As 9 out of 10 U.S. children remain unvaccinated, Surgeon General pushes back against misinformation

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As the more transmissible delta variant fuels a wave of new COVID-19 cases, especially among younger, unvaccinated populations, nine out of 10 children in the U.S. remain unvaccinated, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children ages 12 to 17 are currently eligible to get a shot, and fewer than 9 million U.S. adolescents (less than half of that age group) have been vaccinated so far.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Thursday in reaction to misinformation that continues to erode the number of new vaccinations. He noted that an advisory is typically reserved for urgent public health threats “often linked to what we eat, drink and smoke.” But bad information, especially what’s been shared on social media, has spread false claims and sowed doubt about masks and social distancing, treatments and vaccines. As a result, Murthy said, misinformation has contributed to stifling more widespread adoption of vaccines, leaving millions of Americans, — many of them children — vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and even death.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

While children are less likely than adults to get severely ill, there’s another important reason to staunch the spread of COVID-19. Public health experts fear that the more the virus spreads among the unvaccinated, the more chance that variants could mutate and unravel progress made against the pandemic in pockets of the country where the vaccination rate remains dangerously low.

The Biden administration is urging social media companies to take more aggressive actions to slow the spreading infodemic, which has fed the ongoing public health crisis. Murthy urged individuals to pause and check if a story’s sources are credible before one shares. “When it comes to misinformation, not sharing is caring,” Murthy said. At the same time, the White House welcomed pop star Olivia Rodrigo on Wednesday to record messages about trusting the vaccine to share with her Instagram followers.

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Chart by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour

Conservative media outlets have perpetuated the misinformation that COVID-19 is not a serious illness in younger people, that the vaccines are more harmful than the virus and that the pandemic is a political tool used to manipulate people, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Pundits who attended the recent Conservative Political Action Conference falsely framed the use of vaccines as a tool of political control. Meanwhile, the state of Tennessee on Tuesday fired Dr. Michelle Fiscus, who in her role as medical director of vaccine-preventable and infectious diseases had encouraged eligible adolescents to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

The public health community faces a steep climb in countering these false messages, Hotez said, and “it’s going to be really heartbreaking when you see so many kids get sick.”

Models and experts predict states in the South and Southwest will be swept up in a big acceleration of COVID cases that could interfere with opening schools next month. But even public health measures that could prevent further spread, such as face masks and social distancing, have been politicized and shunned in parts of the country.

“The states that are going to need them are going to be the states that are hardest to implement,” Hotez said.

While misinformation is not the only reason why more people aren’t getting vaccinated, Murthy said it is a very important one.

“In a moment like this when we see misinformation literally costing us our loved ones — costing us lives — all of us have to ask how we can be more accountable and responsible for the information that we share,” he said.

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