Misinformation around COVID-19 feeds on systemic failures that impact low-income communities of color.
The persistent and quick spread of misinformation online can promote a false narrative around vaccine hesitancy in historically excluded communities.
Local organizations are fighting COVID misinformation by training older adults, caregivers, and community health workers to distinguish what information is rooted in science.
It spreads quickly.
At first, in three-second timeframes or jolting headlines as you scroll through your social media feed. Because it’s designed to, it sits and waits.
But with every reshare, repost, or forward through a group text or email, it grows stronger.
Once it finds the air to breathe, it breeds. Quickly. So quickly in fact, that it becomes unable for us to control.
Throughout the pandemic, social media has had its day in the spotlight. On the one hand, it has become a go-to method of staying connected while physically distanced, as well as a place to get the very latest news about COVID.
On the other hand, companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have been in the hot seat in federal court and at Congressional hearings to answer how they can better control misinformation on their platforms while balancing First Amendment free speech.
In fact, there is an even more nuanced issue at hand that local organizations are working against. Misinformation about vaccine hesitancy has become a proxy for addressing the systemic inequities that have made it nearly impossible for communities of color to age well.
Saying a specific population of older adults or communities of color are primarily “vaccine hesitant” without furthering the historical framework of “access” to services and supports themselves has become a proxy for explaining away lower vaccine rates in these communities. It’s about more than that.
For these older adults, believing misinformation literally can mean life or death. Community health workers in states like California and Texas report that most older adults over 65 are vaccinated in line with the national average of 87%, but they’re also witnessing differing opinions based on medical misinformation.
“We live in a community that was built on the very foundations of science, with the Los Alamos National Laboratory,” said Bernadette Lauritzen, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Retired and Senior Organization and Executive Director of Champions of Youth Ambitions. “I am shocked that we still have a number of people who do not accept the science of the vaccine or the benefits of masks. We do our best to counter the misinformation, but to no avail.”
Systemic inequities can explain some of this skepticism
In the hardest-hit communities, people of color have much more limited access to health care providers and trusted information. The inability to talk one-on-one with a provider can lead people to look for other sources of information that are inaccurate, misleading, and even dangerous. One mistaken belief and or bad encounter with a provider can have a lasting impact on how entire generations either trust or distrust medical professionals.
This is true not just for older adults, but also for their adult children. Many caregivers are essential workers who are juggling multiple family and work responsibilities. Having the time to plan for how a decision they make today might impact their future is a privilege they often don’t have. They are living paycheck-to-paycheck, focused on paying next month’s rent.
Community-based organizations, academic institutions, and public health agencies are doing what they can to highlight misinformation about COVID and, even more importantly, train older adults, caregivers, and families to assess the information they see online.
How NCOA is combatting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation
NCOA is working with local organizations like San Ysidro Health in San Diego, CA, which provides innovative services to mainly Hispanic/Latinx and older adults. One lesson we have learned is that if you’re trying to reach older adults, talking to their entire family is the best approach.
Dr. Susan Mayfield Johnson, Associate Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi School of Health Professions, has trained community health workers for more than two decades and is now leading The Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities funded by the National Institutes of Health. The effort provides education and awareness around COVID prevention, as well as urgent community-engaged outreach and research to address widespread misinformation and promote an evidence-based response.
In Washington, DC, the Public Health Foundation has resurfaced previous webinars from their archives on how providers can discuss misinformation when speaking with patients who have yet to receive the vaccine.
The journey is not a simple one, but acknowledging the complexities is a first step. It is up to each of us to make decisions that can cause the least amount of harm and the greatest amount of good for generations.