The One Thing That May Defeat COVID-19

Alex McDonald, MD


August 11, 2021

The United States was so close to defeating COVID-19 and this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic; we had normalcy within our grasp. Through an amazing display of international cooperation and collaboration by the public and private sector, and public health stakeholders, we completed the development of highly effective and safe vaccines. The past year was truly a testament to what we can do when we do it together.

However, despite all our efforts, we could not close the deal. In mid-June, daily case rates were nearing 10,000 per day, the estimated number where we could collectively take a sigh of relief. Yet we allowed misinformation and disinformation to squander an amazing opportunity to vaccinate a significant majority of our population against this deadly virus and reduce the risk for variants taking hold.

Now the more infectious and perhaps more virulent delta variant is here, and the pandemic of the unvaccinated affects and threatens us all. COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths are rising at an alarming rate. Although over 96% of COVID-19 hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated, the mental, emotional, and physical toll on our economy, culture and battered healthcare workers is just as daunting and frustrating.

Some days I am so saddened by having to, yet again, bear witness to tragic suffering and loss that COVID-19 has caused. Recently a 26-year-old woman died of COVID in the ICU; she left behind her 1-year-old son, a situation that, in all likelihood, could have been prevented.

Other days I am filled will rage at the arrogance and selfishness of those who have chosen to not to get vaccinated, or those who have fallen prey to misinformation and as a result place their own needs above the needs of their loved ones, community, and our overburdened and taxed healthcare system and healthcare workers as we find ourselves yet again in direct harm's way.

How did we get here? How did we allow this to happen? The United States had the privilege and the opportunity to defeat this virus through amazing scientific breakthroughs. The United States purchased much of the world's first supply of vaccines, while many poorer countries are still clamoring for and waiting to begin vaccination.

Yet many in this country were arrogant and ignorant to their risk to themselves and their community while remaining unvaccinated and blind to the privilege of living in the United States of America. We allowed the viral and nefarious spreads of misinformation and disinformation to blow our chance to kick COVID-19 into obsolescence. However, this moment has been a long time in the making.

For years, physicians and other trusted health messengers have ignored social media and continued to educate in their own manner. Some employed physicians have even been discouraged from speaking out on social media for fear of legal, licensure, or employer repercussions. As a result, there is a significant health information void on social media and in other areas where large numbers of people communicate and share ideas.

Not surprisingly, that void has been littered with questionable (if not outright false) health advice, misinformation, and disinformation, deeply segregated on the basis of political preference. Well over one third of young adults get their news and information primarily from social media, so it's no wonder younger Americans have significantly lower rates of vaccination.

The average patient spends a brief time with their primary care clinicians a handful of times a year, but between 2 and 3 hours a day on social media. How are we supposed to compete with social media misinformation if we stick to our traditional methods of educating one patient at a time?

The US Surgeon General even recently issued an advisory: "Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic." As the adage goes, "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get out the front door." Today, that saying — or whatever version you prefer — has never been more true.

Many of us in medicine went into this career to treat disease and improve quality of life, and now we need to add a new tool to our arsenal: social media and public communication. We have a duty to our patients and our communities to reclaim the prevailing health narrative in this nation, not just for the COVID-19 pandemic but also for whatever the next public health crisis will be. We can no longer sit idly within the four walls of our clinic or hospital expecting to defeat the scourge of misinformation.

A Call to Action

So, what can we do? What can you do?

#ThisIsOurShot is a viral grassroots digital and social media campaign that began with co-founders Dr Nakasi, Dr Lalani, and myself, with the mission to elevate the voice of all healthcare heroes online and in person to build COVID vaccine trust.

We know that an individual's physician is the most trusted messenger when it comes to COVID vaccine information. This movement is not about a single physician; it's about all physicians. We must all speak up and share knowledge and information about COVID vaccines with our friends, neighbors, and social groups and at places of worship and in our schools.

Whatever communities we are a part of, we have a responsibility to inform and educate. Yet also, we cannot simply assume patients will seek out our expert opinion when it comes to vaccines or their health. We must go to where they are and engage in digital outreach and share our knowledge on social media as well.

#ThisIsOurShot has engaged more than 25,000 trusted healthcare messengers and trained over 200 vaccine advocates over the past 8 months to do just this, reaching more then 700 million views of accurate vaccine content across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok to help the unvaccinated get to "yes." Our team of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and medical students must lead by example and be the change we want to see.

However, at this point, we cannot do this alone. We need all trusted messengers across America, from our pastors and teachers to judges and athletes, including our family and friends.

I implore you to join the movement, learn from #ThisIsOurShot coalition, attend a training, learn how to find your voice, and then speak up and speak out in whatever networks of which you are a part. We must all enlist to defeat misinformation and the infodemic and, with it, COVID-19.

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About Dr Alex McDonald
Alex McDonald, MD, is a former professional triathlete and a family and sports medicine physician. His professional interests include exercise and physical activity, point-of-care ultrasound, health policy, and preventive medicine.
McDonald holds degrees from Connecticut College, the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, and Duke University.
He has three children and two dogs. He enjoys running, riding his bike, cooking, coffee, and 8 PM dance parties with his kids. Connect with him on Twitter: @alexmmtri


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