In many parts of the country, summer looks relatively normal and safe, thanks to wide acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccine. But that’s not the case for areas that have low vaccination coverage. In those areas, cases are rising again. And as an emergency physician still battling Covid-19 in Michigan, I’m often frustrated by the way the news sources my community watches add fuel to these surges.
As an emergency physician still battling Covid-19 in Michigan, I’m often frustrated by the way the news sources my community watches impact its health.
A patient walks in, struggling to breathe, complaining of pains and symptoms consistent with Covid-19. We recommend a test. Sometimes the patient declines, saying they don’t care whether they have a disease that not too long ago was the leading cause of death in the United States. When we suggest patients isolate themselves to prevent Covid-19 from spreading, sometimes they refuse. When we tell some patients and their family of a positive Covid-19 diagnosis, the response we get too many times is anger, outrage or denial. Just a few days ago, an older woman came into our emergency department, refusing to follow hospital policy to wear a mask and flatly refusing — like too many people in our community — to get vaccinated.
I don’t blame my patients for their refusal. What breaks my heart, as someone who took an oath to prevent harm, is that my patients choose to abandon the science and evidence that can save their lives. I do blame Fox News and other right-wing media outlets for poisoning the minds of millions of Americans with the deceptive propaganda they spray into living rooms 24/7.
This isn’t just my experience. As executive director of the Committee to Protect Health Care, an organization of medical professionals across the country, I hear stories like these from members every day.
Doctors and nurses share facts and data. We tell people that the vaccines are safe and effective, that nearly all Covid-19 deaths now are among people who didn’t get vaccinated, that vaccinations can save lives and protect people during the deadliest pandemic the world has faced in more than 100 years. But even as medical professionals like us plead with people to get vaccinated, we see resistance, even hostility, flaring.
The high cost of right-wing Covid-19 denialism hit my community hard during the first surge of this crisis. Now, we’re seeing a new, dangerous anti-vaccine push from these media sources, even as the delta variant threatens communities with low vaccination rates.
Covid-19 came to my rural western Michigan community relatively later than more populated areas. When the news showed packed emergency departments in New York and Detroit in spring 2020 and refrigerated trucks to hold bodies that morgues no longer could, Covid-19 had yet to fully impact our community. Fox News, meanwhile, spent those early months of the pandemic downplayingits seriousness and amplifying former President Donald Trump’s confusing denials.
When the pandemic finally reached us, my small hospital with limited resources and beds was packed for weeks on end with a flood of very sick people. On some days, we had nowhere to put patients and nowhere to send them, because other hospitals were also full. I remember frantically communicating with EMT drivers who crisscrossed Michigan for hours trying to find a hospital with an unoccupied bed.
Then vaccines were authorized for emergency use. My hospital set up community clinics. Our health department offered — and still offers — drive-through vaccinations at fairgrounds and farmers markets. Our community partners, from schools to food banks, spread the word: Get vaccinated. Protect yourself. Protect your loved ones.
Yet our regional vaccination rate is discouraging, with only half of the population fully vaccinated. One predictor of vaccine refusal is Fox News viewership, which is heavily Republican and conservative. Indeed, Fox News is lurching increasingly to the right to win back the Trump voters it has lost to upstart right-wing outlets like Newsmax and One America News Network. Fox hosts’ current line on Covid-19 and vaccines includes wrongly equating vaccine outreach efforts with forced vaccinations and accusing community campaigns — also wrongly — of harvesting private medical information.
Community groups within our conservative stronghold thought they could buck the Fox News narrative and persuade reluctant Republicans to get vaccinated.
Still, community groups within our conservative stronghold thought they could buck the Fox News narrative and persuade reluctant Republicans to get vaccinated. They recruited local Republican leaders to encourage their supporters to get their shots. But instead of getting more people vaccinated, these public servants got death threats. Mask requirements at my hospital used to set people off. Now, vaccinations are triggering shouting matches.
What’s truly tragic is that the disinformation my patients and their families hear from their favorite commentators and pundits is dangerously, life-threateningly wrong. They should listen to their family doctors for medical advice, not Sean Hannity — whom researchers have connected to higher infection rates — or Tucker Carlson, who suggested with zero evidence that Covid-19 vaccines don’t work.
My community’s low vaccination rate comes as more contagious variants circulate and spread among people. Communities that aren’t protected against Covid-19 allow the pathogen to stick around and adapt, potentially mutating to evade vaccines. The coronavirus hasn’t gone away. The pandemic is still with us and still deadly: In my health district, the mortality rate from Covid-19 is still around 1.7 percent, many times deadlier than the flu.
In a few months, summer will end, school will resume and life will return indoors, where Covid-19 can easily spread — again — especially among unprotected people.
Time is not on our side. We must do what science and evidence tell us demonstrably work to defeat Covid-19: Wear a mask, get vaccinated and stop watching Fox News.