicine.