|New York Times|
|August 17th, 2020|
An emergency room doctor in Illinois was accused in April of profiting from naming coronavirus as the cause of a patient’s death, a rumor spreading online.
An internist in New York treated a vomiting patient in May who drank a bleach mixture as part of a fake virus cure found on YouTube.
And in June a paramedic in Britain aided a clearly sick man who had refused to go to a hospital after reading misleading warnings about poor coronavirus treatment on social media.
Doctors on the front lines of the global pandemic say they are fighting not just the coronavirus, but also increasingly combating a never-ending scourge of misinformation about the disease that is hurting patients.
Last week, researchers said that at least 800 people worldwide died in the first three months of the year, and thousands more were hospitalized, from unfounded claims online that ingesting highly concentrated alcohol would kill the virus. Their findings, based on studying rumors circulating on the web, were published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
Dr. Howard Mell, an emergency room physician in an Illinois suburb of St. Louis, said the wife of a man who had died from the coronavirus in April accused him of falsely filling out the death certificate to make more money for himself. He explained that the form was accurate and that his pay was not based on the cause of death.
“She yelled, ‘We’ve seen online how you guys get more money,’” Dr. Mell said.
Since then, the situation has not improved, he said. Several times per week, he meets someone who believes false medical information that was discovered online.
“It has absolutely become a job unto itself,” said Dr. Mell, who is also a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, a group representing E.R. doctors.
Some doctors say they get into arguments with patients who demand prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, the unproven drug championed by Mr. Trump. At some hospitals, people have arrived asking for a doctor’s note so they do not have to wear a mask at work because they believe it will harm their oxygen levels, another online rumor.
“Now the numbers have picked way back up again, and I feel a lot has to do with things on social media, like this isn’t a big deal and we don’t have to take all these steps,” said Dr. David Welsh, a surgeon in Indiana who has treated coronavirus patients, referring to a recent infection surge in his area.
“We have been aggressive in both removing harmful false claims and directing people to authoritative information,” Facebook said in a statement. The company, which held a call with doctors in June to hear their concerns, said it had removed more than seven million pieces of virus misinformation, and added warning labels to millions more.
YouTube said it was “committed to providing timely and helpful information around Covid-19” and had removed more than 200,000 dangerous or misleading videos.
But untrue information continues to spread. Last month, a video from a group of people calling themselves America’s Frontline Doctors was viewed millions of times. It shared misleading claims about the virus, including that hydroxychloroquine is an effective coronavirus treatment and that masks do not slow the spread of the virus.
The scale of the problem led last month to a British parliamentary report that added to calls in the country for tougher laws against the largest social media platforms, like Facebook and YouTube.
Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Kentucky, said a number of sick patients had waited until it was nearly too late to visit a hospital because they were convinced by what they had read online that Covid-19 was fake or “no big deal.”
“They thought it was just a ploy, a sham, a conspiracy,” Dr. Stanton recalled. “It just blew my mind that you can put these blinders on and ignore the facts.”
“I’ve never personally encountered such a strong, consistent — and so clearly coordinated from somewhere — collective of people so entrenched in their false beliefs,” Mr. Knowles said.
Some doctors in cities like New York said the volume of patients believing misinformation had declined as the disease swept their area. But, they said, it remained a troubling trend.
Dr. Parinda Warikarn, who works at Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York, said the patient who had ingested bleach after seeing the bogus treatment on YouTube came into the hospital with severe abdominal pain.
“He clearly really believed that he was going to prevent Covid,” she said. “Luckily, his wife and two young children didn’t take this solution.”
A growing fear is that vaccine conspiracy theories could undermine eventual vaccination efforts, said Dr. John Wright from the Bradford Institute for Health Research in England.
Dr. Wright recalled that Congolese immigrants believed a social media rumor that Covid-19 was a government trick to deport them, and that others, from the Indian community, cited posts about doctors intentionally infecting patients. A nurse at the hospital complained to Facebook about people posting names and pictures of health workers accusing them of leaving patients to die.
Dr. Mell, the physician in Illinois, encounters regular abuse from Facebook users when he has pushed back on false information. But he believes the effort is necessary to keep falsehoods from spreading.
“Doctors have to continue to speak the truth as loudly as we can,” he said. “People need to hear it.”