Protect yourself, your community from COVID-19 misinformation

Brian Hill
Fort Leonard Wood
Courtesy image

True or false: Gargling salt water twice a day is an effective prevention technique against contracting COVID-19?

That’s false, according to Capt. Terra Forward, chief of Fort Leonard Wood’s Department of Public Health.

“While gargling salt water may sooth a sore throat, it won’t work to stop infection with COVID-19 or any other virus,” she said. “Interestingly, this myth was spread on social media as a cure for SARS, MERS, and Zika as well, but there is no evidence that gargling warm water with salt or a vinegar solution prevents any viral infection.”

Whether spread intentionally or not, COVID-19 misinformation is harmful to individual and public health, Forward said.

Knowing where to find accurate information is important as the way people get information continues to change. It seems it’s fairly easy for bad information to spread, both in speed and scale, due to how a message is written and the nature of where people get most of their news these days.

According to an advisory released earlier this month from U.S. Public Health Service Vice Adm. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, misinformation is often framed in a sensational and emotional manner that can connect viscerally, distort memory, align with cognitive biases, and heighten psychological responses such as anxiety. People can feel a sense of urgency to react to and share emotionally charged misinformation with others, enabling it to spread quickly and go “viral.”

Additionally, Murthy said features built into technology platforms have contributed to the spread of misinformation. For example, social media platforms incentivize people to share content to get likes, comments and other positive signals of engagement. These features help connect and inform people but reward engagement rather than accuracy, allowing emotionally charged misinformation to spread more easily than emotionally neutral content.

Algorithms that determine what users see online also often prioritize content based on its popularity or similarity to previously seen content. As a result, a user exposed to misinformation once could see more and more of it over time, further reinforcing any misunderstandings. Some websites also combine different kinds of information, such as news, ads and posts from users, into a single feed, which can lead to confusion about the underlying source of a piece of content.

The growing number of places people go for information has also made misinformation harder to find and correct. And, although media outlets can help inform and educate consumers, they can sometimes inadvertently amplify false or misleading narratives.

Misinformation also thrives in the absence of easily accessible, credible information. When people look for information online and see limited or contradictory search results, they may be left confused or misinformed.

“I am urging all Americans to help slow the spread of health misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” Murthy said. “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It 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.”

Forward said efforts have been made to address COVID-19 misinformation, and knowing where to find accurate information is just as important these days as is ensuring misinformation isn’t shared.

“Most people don’t intend to share misinformation, but rather, are not paying attention to what they share, whether it’s about the benefits of gargling salt water to prevent COVID-19 or microchips are being inserted by the vaccine,” she said. “Verifying the accuracy of information is just as important for you as it is for the friends or loved ones you’re sharing it with. A good rule of thumb is: If you’re not sure, don’t share.”

Forward recommended people with questions about COVID-19 speak with their health-care provider or call the Department of Public Health at 573.596.0518.

General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital leaders also present accurate, up-to-date information on COVID-19 and Fort Leonard Wood’s response to the pandemic each month at the Community Information Forum. The slides from each forum going back to February are available online.

Other trusted sources of information include:

— the Department of Defense, which has set up a COVID-19 rumor control website.

— state and local government official websites or their social media accounts. These are good sources for instruction and information specific to a community.

— the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Visit their website for the facts on COVID-19 from experts.

“These resources use evidence-based information when publishing information,” Forward said. “We defer to their knowledge when releasing information on COVID-19.”

True or false: Someone who already had COVID-19 doesn’t need to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Many studies have shown those with COVID-19 have an immune response, but everyone’s immune system responds differently,” Forward said. “Most people generally have a really good immune response after vaccination, which tends to be stronger than infection with the virus. There is some evidence that vaccines can strengthen immunity in people who have been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and recovered. I believe it is well worth getting vaccinated even after COVID-19 to increase immune response, especially if we start seeing other viral variants emerge.”

For more information on COVID-19 vaccine availability on Fort Leonard Wood for service members, Tricare beneficiaries, DOD civilians and contractors, visit the GLWACH Facebook page or the Tricare COVID-19 vaccine page.

Everyone else in the Fort Leonard Wood community are encouraged to visit the Phelps Health Facebook page; the Pulaski County Health Center Facebook page; the Laclede County Health Department Facebook page; and the Texas County Health Department Facebook page for up-to-date information on COVID-19 news and vaccine availability in the local area.