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Have COVID-19 falsehoods reached crisis level in Clark County?

Updated September 16, 2021 - 7:43 pm

Clark County lawmakers will consider formally taking on a potential crisis that has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic: misinformation.

The county commission is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to declare COVID-19 misinformation a public health crisis that has fueled public mistrust and prolonged the pandemic by undermining efforts to combat the spread of the disease, according to a proposed resolution.

“We’ve certainly seen across the country, but certainly right here in Nevada, what misinformation about the vaccines and the masks has resulted in,” said Commissioner Justin Jones, who is recommending the county adopt the resolution.

If it decides that dubious claims about COVID-19 have reached a crisis level, the county will become one of few governments in the nation thus far to do so, following San Diego County, which was first to label misinformation a public health crisis late last month.

The possibility that the county will formally wage a campaign against the spread of misinformation comes amid efforts already underway: The county has livestreamed conversations with health officials, for instance, and deployed messaging on social media.

But while more than 1.1 million people are fully vaccinated countywide, the figure only represents 56 percent of the eligible population aged 12 years and older, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.

“I don’t think that there’s any doubt that it is misinformation” that has dissuaded more people from getting vaccinated, Jones said.

Falsehoods and conspiracy theories

Public meetings have recently turned into tense forums for people to air criticisms of vaccines, face masks and public health decrees. Grievances have generally challenged public policy and scientific opinion while sometimes devolving into conspiracy theories.

When commissioners called an emergency meeting on July 20 to consider measures to reverse a rising COVID-19 positivity rate, more than three dozen people showed up to address the board. Many feared another devastating shutdown, although lawmakers ultimately required all workers in the county to wear face masks.

Critics disputed the efficacy and safety of masks and vaccines, alleged the pandemic was a hoax, vouched for unproven treatments and accused officials of skewing COVID-19 data.

Jones said that county officials have also been accused of being pawns for Bill Gates and he has heard other “plainly ridiculous” conspiracy theories such as that microchips were being injected into the vaccinated.

One woman during that July meeting claimed the pandemic was a “biologic cyber war investigated by a large group of eugenicists involved in massive depopulation agenda.”

Bad information a threat

On July 15, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy warned Americans that health misinformation threatened the nation’s response to the pandemic. Two-thirds of unvaccinated adults by late May had heard at least one COVID-19 vaccine myth, and were either convinced it was true or unsure, according to Murthy’s advisory, citing findings by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

He called upon technology and social media companies to do more to prevent health misinformation from spreading online.

With the resolution, Jones said that county efforts will continue to focus on people who are hesitant but can also be persuaded to get vaccinated, recognizing that there is a segment of the population that will not be responsive to any amount of messaging.

“I think it’s always difficult to cut through the noise,” Jones said.

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter.

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