For the first time in months, the U.S. is reporting more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 every hour as the delta variant spreads nationwide. The increase in cases comes at a time when the number of people being vaccinated is decreasing and the rollout of vaccinations has slowed, the Associated Press reports. As a result of the deadly threat the coronavirus still poses, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a strong warning in his first advisory against misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine. According to reports, more than 90% of COVID-19 related deaths are among unvaccinated people.
In his 22-page advisory, Murthy connected the number of unvaccinated individuals to misinformation on social media. "Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health," the advisory said. "We know enough to be sure that misinformation is an urgent threat, and that we can and must confront it together."
"Amid all this information, many people have also been exposed to health misinformation: information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments," the advisory said.
Murthy’s advisory comes as he revealed during a White House briefing Thursday that he lost at least 10 family members to the coronavirus. This made his plea for people to be vaccinated even more personal and heartfelt. He said that it was “painful” to know that “nearly every death we are seeing now” in the country could have possibly been prevented with vaccines.
“I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to Covid-19 and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated,” Murthy said according to NBC News. He added that about two-thirds of those who have not been vaccinated in the country have heard common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine to some degree. Polling data from the Kaiser Family Foundation backs this statement; according to the poll, two-thirds of unvaccinated adults either believe vaccine myths or are unsure about whether they are true.
“We’ve got to recognize sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that have the most followers on social media or the ones that have the most name recognition,” Murthy said of social media’s influence in spreading misinformation. "Every life that is lost to COVID-19 when we have vaccines available, is a preventable tragedy.”
Murthy hopes that his advisory and attention paid to the harmful misinformation about the virus will encourage more Americans to be vaccinated and actively call out false information. In addition to addressing how everyday Americans can stop the rise of misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine, Murthy’s advisory also urged big tech companies to play a role on their platforms.
“We are asking them to step up,” Murthy said. “We can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action.”
"The tech companies actually have a much better sense of how much misinformation is being transacted on their platforms, and without understanding the full extent of it ... it's hard to formulate the most effective strategies," he said.
Murthy isn’t the only one to urge big tech to do more. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called out Facebook as well, noting that the platform needed to do more to stop the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
"Facebook needs to move more quickly to remove violative posts. Posts that will be within their policies' removal often remain up for days. That's too long. The information spreads too quickly," Psaki said Thursday.
A source familiar with the issue told CNN that recent meetings between Facebook and the Biden administration have been “tense.” According to the source, Biden officials concluded that the company was not taking the issue seriously. Multiple individuals known in the anti-vaccine community were noted to be banned from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but not from Facebook itself.
It seems like the U.S. is taking a step backward in its progress. Several announcements have been made in regards to COVID-19 outbreaks, including the New York Yankees canceling a game due to players testing positive and California’s Los Angeles County reinforcing its indoor mask mandate.
As of this report, more than 34.8 million people have been infected with COVID-19 in the United States and over 600,000 have died as a result, WorldOMeter reported.
“Misinformation hasn’t just harmed our physical health — it has also divided our families, friends, and communities,” Murthy’s advisory said. “The only way to address health misinformation is to recognize that all of us, in every sector of society, have a responsibility to act.”