PHILADELPHIA — In the days since the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was identified, scientists and doctors worldwide have gone into overdrive to research the variant.
At the same time, they’ve also had to scramble to do something else: Explain to the public that it’ll take time until they know how much of a threat omicron could pose — and fight the confusion, misconceptions, and misinformation prompted by this latest turn in the pandemic.
The emergence of the variant, and its sudden takeover of the news cycle, created a new wave of coronavirus misinformation. Some conservatives immediately began circulating conspiracy theories, including hosts and guests on Fox News and Newsmax falsely claiming it was a hoax devised by Democrats.
Misinformation is “effective because in these moments of uncertainty, as humans we’re looking for answers,” said Claire Wardle, director of First Draft, a nonprofit that helps organizations tackle misinformation, and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. “And the data takes a few weeks, whereas the conspiracies are there immediately.”
The vaccines have been effective
Omicron’s existence doesn’t mean that the vaccines didn’t work. The vaccines have been proven effective in preventing illness and extremely effective in preventing severe cases, hospitalization, and death.
But as long as the virus is spreading, it can continue mutating. If everyone were vaccinated, the virus wouldn’t be able to easily spread or mutate, and new variants wouldn’t keep emerging. With less than half the global population fully vaccinated, scientists and doctors have said the emergence of another variant had been inevitable.
“The more unvaccinated people, the more likely variants like omicron can take hold in the community,” said Rosemarie Halt, Delaware County’s COVID-19 task force director and chair of its board of health.
That’s one key reason why doctors and scientists have pushed vaccination — and this week, they said it is also the best tool available against omicron until more is known. (The vaccines also continue to protect against delta, which still makes up 99 percent of cases in the country.)
And despite misinformation popping up on Facebook or WhatsApp, some may heed public health officials’ messages — about 30 percent of unvaccinated people said they would consider getting vaccinated because of omicron, a new Morning Consult poll found.
Though omicron is worrisome to researchers because it has many more mutations than previous variants, it’s not yet known whether it is more dangerous. On Thursday, a World Health Organization official said the vaccines were likely to protect against the variant, though scientists still need to find out how much, if at all, protection is lessened.
In the Philadelphia region and elsewhere, officials have told the public not to panic if they’re vaccinated and stressed the importance of getting boosted.
“It is doubtful that the omicron variant would evade the vaccine — at worst, it may be a bit less effective, but this still remains to be seen,” Montgomery County medical director Richard Lorraine said, noting data remained limited about the strain’s severity and transmissibility.
The constantly evolving nature of the pandemic, the lack of a robust public understanding of science, and the fear that has gripped the world for 20 months all make people more vulnerable to misinformation, experts said. That’s exacerbated whenever the pandemic’s course changes and plunges everyone back into the unknown.
“When there’s a vacuum, that’s when misinformation flourishes,” Wardle said.
Even if many don’t believe the misinformation they see on social media, in a group text, or on TV, it can cause an increasing sense of uncertainty, said Katherine Ognyanova, a Rutgers University communications professor who researches misinformation and political mistrust.
And repeated exposure to misinformation can particularly affect populations that are already more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated, she said. These include people in Black and brown communities, which have historically been mistreated by health-care professionals, and parents, who naturally worry about their children.
“They aren’t sure what to believe,” Ognyanova said. “We still have a lot of people who don’t know if they’re eligible [for boosters] or don’t know if they need it or aren’t sure it’s effective or are worrying about side effects or parents who are worried about their kids.”
That’s why Ognyanova is most concerned by misinformation that downplays the seriousness of the virus and could influence people to avoid the vaccine or not take preventive measures, such as masking.
Wardle, too, said the effects of pandemic misinformation could hinder the public health response if omicron turns out to be dangerous, potentially making it difficult for officials to get people to return to wearing masks or social distancing.
There were signs Thursday that U.S. officials were prepared for that possibility. Though President Joe Biden said he did not yet believe additional mitigation measures would be needed, he extended the existing mask mandate on planes, trains, and buses, and his press secretary said nothing was off the table as the situation evolves.
“That’s what worries me about the next couple of months,” Wardle said.
The conspiracies that have cropped up around omicron aren’t new, experts said, and are rooted in the same political motivation that has been exhibited throughout the pandemic.
Misinformation “seems to be heavily spreading based on political affiliation,” with middle-aged Republicans most susceptible, Ognyanova said.
The political divide has real-world effects: In the United States, 59 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, but a significant partisan divide persists. Republicans made up 60 percent of those who are unvaccinated, while Democrats made up 17 percent as of October, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.
And the gap between Republicans and Democrats in how likely they are to get vaccinated is a bigger gap than that between any other demographics, including race, education, age, and rural-vs.-urban, the researchers found.
That means more Republicans are vulnerable to catching the virus, including any variant. They’re also more vulnerable to false claims that the pandemic is being exaggerated, with unvaccinated Republicans more likely to believe that than vaccinated ones, KFF found.
With omicron, “it’s unfortunate, but probably a predictable kind of thing that we could have expected,” Ognyanova said.
This presents an ongoing challenge for public health leaders as they look to reach people who have still not gotten vaccinated seven months into the broad rollout.
Visiting a vaccine clinic in West Chester on Thursday, Chester County health director Jeanne Franklin urged the 22 percent of eligible county residents who still need shots not to make decisions out of “fear, or suspicion, or based on myths.”
“We’ve all seen the misinformation, the disinformation throughout this pandemic, and with the vaccines, it’s no different,” she said. “Take the time to get the information. Get it from a trusted resource. We’re not relying on social media. We’re not relying on myths or an obscure exception to the norm.”
Story by Justine McDaniel and Erin McCarthy, The Philadelphia Inquirer.