'We all need to talk soberly about this': Dr. Steven Hanks on combatting COVID-19, vaccine misinformation

Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the U.S. since the pandemic began.

The misinformation, often shared on social media or in conversation with family and friends, ranges from the origins of the virus to the efficacy of masks, risk of infection and potential vaccines. Steven Hanks, MD, chief clinical officer of Albany, N.Y.-based St. Peter's Health Partners shared his perspective on misinformation and what his health system is doing to communicate accurate information about the virus during the Becker's Clinical Leadership Virtual Event on Aug. 9.

Here is an excerpt from the conversation. Click here to view the entire fireside chat.

Note: responses are lightly edited for clarity and length.

Question: What is the most common misinformation you're hearing from the public about COVID-19? What are the most common non-coronavirus-related misconceptions or factual inaccuracies you hear from patients?

Dr. Steven Hanks: There's really two categories where I see a lot of misinformation and confusion. The first is around the transmission risk, as well as how it's transmitted. The second is around perceptions about vaccination and/or treatments. To talk about the first category, transmission risks, we're finding a large number of people who believe because they're young, or maybe they're perceived to be healthy or they're thin, so they feel that somehow they're not at risk or if they catch it, it's going to be no worse than a bad cold and so what's the big deal.

Another misconception about transmission is how the virus spreads. Do you catch it from touching something? Is outdoors safe? We hear a lot of people saying, 'Well, I'm outdoors. I don't have to worry because this is a virus that you catch when you're indoors, in a crowded space.' Although it's true that the virus has a higher risk of transmission indoors, in closed, less well-ventilated spaces, the reality is we believe that this virus can be transmitted even outside. There's nothing mysterious about the outdoors that totally protects people.

There's also misinformation related to the whole concept of masks. We're seeing extremes here. On the one hand, we see people who feel that: 'Well, a mask doesn't really do anything. I don't need to wear a mask.' At the opposite end are people who have any kind of face covering and they think they're 100 percent protected and that somehow that means they don't need to physically distance or avoid crowds. They think somehow the mask gives them complete protection against the virus, which we know isn't the case. Even when you're doing all of those things, there's still risk of COVID transmission, even when people have proper face coverings on.

Getting onto the second category, as it relates to vaccination and treatment, there's a lot of misconceptions. The biggest misconception, I fear, related to vaccination is this expectation that the vaccine is right around the corner. Although that may actually be the case, and it would be miraculous if it did indeed happen, we've never had an effort like this. It's really a moonshot that's going on, in terms of the pace of vaccine development here, worldwide. But even if one of these vaccines is proven to be safe and effective, there's the whole logistics of delivering vaccine to an entire population at risk. That is an enormous effort. I fear that there's a big portion of the populace that says, 'You know what? We're going to have a vaccine by fall, or at the worst, by winter. We'll be good to go for Christmas time.'

It's not like that Pfizer announces, 'Hey, we have a vaccine — it's safe. The FDA is going to approve it. Tomorrow, I can drive to CVS and get a shot.' It's just not going to work that way. It's going to take a very long time and be rolled out in phases. It's going to be prioritized according to risk and need. I fear there's a lot of misconceptions about, 'This is right around the corner. We're going to be out of the woods.' People are already making their ski vacation plans under the misguided belief that they're going to have a shot, and they're going to be able to do what they want, come February or March.

Q: What are you planning to do differently to more widely spread accurate information in the future?

SH: We're using multiple modalities of communication. You have to do that these days because different generations use communication vehicles differently. The message, as well as the medium, has to be tailored for various audiences. We have a big problem now with young people feeling like they have little risk. We're seeing the outbreaks now because of the bars having reopened in many of the states and college students are returning to congregant living settings. The fear is that we're going to get a second spike in the fall fueled by people going back indoors and people getting together again. We need to consistently message the need to remain vigilant, to continue masking, to continue physical distancing, limiting large gatherings to certain numbers. The biggest message is: if you're not feeling well, you need to be staying home.

We need to move beyond the old days when it was seen as a badge of honor that you came into work sick. It just seems so ridiculous now that we would tolerate that sort of behavior over the years. Shame on us for doing so. I hope it doesn't go back. I hope going forward, when somebody gets sick, even though it may only be a common cold, stay home and don't come in and give it to their coworkers, or God forbid the patients that they're caring for. But we need to stay on message because even though the data that's been coming forward from some of the phase 2, and now we're into phase 3 trials of some of these vaccines, is reportedly very promising, we do not know when a vaccine is going to be available.

We do not know, once it is available, how long it's going to take to scale up production. Then, how long it's going to take, to effectively deploy the vaccine. We do know it's not going to be overnight. What I fear is pandemic fatigue is already setting in. People are already making presumptions about, 'Oh, this is going to be over soon. The vaccines right around the corner. After the election, all will be good and by early winter, by the time the Superbowl is played, the stands will be full again and we won't have anything to worry about.' We're setting people up for really a big disappointment if that's really the way they're thinking. We owe it to the public to talk straight about this and say, 'It'd be great if that were the outcome, but that's not the likely outcome.'

This is likely going to drag on. We just have to make our peace with it. It's going to be important to maintain vigilance…I think the messaging needs to be continuous. It needs to be consistent. It needs to be multimodal, multigenerational, and it needs to come from multiple places, so the CDC, our political leaders, our healthcare leaders. We all need to talk soberly about this.

More articles on clinical quality:
HHS will permit pharmacists to give COVID-19 vaccines, surgeon general says: 4 pandemic updates
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Disinfecting hospitals during COVID-19 – we were built for this moment

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