Health Misinformation is a Public Health Crisis
San Diego County Board Chair Nathan Fletcher led an effort to make San Diego County the first city or county government in the country to declare health misinformation a public health crisis.
On August 31st, 2021, the measure passed by a 3-2 margin and represents the first step to recognizing health misinformation as the threat to public health that it is, and expresses the County’s commitment to taking the necessary steps to close the vaccine gap and realize better health outcomes by affirmatively countering health misinformation.
Addressing misinformation starts at the local level, in our communities. We see evidence of what happens when we ignore it, and allow misinformation to fester.
We hope that by becoming the first in the nation to call out health misinformation as a public health crisis, we are taking the next step towards realizing the public health goals that vaccines and medical advances are promising. We hope to be joined by many other cities and counties.
This is about taking a more active role in developing resources to combat misinformation in order to help our community make informed health choices.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the hospitalization cost of treating preventable Covid-19 in unvaccinated patients during June and July alone was $2.3 billion -- with the costs "borne not only by patients but also by society more broadly."
Why is Misinformation a Public Health Crisis?
The local and national surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations since vaccines became widely available in mid-April has once again threatened to strain hospital resources and put the health and safety of our community at risk.
Empirical data and the broad scientific consensus suggests COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death from the Delta variant. Yet, misinformation and disinformation has played a significant role in undermining vaccine utilization and compliance with public health guidelines, such as those related to masks. Misinformed beliefs about vaccines and public health guidelines have turned this into what many have labeled a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
With the vaccine in hand, the greatest threat to public health is health misinformation, no longer COVID-19 itself or any of its variants. As our community and our country looks to turn the page on the pandemic, and as a booster shots become more important to maintaining our recovery, confronting and combating misinformation becomes vital and essential to saving lives and realizing our shared public health goals.
What does declaring misinformation as a Public Health Crisis do?
- Devote more resources to identify and label health misinformation and disseminate timely health information to counter misinformation that is impeding our ability to keep our community safe.
- Modernize public health communications with investments to better understand gaps in health information, and questions and concerns of the community, especially in hard to reach communities. Develop targeted community engagement strategies, including partnerships with trusted messengers.
- Expand our research efforts to better define and understand the sources of health misinformation, document and trace its negative impacts, and develop strategies to address and counter it across mediums and diverse communities.
- Investing in resilience against health misinformation including digital resources and training for health practitioners and health workers. Exploring educational programs to help our communities distinguish evidence-based information from opinion and personal stories.
- Partner with federal, state, territorial, tribal, private, nonprofit, research, and other local partners to identify best practices to stop the spread of health misinformation, and develop and implement coordinated recommendations.
- Identify resource gaps to combating health misinformation and working with state and federal partners to meet ongoing needs.
What they’re saying about the San Diego County’s Declaration
"On Tuesday night, @SanDiegoCounty Board of Supervisors voted to declare health misinformation a public health crisis. I'm grateful @SupFletcher took on this issue -- it's the kind of bold action we need to ensure we all have accurate, science-based information to inform our health."
“Health-related misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined public health efforts and has led to increased case numbers, putting an incredible burden on hospital systems. Yet this threat has not been met with the coordinated and concerted efforts necessary to combat the problem. I’m excited that the County of San Diego and its Board has taken the first step towards responding to this urgent threat to public health and I look forward to working with them and other local governments to inform a coordinated approach to building a resilient health information ecosystem.”
-Tara Kirk Sell , Ph.D., MA, Senior Scholar, and Assistant Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health / Center for Health Security
“Patients face a very challenging information environment as they try to keep themselves and their families healthy. Local communities working together in partnership with healthcare professionals can help patients find trustworthy information and avoid the pitfalls of medical misinformation.”
-Brian Southwell , Senior Director, Science in the Public Sphere, RTI International, and co-founder of the Duke Program on Medical Misinformation at Duke University
“Government agencies have a responsibility to do the kind of things that they are doing here. If they are going to play a role of protecting public health, communication is central to that.”
Daniel Hallin, communication professor at UC San Diego