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Viewers beware: 'A perfect storm' of pandemic misinformation

Tom Hauser
Updated: August 13, 2020 10:20 PM
Created: August 13, 2020 06:38 PM

If it seems like there's a new recommendation or scientific study about the coronavirus every day, you're right. You're also right if it seems like much of what you hear one day is contradicted the next day.

"It's a perfect storm of pandemic misinformation," said Gary Schwitzer, founder of the website HealthNewsReview.org.

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Schwitzer worked in health care journalism and various communication roles for over 45 years. He tried to retire from his website a year or two ago, but then the pandemic happened. He's now back blogging about health care news from TV stations, newspapers along with information put out by hospitals and researchers.

"It's so outdated to talk about a 24-hour news cycle," he said. "It's now like a 24-second news cycle."

It's hard for him to keep up with as a professional. So the average news consumer has an even tougher time.

Take the face mask issues, for instance. On March 8, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on a popular national TV broadcast people should not wear masks.

"Right now, in the United States people should not be walking around in masks," he told "60 Minutes." "When you're in the middle of an outbreak wearing a mask might make people feel a little bit better and it might even block a droplet but it's not providing the perfect protection people think that it is."

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Just 26 days later, Fauci, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization all changed their recommendation and urged people to start wearing masks.

In a recent interview with 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams explained why the mask advice changed so quickly in a short period of time. He once tweeted "Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus..."

Just over a month later, he and other health care experts began recommending masks.

"For the novel coronavirus, up to 50 percent of people who are spreading it do not know they are sick," Adams said. "You can't tell by looking at them. Once we got that data, that's when we changed our recommendation to tell people you should wear a face covering."

Schwitzer said the mask issue is complicated because it's hard to conduct peer-reviewed, control group studies about masks in the middle of a pandemic.

"I'm a little less critical or aggressive in my commentary about changing recommendations on the masks because how quickly this all came on the scene," Schwitzer said, including "how new this virus was and how little we still know about it."

He's less charitable when it comes to the daily reports of "wonder drugs" to fight COVID-19 or the constantly changing opinions about when a vaccine or vaccines might be available.

"I think it doesn't take much of a Google search to show you how many times recommendations from the World Health Organization and CDC have been called into question and with good reason in the past six months," Schwitzer said.

The same goes for the drumbeat of scientific studies that seem to be rushed into the news stream, often by drug companies or others with a vested interest.

"Science better not try to meet and match, whether it's the 24-hour news cycle or the 24-second news cycle of today, because that's not how science works," Schwitzer said of the demand for positive news about the coronavirus.

Schwitzer urged all news consumers to be skeptical and dig deeper before getting hopes up.

"The old journalism saw we all have learned if your mother tells you she loves you get another opinion, get another opinion, check it out," he said. "Well, in this era you better do that over and over two and three and four times. If you hear something in this pandemic era projected with certainty your antennae better go up because so little is certain."


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