COVID-19 Misinformation Turns Attention to Public Health Messaging

COVID-19 Misinformation Turns Attention to Public Health Messaging

One in three US adults used some sort of chemical disinfectant unsafely as a measure to protect against COVID-19, according to new figures from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. This outlines serious public health messaging and patient education pitfalls, as well as the broad spread of COVID-19 misinformation.


Following up on data outlining a spike in calls to poison control centers, the CDC surveyed 502 US adults about their knowledge of household cleaning best practices as part of COVID-19 prevention and intervention. The survey identified a number of knowledge gaps, CDC said, suggesting areas where public health messaging and education may be fortified.


Perhaps most notably, 39 percent of respondents said they engaged in at least one high-risk practice with household cleaning products. Those practices included washing food products with bleach, applying household cleaning or disinfectant products to bare skin, and intentionally inhaling or ingesting these products, CDC said.


What’s more, 25 percent of individuals who reported they engaged in an unsafe practice involving household cleaning products were likely to report an adverse health impact as a result. Those impacts include:


  • Nose or sinus irritation (11 percent)
  • Skin irritation (8 percent)
  • Eye irritation (8 percent)
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or headache (8 percent)
  • Upset stomach or nausea (6 percent)
  • Breathing problems (6 percent)


“These practices pose a risk of severe tissue damage and corrosive injury and should be strictly avoided,” CDC wrote in the report summary.


“Although adverse health effects reported by respondents could not be attributed to their engaging in high-risk practices, the association between these high-risk practices and reported adverse health effects indicates a need for public messaging regarding safe and effective cleaning and disinfection practices aimed at preventing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in households.”


The survey also looked at how well the US public understands proper household cleaning and disinfecting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fifty-one percent said they strongly agreed and 31 percent said they somewhat agreed that they knew how to clean their homes in such a way that it would prevent COVID-19 spread.


However, knowledge gaps still remained. For example, many patients did not know to keep hand sanitizer out of the reach of children or that they should not mix ammonia or vinegar with bleach. Respondents reported better mastery of personal protective measures, such as using gloves, needed when cleaning the home with bleach and other powerful disinfectants.


These results paint a poor picture of public health education and messaging, the researchers said.


“Public messaging should continue to emphasize evidence-based, safe practices such as hand hygiene and recommended cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in household settings,” the team asserted. “Messaging should also emphasize avoidance of high-risk practices such as unsafe preparation of cleaning and disinfectant solutions, use of bleach on food products, application of household cleaning and disinfectant products to skin, and inhalation or ingestion of cleaners and disinfectants.”


Although most of the CDC respondents said they got their information from traditionally revered public health sources — 65 percent trust the CDC, 49 percent trust state and local governments, and 48 trust medical professionals for COVID-19 information — attention must still be paid to other areas in which misinformation spreads.


Separate reports have looked at social media websites as the main culprits for the misinformation epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic.


One study conducted during the early aughts of the coronavirus pandemic concluded that COVID-19 information is being spread via social media “at an alarming rate.”


Research published in Cureus looked at 673 Tweets using 14 of the most popular COVID-19 hashtags. The team analyzed each Tweet using peer-reviewed medical recommendations to assess whether the Tweet was spreading misinformation.


Just under 25 percent of those Tweets contained misinformation, while 17 percent included unverifiable information. The number of Likes or Retweets a Tweet received was not associated with the presence of false information.


A separate study from Georgetown University, the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Minnesota found slightly more encouraging patterns. While the number of Tweets sharing highly-credible links were not in high volume, neither were Tweets sharing links to sources that are widely recognized as not being credible.


Additionally, Tweets propagating agreed-upon COVID-19 myths were also in small volume.


However, the researchers admitted that they used simple text analyses, both because of the volume of data investigated and in the interest of time. Future analysis will look further at the text of certain Tweets and at a broader set of COVID-19 myths, the researchers said. There is the chance the researchers missed some Tweets that spread false information, the team stated.


To that end, public health and patient education experts may look at how they can augment social media websites to address spreading misinformation.


One study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, used two experiments to look at both why people spread misinformation on Twitter and how it may be stopped.


The first analysis found that individuals likely spread false information on Twitter because they do not think about the accuracy of the Twitter message. Study participants were less able to parse through true and false statements when considering a Retweet, compared to when they were actively prompted to consider the accuracy of the Tweet.


A second assessment looked at the efficacy of a nudge pushing individuals to consider the accuracy of a Tweet. The nudge resulted in a considerable drop in sharing of misinformation.


These considerations come as the healthcare industry grapples with the idea of public health information during COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, Twitter and other social media served as key platforms on which medical information spread. Public health organizations themselves use these platforms to spread their own patient education messages.


As the pandemic becomes a normal part of life, healthcare organizations must consider the power that social media has had on patient education. Keeping a well-informed patient population will be essential to safely keeping a cap on virus spread. Acknowledging that social media can breed misinformation, and putting in place adequate patient education and messaging to combat misinformation, will be essential moving forward.





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