The United States surgeon general issued a formal advisory on Thursday warning of the dangers of COVID-19 misinformation, describing it as an “urgent threat” and “one of the biggest obstacles” preventing the end of the pandemic.
Dr. Vivek Murthy also revealed that 10 of his family members have died of COVID-19, and said he wishes “each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.”
“On a personal note, it’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented,” Murthy said as he joined White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki during a press briefing.
On Thursday, Murthy’s office issued its first formal advisory warning that during the pandemic, people have been exposed to information about the virus “that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time.”
“Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments,” the advisory said.
While health misinformation has existed in the past, Murthy said, it is different now because of the speed and scale at which it is spreading. He had particularly sharp words for social media companies, which he said have “enabled misinformation to poison our information environment” yet have “little accountability to their users.”
Murthy noted that advisories are serious and are “reserved for urgent public health threats” that in the past have warned about alcohol, opioids, and other forms of substance abuse, suicide, and tobacco use.
The surgeon general’s office issued a number of recommendations to address the spread of misinformation, including asking people to verify the information they’re seeing online is coming from a credible source before sharing it, requesting that health organizations debunk misinformation with their patients, and imploring technology companies to monitor misinformation more closely and take action against those who spread false information on their platforms.
Murthy said he has heard from doctors and nurses across the country who are “burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 that never got vaccinated, all too often because they were misled by misinformation.”
While key COVID-19 metrics are significantly lower now that at almost any other point during the pandemic as Americans continue to get vaccinated, the advisory comes as COVID-19 cases are rising again in Massachusetts and many other states in the country. Every state except for Maine and South Dakota reported that COVID-19 case numbers have gone up over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press tally.
Experts have said the rise in cases is fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, and almost all infections are detected in unvaccinated people. The vaccines are effective against the Delta variant.