Public health experts worry about spread of COVID-19 misinformation

Some say federal agencies should do more to stamp out misconceptions

Dr. Stephen Hahn, FDA administrator, testifies before the House Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on "Food and Drug Administration Budget Request for FY2021” in Washington on March 11, 2020.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Dr. Stephen Hahn, FDA administrator, testifies before the House Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee on "Food and Drug Administration Budget Request for FY2021” in Washington on March 11, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 18, 2020 at 5:30am

Public health experts worry that the spread of COVID-19 could be exacerbated by misinformation, and some say federal agencies should do more to stamp out misconceptions.

Experts worry that false or even dangerous information about what can protect individuals during the pandemic is being disseminated at an alarming rate. Last month, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned about the potential onslaught of fake information related to the new coronavirus-based illness known as COVID-19.

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“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he said. “We call on all governments, companies and news organizations to work with us to sound the appropriate level of alarm, without fanning the flames of hysteria.”

Tech companies like Apple and Google have taken steps to censor COVID-19-themed apps not run by health organizations or government agencies, and some state attorneys general have put out warnings about false COVID-19 claims regarding cures, but experts are looking for more action to prevent individuals from being duped.

“People are asking what they can do and are not getting much advice from the government,” said Durland Fish, emeritus professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, who is concerned about the lack of information on what individuals can do to prevent contracting COVID-19.

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Fish recommends good practices such as not handling money, carrying a personal pen for signing receipts, using a nondominant hand to open doors, avoiding handrails and using a knuckle to press elevator buttons.

Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania, said people need to prioritize limiting face-to-face interactions.

“The key message to get across is that people should engage in social distancing now. Stay home, unless you have an urgent need to leave for medical or caregiving reasons or to provide an essential service,” said Cannuscio. “This will protect you, your community and the health care system. Do your part, and do it now.”

John Lednicky, a virologist with the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental & Global Health, is worried about the harmful information being put out that is masquerading as legitimate advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other agencies.

“I think the government has been putting out useful and correct information,” said Lednicky. “The problem is that there are bad actors out there who are putting out misinformation, and sometimes people think the information is coming from the government but it’s not.”

Ineffective strategies

A lack of credible, easy-to-access information for individuals has led to some pursuing unorthodox approaches to health care that can be harmful. Stores have been selling out of hand sanitizers that do not meet the CDC’s guidelines and may not be effective, and bad actors have been hawking homeopathic products that could harm unwitting individuals.

Numerous reports have found that individuals have attempted to make their own hand sanitizers with vodka, which experts have warned is unsafe. Vodka does not have a high enough alcohol percentage to be effective. Last week, the top Food and Drug Administration official was unfamiliar with these reports.

Rep. Barbara Lee grilled FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing about homemade hand sanitizers. She described a homemade sanitizer recipe she found online and asked about its efficacy.

“What do we tell our constituents? Do you believe this recipe I laid out serves us well? Should that be posted as an alternative until our supply is there?” said Lee.

“Your question is a good one,” said Hahn. “I don’t know that recipe, and I don’t want to give the American people false information about recipes.”

“Somehow you have got to get the word out to people what to do in lieu of this if in fact it’s not available,” said Lee, holding a bottle of hand sanitizer.

The FDA and CDC did not return requests for comment. 

Lednicky has received phone calls asking for advice on homeopathic remedies ranging from sleeping next to a potato to drinking deer placenta — both of which have no medical value and can be dangerous. He has also advised multiple people not to use bleach for gargling or hand-washing.

He says it is “unbelievable what people are willing to believe.”

Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission and FDA took some steps to crack down on products like teas and essential oils that companies were peddling as cures for COVID-19.

The FTC and FDA issued warning letters that said these products did not have evidence to back their claims. They noted there are not vaccines or other drugs available to treat or prevent the virus.

CDC recommends disinfecting oft-used surfaces, frequent hand-washing, and the use of hand sanitizers when hand-washing is not an option. Hand-washing is preferred, according to experts, because it loosens and removes dirt, viruses and bacteria. Hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol can only kill, but not remove, bacteria and viruses.

Experts are not worried that the overuse of hand sanitizer will have the effect of creating so-called “super bugs,” unlike with the overuse of antibiotics.

Bacteria can develop resistance to antibiotics over time, but since hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, viruses and bacteria will not similarly develop a resistance because of their use. Hand sanitizers do not kill Clostridium difficile, bacteria that are responsible for diarrhea, but are otherwise effective.

Alison Buttenheim, a public health researcher and behavioral epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Nursing, is worried about conflicting messaging from the administration. And she said local and state officials need to be offering scientifically valid information.

“It may be well that we’re worried about what people are saying at the federal level, but that might not be where people are watching," said Buttenheim.

She also said that “the fact that it has become politicized and that if you’re worried about and trying to take action and protect vulnerable populations, you’re a ‘Democrat,’” is worrisome.

“That is only going to get in the way of tackling this in a scientific and humane way,” she said, and could “cost thousands and thousands of lives.”

Emily Kopp contributed to this report.