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LI experts hail Hochul's efforts to counteract vaccine misinformation on social media

Yves Duroseau, Lenox Hill Hospital's chair of emergency

Yves Duroseau, Lenox Hill Hospital's chair of emergency medicine, gets a Pfizer booster shot on Oct. 6 at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park. Duroseau was among the first three Americans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in December. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Gov. Kathy Hochul is launching a campaign to combat disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines because, she said, false information on social media is hurting the effort to get more people inoculated.

Long Island medical experts and social media analysts say the governor's strategy is on target.

The "#GetTheVaxFacts" campaign, announced this week, includes a website, digital ads and other tools for addressing what the governor called a threat to public health.

One reason "people are not getting vaccinated is that they are believing the lies on social media," Hochul said Wednesday at a news conference. "It's dangerous, it's misleading, and it puts people at risk, and it's hindering our entire battle against COVID because people are reading this."

Medical experts and social media analysts on the Island said Hochul’s campaign could help counteract the false information on social media.

Hochul "is absolutely right that social media has, overall, hurt the effort to get out the facts that COVID vaccines are safe and effective and save lives," said Kara S. Alaimo, an associate professor in the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University.

She noted that a May study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 67% of the people who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 had been exposed to at least one major myth about the shots and either believed it or said they weren’t sure if it was true.

Those myths include assertions that the vaccines cause COVID-19 or infertility, or change a person’s DNA, the Kaiser study said.

"To counteract this, we need social networks to do a better job of immediately removing vaccine misinformation and flagging vaccine skepticism with links to the truth," said Alaimo, who has written extensively about the social impact of social media.

"We need Facebook to stop emphasizing content from groups in news feeds, since groups have become echo chambers for anti-vaxxers and others with extreme, inaccurate views," she said. "We need a constant drumbeat of information about how important vaccines are and how they save lives. Social networks should be absolutely flooding our news feeds with this kind of content."

Dr. Debbie Salas-Lopez, senior vice president of community and population health at Northwell Health, agrees that social media is an obstacle to getting more people vaccinated and bringing the pandemic to an end.

"Misinformation on social media is absolutely a part of the reason people continue to be vaccine hesitant," Salas-Lopez said.

'New problem in this digital age'

Social media and the internet did not exist when other vaccines for diseases such as polio were rolled out, she noted, and most people then were eager to get the shots.

"It’s a new problem in this digital age. We’ve not seen anything the likes of this, with so much social media and so many people active on it," she said.

Part of the problem is that people see disinformation on social media, and then can immediately amplify it, sharing it instantly with thousands or even millions of other people.

The internet, she said, "has no filter."

"It’s a new world and a new century problem where information is in real time while it is happening," she said. "Certainly we need new strategies."

The debate over social media and vaccines comes as Facebook confronts an international firestorm over its practices after a former employee and whistleblower, Frances Haugen, this month released thousands of pages of internal company documents. They lay out a litany of societal harms Facebook allegedly helped foment, from threats to democracy to teenagers' self-esteem problems to doubts about science.

Hochul has addressed the social media and vaccine debate before. When Colin Powell died on Oct. 18, she warned anti-vaxxers not to "hijack" his death by claiming the vaccines don’t work.

Powell, 84, was fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but he also had severe underlying health problems, including multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that impairs the body’s ability to fight infection.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy earlier this year released a Health Misinformation Advisory on the vaccines and social media.

"Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health," he wrote. "We all have a role to limit the spread of health misinformation" and "ensure we all have accurate, science-based information to protect ourselves and our loved ones."

On Thursday, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran announced the county’s Department of Health would hold booster pop-ups from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Nassau Community College’s CCB building in Garden City and on Nov. 7 at the same times at the "Yes We Can" Community Center in Westbury. The county will offer the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Health officials also will offer boosters at the weekly clinic on Wednesdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m. at 200 County Seat Dr. in Mineola.

Vaccines are available six months after the second dose for adults who completed the Pfizer or Moderna shots or two months after adults got a Johnson & Johnson dose. All adults over 18 who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are eligible for boosters.

Boosters will be given to anyone 65 and older or any adult over 18 that is immune compromised, living in long-term care or is exposed as a high-risk front-line worker with the public.

Doctors: Booster shots are safe

At a Newsday Live webinar Thursday, Long Island infectious disease experts said the booster shots were safe and designed to enhance immunity to COVID-19.

Dr. Sharon Nachman, of Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, and Dr. Uzma Syed, of Good Samaritan Hospital, said those already vaccinated could receive booster shots of any of the three approved vaccines.

The booster shots are used to create a spike protein that help the body create antibodies and immunity to the virus, they said.

"There’s no live COVID in any of the vaccines and you cannot contract COVID from any of the vaccines," Syed said.

Nachman said originally the same vaccine was recommended for the primary series of shots, but the National Institutes of Health has found mixing and matching booster shots could produce additional immunity.

Doctors said a booster shot with a different vaccine is safe, helped to prevent vaccine immunity from waning, and bolstered protection from the delta variant.

"Patients who got different boosters had different levels of antibodies," Nachman said.

Meanwhile, New York City will be ready within 24 hours of federal approval to begin administering the COVID-19 vaccine to children ages 5-11, officials said Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's approval of the vaccine for grade-schoolers is expected late next week after a Food and Drug Administration panel provided its recommendation earlier this week.

At his daily news briefing Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said within 24 hours of final approval, the children's vaccinations — one-third the dose given to adults — would be available at city sites and within 48 hours the kid's shots would be at pediatrician offices, pharmacies and other places.

"This is a moment that parents have been waiting for; to know that their kids are safe," de Blasio said, adding that the city had administered 12 million total doses of the vaccine. "New York City will be ready."

Health Commissioner David Chokshi said the city had purchased 231,000 doses of the pediatric vaccine, which will arrive next week, and the city would launch a public information campaign in the coming days to address parent’s questions.

"The latest news about the COVID vaccine for young children should give us all hope," Chokshi said. "The vaccine will protect children, will reduce the spread of COVID and keep our community safe."

COVID-19 indicators remained steady on Long Island in results released by the state on Thursday.

Nassau had 239 new daily cases, and Suffolk had 351. New York City logged 1,086 new daily cases.

The seven-day average for positivity in testing for the virus remained steady at 2.13% on Long Island and 2.08% statewide.

A total of 27 people died in the state on Thursday of causes linked to the virus. The fatalities included one each in Nassau and Suffolk.

With Robert Brodsky and John Asbury

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