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Fighting two viruses: COVID and misinformation

As doctors battle the spread of COVID-19, they are also on the frontlines of the information wars.

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Of the two viruses we are fighting — COVID-19 and misinformation — misinformation is proving to be the more formidable foe.

Had we been fighting only the biologic virus we would likely be returning to pre-pandemic business-as-usual by now. As we see our communities getting ravaged by COVID-19 largely due to poor vaccination rates in Jackson and Josephine counties, the angst among physicians is understandable.

Despite our knowledge, training, experience and best intentions, we are often at a loss for how to reach our patients through the miasma of vaccine misinformation.

Some providers, both nationally and locally, have chosen to deny in-office visits for any medically eligible unvaccinated patients. That solution not only raises ethical questions, it shifts the problem elsewhere and does nothing to help fight the spread of misinformation.

The reasons for vaccine refusal are numerous and varied, so I try not to make assumptions about a person’s position or concerns. Asking, ‘What specific concerns do you have about the vaccines?’ is a great starting point. The usual litany of disproven vaccine harms typically ensues.

Depending on the initial responses and circumstances, I may address those concerns immediately or offer to continue the dialogue later. I’ve realized a single conversation in the clinic, or even a few, is unlikely to change someone’s mind on the vaccine issue. I have found an email exchange to be a wonderful method of communication for this and other contentious issues.

Whether in person or by email, I often start with some basic education on how our immune system works and how vaccines work to boost that process. Even a basic understanding of how something works can make it seem less scary.

Although most of my patient encounters will not be specifically about vaccine-related issues, each episode of care allows the patient to see I am caring for them in a rational, thoughtful manner.

Ultimately, if we pull back from our reluctant patients, I fear we are ceding the war against the more malevolent and insidious enemy: the misinformation “virus.” The result is that vaccine skeptics’ mistrust of mainstream medicine and the percentage of unvaccinated children will grow unchecked.

The best way to reach a vaccine-hesitant or a vaccine-averse parent or patient is through a trusting relationship with a primary care physician.

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