Surgeon general releases guide to combating COVID-19 vaccine misinformation

(WASHINGTON) — The government’s top doctor released a step-by-step toolkit Tuesday morning to help people combat misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines in their own close circles.

“We need people in communities all across our country to have these conversations,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in an interview with ABC News.

“This is not just the government that needs to be engaged in these conversations. If anything, it’s individuals who have people they trust in their lives who have great power when it comes to helping them move our vaccination rates in the right direction,” Murthy said.

The guide provides a road map for vaccinated people to talk to unvaccinated people who have bought into conspiracy theories or lies that spread on the internet about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Over the summer, the surgeon general issued an advisory that called misinformation an urgent public health threat.

The toolkit, which Murthy hopes will be used by health professionals, faith leaders, teachers or parents with children newly eligible for the shot, is the next step in addressing the ongoing problem. November polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that nearly eight in 10 adults have come across false statements about COVID-19 and have either believed them or been unsure if they were true.

“During the COVID 19 pandemic, misinformation has in fact cost people their lives. So we don’t have an option to give up,” Murthy said.

He called for more transparency in the tech industry since misinformation spreads rapidly on social media platforms.

“The companies have done some work to address health misinformation but they’ve not done nearly enough. And it’s not happening nearly quickly enough,” Murthy said.

The information released Tuesday encourages people to talk in person instead of online. One section is even entitled “If you’re not sure, don’t share!”

It includes discussion questions and illustrations explaining why people share misinformation or what a hypothetical conversation around misinformation could look like.

The recommended approach relies heavily on listening, providing empathy and avoiding shame.

“When talking with a friend or family members, emphasize the fact that you understand that there are often reasons why people find it difficult to trust certain sources of information,” it says.

Murthy acknowledged that it may be hard for vaccinated Americans to be empathetic or understanding when many feel angry that unvaccinated Americans have allowed the virus to spread.

“But nobody generally changes their mind when they feel shame and blame, if anything that hardens people in their position,” Murthy said.

He described a conversation he recently had with an unvaccinated man who had seen myths about the vaccines on Facebook. They talked for 30 minutes, he said. Murthy called it an “open, honest conversation” about what the man’s concerns were.

“And I tried to share with him what we knew and what we didn’t know. I tried to be honest about what the science actually tells us,” Murthy said.

“He sent me a note after that saying he made the decision after that conversation to get vaccinated, and ultimately he did get vaccinated,” Murthy said.

“So what we need to do is is to start by listening to people, by being empathetic, trying to understand where they’re coming from, why they may have the beliefs that they do, and then to try to share our own experience with them to try to help them to access credible sources, like their doctor or other people that they actually trust who are credible scientific sources,” he said.

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