In the next phase of the pandemic, facts will become our new vaccine
(Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
Year three of the pandemic is a good point to stop and reflect on where we’ve been, and how accurate health information can empower individuals and communities moving forward.
In 2020 the world panicked. We spent months wiping down groceries with disinfectant wipes and trying to escape what some thought were clouds of infection chasing us down the street. Little of what we believed at the outset turned out to be necessary or true as we learned more about the virus.
In 2021 we tried to adjust. Schools, businesses, and governments created rules that were challenged in court as America’s politics turned the pandemic into a debate of safety versus freedom. Fear and uncertainty about vaccines left millions vulnerable and health systems overwhelmed. People sought their own remedies and prevention strategies. From drinking bleach to swallowing horse pills, “fake news” about the virus and vaccines spread like wildfire. As a journalist, I spent a lot of time fact-checking well-meaning friends who were misled and worse, spreading false information.
The News Literacy Project ranks science misinformation and rumors of vaccine harm among the 2021’s top 10 falsehoods. Among the false claims that researchers debunked: Vaccines will magnetize you, make you infertile, contain tracking devices and cause cancer or HIV. Journalists corrected false rumors that the COVID-19 vaccine killed people who died of natural causes, or that a child couldn’t get a shot without donating their organs. Still, millions believed misinformation and avoided protecting themselves as infection rates soared. Misinformation had a real impact on the nation’s health.
2022 marks what I like to call the pandemic shift. COVID-19 may diminish but it’s not going away. As a society we’re settling into the reality that we have to live with it. Learning how is a challenge, and the source of deep divisions as we define acceptable behavior and risks. What should I do to keep myself, my family, my community and people around me safe? Is masking enough? Is it OK to dine unmasked at restaurants 6 feet apart? Can I get together with friends who are vaccinated but not boosted? Should I require rapid tests for visitors at home? Are large public events safe to attend?
Perceptions of risk differ based on many factors, including race, socioeconomic status, gender and age. Researchers have found that Black people have less confidence than other races in COVID vaccines. Women are generally more fearful than men about negative health outcomes. Poor people have a harder time isolating — simply put, they have to go to work and tend to live in more crowded housing. And young people tend to engage in riskier behavior.
The generational and gender divide played out in my own family. My 18-year-old son lives in an urban area with high case rates and transmission. He’s adamant about not letting fear of COVID-19 control his life. He believes in making choices that balance reasonable safety precautions with beginning to enjoy life again and finding some sense of normalcy. I’m more conservative and willing to be a hermit a bit longer. I’ve accepted that his public-facing job carries some risk. But we’ve had numerous conversations about how much additional time he chooses to spend in public. These exchanges have been contentious but ultimately, worthwhile.
Trying to understand his perspective caused me to do a deep dive into an equally important and related issue: isolation and its effects on the mental health of young people. The Centers for Disease Control reports that emergency room visits for suspected youth suicide attempts jumped 39% in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, with girls significantly more impacted than boys. The National Institutes of Health reported that 140,000 children lost a caregiver due to the pandemic. Black and Latino youth were disproportionately affected. Morgan Stanley’s Alliance for Children’s Mental Health reports that more than a third of teens experienced worsening mental health during the pandemic, including anxiety and depression. Black and Hispanic teens are more likely to struggle, based on complex histories of trauma, loss, grief and unmet needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other major health groups declared the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health a national emergency.
So, my son had a point: there’s more to consider in weighing our comfort levels than just the virus.
To cope, he poured himself into his passion: basketball. He joined a weekly neighborhood pickup game. He started regularly attending games for his favorite team. He felt safe attending large, crowded sporting events because proof of vaccination is required. I cringed every time I saw his Instagram story showing unmasked fans nearby.
Our opposition on how to live during COVID eventually turned into a productive exchange of ideas. My son explained why local regulations and practices gave him confidence about venturing out in public. To my surprise, he was actually tracking case rates quite closely. I listened, but also challenged the source of some his beliefs. (“I saw that on TikTok.”) While we sometimes still disagreed about his choices, I must admit that listening caused me to understand that he wasn’t just acting irrationally or impulsively; he was seeking balance to cope with a world turned upside down.
I had to ask myself a very uncomfortable question: if my son dies of COVID-19 because he became infected at a crowded basketball game, or if he were to die by suicide because his isolation was unbearable, would my grief be any different?
My concerns for his safety apparently also had an influence. Following our conversations he got a booster, canceled some social gatherings, carries hand sanitizer in his car and started wearing N95 masks in public.
In 2022, fact-finding and engaging in conversations with a listening ear will become critical tools to navigate the complexities of living with COVID-19. Some of these conversations may be uncomfortable, but they’re necessary. Differences will emerge within homes, relationships and families, but it’s important that decisions about personal behavior and safety be made with accurate information. Our choices will differ based on many factors but should always be based on facts. Verifiable facts. Facts from credible, unbiased sources. Facts with context that is not cherry-picked.
This is where progress gets dicey. And where my two worlds as a journalist and educator collide. It almost requires training everyone to be a mini-journalist: to question where our information comes from and why we believe it. While these are productive conversations to have, not everyone is willing to engage. Without broad agreement on what constitutes reliable information about COVID-19, the needed shift toward a culture that is immunized against misinformation is threatened.
These facts are difficult to refute: today 75% of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated and nearly half have also received boosters. As a nation we are increasingly protected from severe disease and hospitalization. But COVID-19 transmission remains high. Tens of thousands are newly infected every day. For some, that means a few days of something that feels like a bad flu. For others, especially those who are immunocompromised, it could be life-threatening. Our choices about safe behavior are interconnected, even if we think of ourselves as islands.
Fighting misinformation is as critical to conquering this pandemic as getting a shot. Facts have become our new vaccine. Overcoming the resistance to both constitutes perhaps our key public health challenge moving forward.