Robert F. Bucati / AP
Signs at the entrance to a grocery store in northwestern Montana told customers to wear a mask. Flathead County Public Health officials insisted. The infection rate here is among the highest in the state. The rate of infection in the country is among the highest in the country.
Still, Craig Mann walked out of the grocery store, past the signs, and toward his truck, unmasked and determined.
The pandemic everyone is talking about?
“It’s absolute rubbish,” he said. “There is a lot of evidence that the ‘coronavirus pandemic’ is going back to communist China, if you will. Communist Marxism is trying to insist on this country.”
While health professionals are battling the growing number of COVID-19 people in the country, they are also battling another rapidly spreading and frustrating infection: misinformation.
“I don’t know, I can’t decide if it’s a conspiracy theory or not,” shopper Shauna Unger told the same grocery store. “I don’t know what’s really going on. It doesn’t seem to be as critical as everyone does.”
A few cars down, Marvin Loftis took off his mask to say he thought the virus was a joke. “It’s just another cold,” he said.
A study by the Pew Research Center earlier this year found that a quarter of adults in the United States believe there is at least some truth in the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus pandemic was deliberately started. Others argue that the outbreak is not as bad as reported; that a quarter of a million Americans did not die. Official stories and figures are being questioned.
“These conspiracy theorists and those groups who are against [masks] have been so vocal on social media that at some point it starts to resonate with people and starts to have as big a voice as the medical community – if not more, “said Anita Kisee, public relations manager at St. Luke’s, the largest hospital network in Idaho, where coronavirus cases are also on the rise.
Nathan Roth / NPR
Confusion has consequences. In a city in Idaho, the city council recently voted to pass an ordinance requiring people to wear masks after four hours of heated testimony, despite warnings from public health officials. In Flathead County, the municipal health council twice voted to limit indoor meetings to 500 people.
Randy Zuckerman, chairman of surgery at Kalispel Regional Hospital, said most of the people he interacts with in the community and at the hospital take the virus seriously. They are a small, vocal minority.
“The whole country is tired. Everyone is tired of it,” Zuckerman said. “The problem is, he’s here. He’s not going anywhere fast, so we need to get back to basics: social distancing, hand washing, wearing a mask. We need to get back on this train.”
“Two different realities”
For disinformation health workers, it may start to feel like they are living in “two different realities,” said Joy Prudeck, who works for St. Luke’s.
At work, they see community members and colleagues getting COVID-19. They see people dying.
“And then they go out and go to the store and people look at them with disbelief and anger that they’re wearing a mask,” Prudek said.
The break is disappointing, she said, and discouraging.
To try to deal with conspiracy theories and community suspicions about the threat of the virus, St. Luke uses every tool at his disposal. Officials speak at public hearings. They push out new numbers and information as soon as they receive them. On social media, they publish accounts from front-line employees about what it’s like to deal with patients with COVID-19.
Healthcare workers in other parts of the country are taking a similar approach.
In South Dakota, which recently led the nation to the highest number of deaths and new deaths per capita, emergency room nurse Jody Doring went viral after posting on Twitter that she was dealing with dying patients who still believe that COVID-19 is not real.
In Nebraska, more than 1,700 health workers signed a letter posted on the Nebraska Medicine website asking people to limit their travel and wear a mask.
“Your frontline health workers are exhausted. We fear that hospitals will have no place and no people to meet the ever-increasing demand,” the letter said. “We call on non-Brascans to rise again to do everything possible for the health and safety of our country.”
Back in northwestern Montana, public relations officers at Kalispel Regional Hospital handed out leaflets to local businesses, bought print and radio commercials, and held live Facebook sessions with frontline employees as part of a broader Stop the Surge campaign.
The hope, said Melody Sharpton, the hospital’s chief communications officer, is that by repeating the same message across multiple platforms, it will rise above all the misinformation swirling below.
Clear, consistent messages
Public health experts say the need for clear, consistent messages from frontline workers to national leaders has never been greater.
Ruth Parker, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who studies health literacy, said part of what feeds the “content chaos” the nation is experiencing is the politicization of the disguise and origins of the virus by President Donald Trump. among others, the fact that public health officials did not adequately express the uncertainty of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.
“We missed an opportunity to really take advantage of trying to work with people to find out what happens when something is new and you don’t know much about it,” she said. “You have to learn while you walk.”
The effectiveness of the masks is a good example. Scientists now know that wearing a mask protects the user, not just others. This point was emphasized only by the Centers for Disease Control last week.
For people in the general public who are already skeptical of the government narrative, Parker said, passing messages without a clear explanation only creates more uncertainty at a time already charged.
“It’s such a scary time and I think the climate is so ripe that you’ll be disappointed, confused and you probably don’t know what to do or how to navigate it,” she said.
It makes sense that people downplay or deny the existence of the virus, Parker said. This is a coping mechanism.