To debunk COVID-19 vaccine myths, health officials should turn to the same source that spreads them—social media

Woman using her smartphone
Myths and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines continue to persistently circulate on social media networks, contributing to vaccine hesitancy across the country. (Getty/diego_cervo)

Among the many COVID-19 vaccine myths circulating on social media, one of the more persistent false rumors is that the vaccine causes infertility, according to leading doctors.

Rumors about vaccines impacting fertility have been rampant and difficult to overcome, Susan Bailey, M.D., immediate past president of the American Medical Association, told lawmakers on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Doctors play a critical role as vaccination ambassadors, Bailey testified Tuesday during a hearing to address vaccine hesitancy.

"Physicians need to be part empathetic counselors, part research scientists and part myth busters," she said.

But in their efforts to debunk vaccine myths, doctors are trying to combat a deluge of misinformation and false stories rampantly spreading on social media platforms like Facebook, which fuel fears about the COVID-19 vaccine.

"The AMA believes that social media networks need to have some responsibility for spreading false information and we need to be able to counter that with factual information from trusted sources. If we completely bow out of social media and don’t participate, we are ceding that territory to those are who are willing to spread misinformation," Bailey said.

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The United States has fully vaccinated 150 million people against COVID-19, but the nation is expected to fall short of President Biden’s goal of getting at least one shot into the arms of 70% of U.S. adults by the Fourth of July.

Vaccination rates across the country continue to slow as health officials sound the alarm about the contagious delta variant.

"It’s so important that we keep pushing because the rapid spread of the delta variant in India is showing that this pandemic is not over and the threat it poses is still very real," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

"Too many people with genuine concerns are being misled by false information and we need to address the misinformation and make sure that people with questions are getting reliable answers," Murray said. "Facts, science and experts are an essential part of that work but educating people to get vaccinated is not just about getting the facts right, it’s about trust."

Professor and theologian Curtis Chang told lawmakers that social media can be a critical tool for health officials to get their message out to vaccine-hesitant Americans.

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"I encourage efforts by the government to fund more outreach through social media and targeted advertising. Social media is the battlefield right now for vaccine trust efforts," he said.

And social media can be a big influencer for a key demographic that continues to be one of the most resistant to the vaccine—white evangelical Christians, Chang said.

"The pathway to ending the pandemic runs through the evangelical church. At the national level, white evangelicals comprise the single largest vaccine-hesitant demographic. At the state level, a map of the states with the lowest vaccination rates corresponds tightly with a map of the Bible Belt," said Chang, who is on faculty at the Duke Divinity School and co-founder of Christians And The Vaccine.

To the extent that public health has engaged faith communities, it has overwhelmingly been with minority faith communities, and those efforts have been remarkably effective, he said.

"This focus has not matched attention to the largest and most vaccine-hesitant community. As a person of color, I need public health to focus on white evangelicals, what they decide affects my community," he told lawmakers.

A key lesson learned during the past few months of putting shots in arms is reaching people where they are, whether that’s at town halls, churches, consulates or online, testified Michelle Nichols, M.D., associate dean of clinical affairs at Morehouse School of Medicine.

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As one of four historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) medical schools, Morehouse focused its vaccine outreach to communities of color by forming partnerships with trusted, local organizations and rolling out a mobile traveling vaccination program, Nichols said. Morehouse has been able to boost vaccinations among minority communities—more than 75% of vaccine recipients were African American compared to only approximately 9% nationally based on recent CDC data, she said.

To reach the Hispanic community, Morehouse tapped its bilingual Spanish-speaking students, nurses, and providers to vaccinate and educate.

“Patients tend to trust people who look like them and have similar backgrounds and experiences,” she said.

And social media campaigns play a large role in these efforts if it’s targeted the right way, she said.

Nichols provided these tips: “Provide information and education to dispel myths and misinformation and to educate on vaccines through panel discussions, town halls, media, PSAs, social media, Q&As and pamphlets. The material needs to be multi-lingual, multi-media and at appropriate educational levels."