Van Hollen, health professionals see vaccine misinformation as culprit for rising COVID-19 cases

A vaccine dose is prepared at the state’s mass vaccination site in St. Mary’s County. (Photo Courtesy the Executive Office of the Governor)

This content was republished with permission from WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

Despite widely available access to the COVID-19 vaccine, cases across the U.S. have begun to see a small spike, leading many officials to blame what they describe as a national vaccine misinformation effort.

“Every day that goes by that some misinformation is allowed to spread — whether it’s intentional lies or just people who haven’t bothered to get the facts — every day that goes on more people die,” U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said at a news conference Wednesday.

According to Van Hollen, 68% of American adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, which he called “good news.”

But, he said, vaccine hesitancy still runs rampant across the country, noting that about 90% of people currently hospitalized and “99.5% of those people dying” of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

He said it’s time to begin calling out disinformation mills, including some of his congressional colleagues.

Van Hollen called this “naming and shaming.”

Andy Slavitt, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and senior adviser to the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, looked to U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) specifically. Paul came under fire Tuesday for publicly alleging that National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci was lying to Congress about funding that the National Institute of Health provided to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for research on coronaviruses.

“It’s a dance, and you’re dancing around this because you’re trying to obscure responsibility for four million people dying around the world from a pandemic,” Paul said.

Fauci countered that the senator did not know what he was talking about, saying reports demonstrated that the viruses used in the experiments were molecularly inconsistent with COVID-19.

“I totally resent the lie that you are propagating, Senator,” Fauci responded. “And you are implying that what we did was responsible for the deaths of individuals — I totally resent that, and if anybody is lying here, senator, it is you.”

Van Hollen came to Fauci’s defense on Twitter Tuesday.

“It’s been absolutely disgraceful to see members of Congress — the House and the Senate — to see right-wing talk show hosts and others attack the credibility of the scientists at a time when it’s [more] important than ever that the American public hear the truth,” Van Hollen said Wednesday afternoon. “And more than shameful, it’s downright dangerous … because we’re continuing to see the spread.”

Slavitt called COVID-19 misinformation a “business.”

“Convincing people not to get vaccinated is a way to either raise money politically or to promote engagement on a website, and this is not what we should expect of each other during a pull together moment,” he said. “If Rand Paul does not want to take a vaccine that’s his right, but his influencing others to not take the vaccine is dangerous and we need to call it out for what it is.”

Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering and the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that, since the beginning of the pandemic, she has participated in roundtable discussions to ease vaccine hesitancy, but she hears the same “false beliefs over and over and over again.”

“The statements are so similar when you hear them that you know they have come from the same sources,” Nuzzo said. “And, in fact, we have found that is exactly what’s happening.”

Nuzzo said that it’s a multimillion-dollar industry.

“They are making money but people are dying,” she said.

According to a report released by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, 12 people are behind 65% of anti-vaccine content seen on Twitter and Facebook. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was ranked the second most influential online anti-vaxxer.

A ‘worrisome phase’

According to the World Health Organization, over 4.1 million people have died of COVID-19 globally.

Nuzzo said that the most striking thing about that figure is that most of those deaths have occurred since the vaccine was developed.

“Every human life lost is a complete and utter tragedy,” she said. “To think of the fact that people are still continuing to lose their lives despite having tools on hand to essentially prevent that from happening — it’s just hard to put into words what level of tragedy that is.”

Nuzzo said that it isn’t just the global outlook that’s grim, but that the U.S. is headed into a “worrisome phase” because of a resistance to vaccine rollout.

“​​I am quite worried about what’s happening in part because, although the harms have been far greatest in the states where vaccination uptake is the lowest, we are still seeing pockets in nearly all states where vaccination uptake is not nearly what it should be and, in fact, in some places, are quite low.”

She said that even states with high rates of vaccination have counties resistant to the vaccination effort and that those areas are where surges are being seen.

“We’ve learned a lot about how to treat COVID and how to save people’s lives, but our abilities to be able to do that depends on there being enough resources in the system to be able to provide life-saving care, and when there are surges or patients that are beyond what hospitals can do, then people who otherwise could have been saved, are unfortunately not going to be,” Nuzzo said.

Slavitt clarified that no one is suggesting anyone should be coerced into taking a vaccine against their wishes, but rather that the public should have access to information so they can make informed decisions.

Slavitt also said that it’s time to stop viewing the vaccination effort in a political light.

“This isn’t a litmus test. Whether you choose to get vaccinated — this says nothing about your political beliefs,” he said. “You can believe anything you like and get vaccinated and choose to take care of your family — that’s your right, that’s your opportunity — and if someone tries to tell you or imply to you that you have to follow someone’s political lead because that’s the party you’re in, they’re doing you an incredible disservice.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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