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Health & Science

Misinformation Spread By Anti-Science Groups Endangers COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In some parts of the country, the biggest challenge surrounding the coronavirus vaccine won't be distributing it, it'll be convincing people to take it. Anti-science groups and politicians are spreading misinformation about the safety of the new vaccines. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports from Idaho, a state with one of the nation's highest immunization opt-out rates.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Since the start of the pandemic, far-right extremist groups have protested rules and closures imposed for public health safety reasons. Sometimes armed, they've openly flouted mask ordinances in the few cities here that have them.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Let us in. Let us in. Let us in.

SIEGLER: Protesters in Boise chanting let us in outside a public health board meeting this month as Idaho dealt with one of the worst COVID outbreaks in the country. In newspaper editorials and on local TV news, doctors here are warning this backlash toward medical professionals is worsening, and conspiracy theories are spreading. This is the backdrop as the first vaccines arrive in Idaho. Sarah Leads is in charge of vaccine distribution in the state.

SARAH LEEDS: The challenge with dealing with misinformation is that it's very reactive. It's hard to predict what's going to come out next.

SIEGLER: So the State Health Department is holding weekly meetings on Facebook about the efficacy of vaccines, among other things, and so far, no disruptions. Leeds says the government carefully crafts messaging stressing their safety and effectiveness, but it's almost impossible to keep up with social media, where anything goes.

LEEDS: It's so easy for anti-vaccine groups and individuals to post misinformation and throw a few scientific-sounding terms into an article that folks can believe.

SIEGLER: But this was a common thread in Idaho long before the pandemic, so public health officials here have a lot of practice methods of combating misinformation. Leeds says even the most responsive and innovative education isn't going to change some people's minds.

LEEDS: It's those hesitant people who maybe are listening to a family member and, you know, not sure what the data actually is, but are listening to a family member who sounds like a good authority. I think those are the people that we can really impact.

SIEGLER: But public health officials in conservative states like this say their work is being made even harder by the conflicting signals being sent by President Trump and his allies. Last week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson sowed doubt about the vaccines on his show the night before Vice President Mike Pence was to get his on live TV. Here in the rural northwest, prominent far-right figures on talk radio and websites that had already mask protests are pivoting to vaccines.

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SPIRO SKOURIS: Now the media and politicians would like you to believe that things will go back to normal if you just simply comply.

SIEGLER: This is commentator Spiro Skouris in a post on Redoubt News. The Redoubt is a loose movement that encourages people to relocate to Idaho, in part due to its libertarian vaccination laws.

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SKOURIS: I'd like to clarify right now that I'm not a doctor. I'm not a scientist. I'm not...

SIEGLER: Most scientists and doctors are hoping these contrarian voices are a small minority, though they may have an outsized megaphone.

CHRIS TRAMP: And I think it probably is. I'd like to believe that.

SIEGLER: Chris Tramp is a family practice doctor in rural Sabetha, Kan. His strategy is to meet people where they are. If they're worried or skeptical about the vaccine, he says he tries to get to the bottom of why that is and then give them the best information he can, including that he was one of the first in his small town to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

TRAMP: One thing that I'm really going to be preaching to people is kind of the message of you're crazy if you don't take it. And what I mean by that is the vaccine so far is looking so very efficacious.

SIEGLER: But for now, Dr. Tramp says battling misinformation is just one more headache medical professionals are confronting in this very long, exhausting year.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.