Four years after shelter-in-place, COVID-19 misinformation persists

By Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu, KFF Health News

From spring break parties to Mardi Gras, many people remember the last major “normal” thing they did before the novel coronavirus pandemic dawned, forcing governments worldwide to issue stay-at-home advisories and shutdowns.

Even before the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the U.S., fears and uncertainties helped spur misinformation’s rapid spread. In March 2020, schools closed, employers sent staff to work from home, and grocery stores called for physical distancing to keep people safe. But little halted the flow of misleading claims that sent fact-checkers and public health officials into overdrive.

Some people falsely asserted COVID’s symptoms were associated with 5G wireless technology. Faux cures and untested treatments populated social media and political discourse. Amid uncertainty about the virus’s origins, some people proclaimed COVID didn’t exist at all. PolitiFact named “downplay and denial” about the virus its 2020 “Lie of the Year.”

Four years later, people’s lives are largely free of the extreme public health measures that restricted them early in the pandemic. But COVID misinformation persists, although it’s now centered mostly on vaccines and vaccine-related conspiracy theories.

PolitiFact has published more than 2,000 fact checks related to COVID vaccines alone.

“From a misinformation researcher perspective, [there has been] shifting levels of trust,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Early on in the pandemic, there was a lot of: ‘This isn’t real,’ fake cures, and then later on, we see more vaccine-focused mis- and disinformation and a more partisan type of disinformation and misinformation.”

Here are some of the most persistent COVID misinformation narratives we see today:

A loss of trust in the vaccines

COVID vaccines were quickly developed, with U.S. patients receiving the first shots in December 2020, 11 months after the first domestic case was detected.