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Health Care Workers Say They Have To Fight Both The Coronavirus And Disinformation


Doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 patients aren't just fighting the coronavirus; they're fighting disinformation. People with baseless or disproven ideas about the pandemic are finding platforms to spread them, and that is driving up the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Rachel Cohen from Boise State Public Radio reports from Idaho, where disinformation has been a particular challenge.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: In the last few weeks, Idaho has repeatedly set new records for coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. Doctors like Michaela Schulte at the state's largest hospital system, St. Luke's, predict having to ration care before the end of the year. And yet misinformation about the virus is not subsiding.

MICHAELA SCHULTE: Some of the narratives have persisted and recently actually gained some steam.

COHEN: Schulte and other doctors have pointed to their nearly full hospitals as evidence that elected leaders need to take action to reduce the virus' spread. But they get a lot of pushback from the public, like Tatyana Gray at this city council meeting in Hailey.


TATYANA GRAY: Honestly, we're so sick and tired of St. Luke's sobbing and moaning about misinformation. They're the ones providing misinformation to us. And this council and the mayor - you guys don't work for St. Luke's.

COHEN: Schulte takes comments like these personally.

SCHULTE: They accuse that death certificates are falsified. I fill them out, and I diagnose people. What you're saying, then, is I am no longer trustworthy.

COHEN: Last month Schulte was asked to present a hospital update to a local health board. The room was packed, and many more watched an online broadcast. But the board also invited an independent doctor, one who highlighted disproven treatments for COVID-19 like hydroxychloroquine, and asked board members to question the hospital's data.

SCHULTE: I have been very disappointed that those narratives that usually might stay within certain circles have come into the arena where, usually, we like to trust people.

COHEN: Mistrustful anti-science crowds, often maskless, are airing their grievances at local health board and city council meetings in part because Idaho's Republican Governor Brad Little has largely left COVID-19 restrictions to local authorities. Often-disproven facts go unchecked, or the public is presented with false equivalencies between doctors like Schulte and people who promote disproven narratives. Schulte says she and her colleagues find it incredibly frustrating.

SCHULTE: To a degree, I think it is inflicting almost, like, a moral injury.

COHEN: Professor Michael Wolf studies health messaging and literacy at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. He says contradictory messages about the virus from federal and local authorities have created a space for people to believe what they want, especially if they don't see any immediate threat to themselves.

MICHAEL WOLF: We're in this problem right now where people are not coming together, and they are trying to basically create a storyline that fits for how they want to proceed.

COHEN: Idaho just dedicated $2 million to a new public service campaign featuring a variety of residents talking about the seriousness of COVID-19. But Schulte worries disinformation could have lasting negative effects, like the public's willingness to trust doctors. And she says some of her colleagues are considering whether they want to continue in the field or whether to keep practicing in Idaho. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen in Twin Falls, Idaho.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINAMI DEUTSCH'S "TUNNEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Cohen
Rachel Cohen joined Boise State Public Radio in 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She is the station's Twin Falls-based reporter, covering the Magic Valley and the Wood River Valley.