May 8, 2020

Health care workers on the frontlines of America's new coronavirus epidemic are being bombarded with conspiracy theories regarding the crisis—both inside and outside of the hospital. Here's how some providers are combating the theories and coping with the added stress they can cause.

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Providers inundated with coronavirus conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories surrounding the new coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, have permeated social media and the news cycle for months—ranging from bogus claims that 5G towers cause Covid-19 to false theories that Bill Gates "patented" the novel coronavirus, NBC News reports.

But now, NBC News reports that some health care workers are reporting being harassed by coronavirus conspiracy theorists, sometimes after working long shifts at the hospital treating patients with Covid-19.

For example, Hadi Halazun, a cardiologist in New York, said he would sometimes open Facebook and find posts from conspiracy theorists claiming that "no one's dying" from Covid-19 and that the country's coronavirus epidemic is "fake news." Some posters even questioned whether Halazun is a real doctor, he said.

"I told them: 'I am a real doctor. There are 200 people in my hospital's ICU.' And they said, 'Give me your credentials.' I engaged with them, and they kicked me off their [Facebook] wall," he said. "I left work and I felt so deflated. I let it get to me."

Halazun said dealing with harassment from conspiracy theorists has been the "second most painful thing [he's] had to deal with" during the epidemic, "other than separation of families from their loved one[s]." He said, "It scares me more than anything that there are people who are basically controlled" by conspiracy theories posted online "and they don't realize it."

Eric Sartori, a nurse at a community hospital in Arizona, said some social media users have sent him "horrible things," insisting that the epidemic is a hoax. Sartori said one user even told him he "should die."

"We're feeling personally attacked," Sartori said.

Conspiracy theories are taking a toll on patients' health

Providers have said the spread of conspiracy theories regarding the new coronavirus are beginning to take a toll on patients' health and can be seen in EDs throughout the country. For instance, some doctors have reported treating patients who waited too long to seek care or who turned to dangerous alternatives to care because of conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus.

Duncan Maru, a physician and epidemiologist in New York, said one patient arrived to the ED with damage to his intestinal tract after drinking bleach, which some conspiracy theorists have wrongfully touted as a possible way to treat the new coronavirus. "Folks delaying seeking care or, taking the most extreme case, somebody drinking bleach … just underlines the fact that we have not protected the public from disinformation," Maru said.

Nicole Swiers, a nurse in Minnesota, said if the conspiracy theories persist, they could have a long-term impact on the way people seek care.

"People went from 'Please tell me if I need to take my kid to the doctor or not' to believing that I'm lying about shortages of [personal protective equipment] or patient load," Swiers said. "The problem is that if you don't trust your health care provider, you're not going to seek medical attention. This really is so much bigger than just the coronavirus."

How providers are confronting conspiracy theories

Although clinicians are consistently ranked as some of the most trusted professionals in the country, they now have to find ways to deal with conspiracy theories that challenge their first-hand experiences with the new coronavirus.

"Never have I felt that distrust until recently," Swiers said.

Some providers are using social media to speak out and try to quell conspiracy theories regarding the new coronavirus and Covid-19.

Sartori turned to Facebook to explain how the conspiracy theories harm health care workers on the frontlines of the epidemic.

"While we're busy working to save people's lives we're also growing really concerned about the conspiracy [theories]" that seem to "become a bigger problem than [Covid-19]," he wrote in a now-viral Facebook post. "We don't have time while we're working to save lives to also be on social media explaining, with the depth of knowledge most of us have acquired over years and decades, how to understand with scrutiny the science of everything that's happening right now and why the science is so important," he continued.

But Sartori said the post, which has been shared about 27,000 times, has made him a target of even more conspiracy theorists. "I've had people asking me if I'm paid by Bill Gates. They think I'm a crisis actor," he said. "It shows me how easily people can be manipulated."

Other providers are turning away from social media entirely to avoid the added stress of dealing with conspiracy theorists when possible.

Halazun, for instance, said he no longer engages with Facebook users who claim that "hospitals are empty" or that the new coronavirus was created by the government in a ploy to microchip or vaccinate Americans.

"We're limited in our emotional capacity," and "I'm not going to spend whatever I have left after a long day of work trying to convince a conspiracy theorist," Halazun said. "They're immune to any evidence. You're not going to change their mind" (Collins, NBC News, 5/6; Silverman, Buzzfeed News, 4/28).

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