[Column] A Response to COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

By: Michael Mandarino, Follow South Jersey Managing Editor

SOUTH JERSEY — “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t force him to drink” is a common saying that I’ve thought about a lot lately. Perhaps that’s because there are way too many horses refusing to drink water right now.

On Thursday, New Jersey reported 1,345 new COVID-19 cases — the highest single-day total in the state in almost three months. Case numbers nationwide are up 119% over the last two weeks, as the current seven-day average of new cases is more than 100,000. The Delta variant of COVID-19 is the leading factor in the United States’ recent uptick in new cases, as it’s more contagious and spreads more rapidly than other strains of the virus.

The news isn’t all doom and gloom surrounding COVID-19, though. Earlier this week, the United States reached a COVID-19 vaccine milestone when 70% of American adults had received their first shot. Unfortunately, the country hit this milestone on August 3 — nearly a month after President Joe Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults at least partially inoculated by July 4.

Although breakthrough cases exist and the COVID-19 vaccine models don’t create an impenetrable forcefield against the virus, the vaccines are safe and effective at stopping not just most of the virus’ spread, but serious illness and deaths. As of July 26, there were 6,587 breakthrough cases of COVID-19 that caused serious illness or death… out of 163,000,000 people who were fully vaccinated at that time.

That number, as a percentage, is 0.004%.

As a news reporter, I’m obligated to include facts and figures about the COVID-19 vaccine in my reporting — even if I know some people will refuse to listen. Part of me is getting sick of leading horses to water and watching them refuse to drink it, and I’m not the only person feeling frustrated now.

During a ceremonial bill signing in Union City, Governor Phil Murphy noticed a group of anti-vaccine protestors standing in the crowd. They were holding signs that said “NO FORCED INJECTIONS,” “GOV MURPHY GUILTY OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY,” and “FORCED MEDICAL PROCEDURES ARE CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY.” Instead of being diplomatic, the Governor responded with some emotion.

“These folks back there have lost their minds — you’ve lost your minds,” Gov. Murphy yelled. “You are the ultimate knuckleheads, and because of what you are saying and standing for, people are losing their life. People are losing their life and you have to know that. Look in the mirror! Look in the mirror!”

Some might criticize Gov. Murphy for losing his composure during a public event with cameras rolling and community members in the audience. Discussing the vaccine with hesitant people requires lots of nuance, patience, and sensitivity, so criticizing the Governor for showing none of those characteristics is very fair. But can you honestly blame Gov. Murphy for snapping?

I, like Gov. Murphy, know the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. I’m vaccinated myself, and although I only represent one anecdotal case, my health hasn’t been affected negatively at all by the vaccine. I also know that, according to top government officials, the Delta variant’s spread begun with the unvaccinated. If I were confronted by a group of protestors accusing me of “crimes against humanity” who were not just lying, but spreading blatantly dangerous medical misinformation, I’d get pretty ticked off, too.

Unfortunately, those “ultimate knuckleheads” aren’t the only people spreading misinformation about the vaccines.

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve always seen the anti-vaccine movement as a loud, but tiny corner of society. I’ve characterized it with the notion that vaccines that have been widely available for years and are administered to nearly everyone cause autism in children — a notion that the overwhelming majority of Americans know is a load of nonsense.

However, I’ve watched the anti-vaccine movement swell into more than just a tiny corner of society. I’ve watched it reach the average, everyday American — and I’ve watched it become another pawn in American political discourse.

Some right-wing news outlets have spread enough vaccine misinformation to be at least partly responsible for the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases nationwide. Those in the audience at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference, one of the most notorious right-wing echo chambers, openly applauded when one of the speakers said the government “[hoped] they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated, and it isn’t happening.”

Partisan media spreading misinformation is one thing, but unfortunately, COVID-19 vaccine misinformation has reached an even more mainstream audience. Facebook, the world’s most widely-used social media platform, has become a hub for lying about the vaccine. Polling data reported by the Washington Post shows that more people who get their COVID-19 information and news from Facebook are more likely to be vaccine hesitant than FOX News’ audience.

As I’ve said in previous columns, I’m not qualified to give you medical advice. But I am qualified to tell you one simple thing: Please be mindful of where you consume information. There are a lot of lies and misinformation out there, and I urge you to critically evaluate all the sources of information that you consume on a daily basis.

One excellent tool you can use to check the credibility of mainstream media sources is a website called Media Bias Fact Check. This website gathers information about news sources’ biases and track record of accuracy in an accessible way, and it’s a great tool to use if you want to start critically evaluating who is reporting the information you’re consuming.

Only 12 people are responsible for the majority of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation circulating on social media. Who would you rather trust: Twelve random people on your Facebook feed, or the countless medical professionals and infectious disease experts who say the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective?

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