Los Angeles ER nurse Sandra Younan has spent the past year juggling long hours as she watched many patients battle coronavirus and some die.
Then there were the patients who claimed the virus was fake or were coughing up his face, ignoring the rules of the masks. A man stormed out of the hospital after a positive COVID-19 test, refusing to believe it was accurate.
“You have patients who are literally dying, and then you have patients who deny disease,” he said. “You try to educate and you try to educate, but then you just hit a wall.”
False claims about the virus, masks and vaccines have skyrocketed since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic a year ago. Journalists, public health officials and technology companies have tried to dismiss the falsehoods, but much of the work of correcting misinformation has fallen to the world’s front-line medical workers.
In Germany, a video clip showing a nurse using an empty syringe while practicing vaccinations traveled widely online as alleged evidence that COVID-19 is false. Doctors in Afghanistan reported that patients were telling them that COVID-19 was created by the US and China to reduce the world’s population. In Bolivia, medical workers had to care for five people who ingested a toxic bleaching agent that is falsely touted as a cure for COVID-19.
Younan, 27, says her friends used to describe her as the “coldest person ever,” but now she faces overwhelming anxiety.
“My life is being a nurse, so I don’t care if you’re really sick, if you throw me up, whatever,” Younan said. “But when you know that what you are doing is wrong, and I repeatedly ask you to please wear your mask to protect me, and you are not doing it yet, it is as if you have no consideration for anyone but yourself. And that is why this virus is spreading. It just makes you lose hope. “
Emily Scott, 36, who resides in a Seattle hospital, has served medical missions around the world and helped care for America’s first COVID-19 patient last year. She was selected for her experience working in Sierra Leone during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.
While many Americans were terrified of Ebola, a disease that is not as contagious as coronavirus and poses little threat in the US, they are not afraid of COVID-19 enough, he said.
Scott blames a few factors: the terrifying symptoms of Ebola, racism against Africans, and the politicization of COVID-19 by US elected officials.
“I felt much safer in Sierra Leone during Ebola than I did at the beginning of this outbreak in the US,” Scott said, due to the number of people who did not pay attention to social distancing and masking directives. “Things that are facts and science have become politicized.”
Emergency nurse L’Erin Ogle has heard a litany of false claims about the virus while working at a hospital in suburban Kansas City, Kansas. They include: The virus is no worse than the flu.. It is caused by 5G wireless towers. Masks won’t help and can hurt. Or, the most painful thing for her: the virus is not real and the doctors and nurses are involved in a vast global conspiracy to hide the truth.
“It feels so defeating, and it makes you wonder: Why am I doing this?” said Ogle, 40.
Nurses are often the healthcare providers with the most contact with patients, and patients often view nurses as the most approachable, according to Professor Maria Brann, an expert in health communication at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. That means nurses are more likely to encounter patients spreading misinformation, giving them a special opportunity to intervene.
“Nurses have always stood up for patients, but this pandemic has affected them much more,” Brann said. “It can definitely take its toll. This is not necessarily what they signed up for. “
In some cases, it is nurses and other healthcare workers who spread misinformation. And many nurses say they find falsehoods about the coronavirus vaccine in their own families.
For Brenda Olmos, 31, a nurse practitioner in Austin, Texas, who focuses on a population of geriatric and Hispanic patients, it was a no-brainer to get the vaccine. But first she had to argue with her parents, who had heard unsubstantiated claims that the injection would cause infertility. and Bell’s palsy on television shows in Spanish.
Olmos eventually convinced her parents to get vaccinated as well, but she is concerned about vaccinations in her community.
When he recently came across an elderly patient with cancerous tumors, Olmos knew that the growths had taken years to develop. But the adult sons of the man who had recently been vaccinated insisted the two were related.
“To them, it just seemed like a coincidence,” Olmos said. “I just wanted them not to be at fault.”
Olmos said the real problem with misinformation isn’t just bad actors spreading lies, it’s people who believe false claims because they’re not as comfortable navigating often complex medical findings.
“Low health literacy is the real pandemic,” he said. “As healthcare providers, we have a duty to deliver information in a way that is acceptable and easy to understand, so that people don’t consume misinformation because they can’t digest the real data.”
When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state mask mandate This month, against the guidance of many scientists, Nurse Practitioner Guillermo Carnegie called the decision “spit in the face.”
“I was upset,” said Carnegie, 34, of Temple, Texas. “This governor, and different people, they act like, ‘Oh, we are proud of our front-line workers, we support them.’ But then they do something like that, and that weighs heavily on the medical field. “
Brian Southwell, who started a program at Duke University School of Medicine to train medical professionals on how to talk to misinformed patients, said providers need to see patient trust as an opportunity.
“That patient trusts you enough to give him that information,” Southwell said. “And that’s a good thing, even if you don’t agree.”
He said medical workers should resist going into “academic argumentation mode” and instead find out why patients have certain beliefs and whether they might be open to other ideas.
That act of listening is imperative to building trust, according to Dr. Seema Yasmin, a physician, journalist and professor at Stanford University who studies medical misinformation.
“Put down your pen, put down your notebook and listen,” Yasmin said.
Associated Press journalist John Leicester in Le Pecq, France, contributed to this report.
More PA Coverage of the First Year of the Pandemic: Pandemic: One Year