False coronavirus claim goes viral before experts can react

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On Tuesday morning, a Fox News contributor claimed on Twitter that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was set to mandate that school children receive coronavirus vaccines. By Tuesday night, the claim was repeated by the nation’s most popular cable news show and had been amplified to millions on social media.

“CDC is about to add the Covid vaccine to the childhood immunization schedule, which would make vax mandatory for children to go to school,” host Tucker Carlson tweetedand shares a segment from his show that has been viewed more than 1.5 million times online.

But the claim was wrong: The CDC cannot mandate that school children receive vaccines, a decision left to states and jurisdictions, the agency and several public health officials said. That first tweet by Nicole Saphier, a radiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, also missed a scheduled meeting with CDC advisers who voted Wednesday to add coronavirus vaccines to the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC), a safety net program that offers shots at no cost . A separate meeting set for Thursday will address the agency’s immunization plan for children.

Public health experts said there is a legitimate debate about whether school children should be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus — but the inflammatory and erroneous claim by the Fox News personalities is the latest example of how critics can twist the facts about the CDC and the coronavirus. potentially contributing to lower vaccination rates, fading trust in federal health officials, and other public health consequences.

“This is a whole new level of dangerous misinformation,” Jerome M. Adams, who served as U.S. surgeon general during the Trump administration and as Indiana’s top health official, wrote in a text message to The Washington Post. “It could both harm children (by derailing the VFC program, which helps disadvantaged children access vaccines) and put health officials at risk (due to angry misinformed parents). We need to be able to have honest conversations about the pros and cons of vaccinating children without resorting to blatant misinformation.”

The episode also illustrates how misinformation about health care can quickly take hold, particularly around the coronavirus vaccine and fueled by many Americans’ frustrations and confusion with pandemic policies. But public health experts often feel stymied in their responses, unsure when to engage with false claims that are spreading virally. And when officials do weigh in, they are often limited by their more deliberate, sometimes bureaucratic processes.

“I’ve been doing vaccine work for more than two decades. And what I’ve seen, thanks to social media, misinformation and disinformation can spread so much faster now,” said Julie Morita, executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and former Chicago public health commissioner. “There is no quick fix to this.”

While some outspoken persons who Kavita Patel, a physician and former Obama administration official, took to Twitter on Tuesday night to criticize the false claims and refute them point by point, federal officials have been more muted in their responses. In interviews Tuesday night, several administration officials said they had no plans to engage with the false allegations because they were worried about amplifying them. But by Wednesday morning, the administration’s calculus had changed, following Carlson’s segment, amid growing outrage against federal health officials as vaccine critics seized on the misreported claim that the CDC was set to mandate the shots for schoolchildren.

“Thanks to @GovRonDeSantis, COVID mandates are NOT allowed in FL, NOT pushed into schools, and I continue to recommend them for healthy kids,” Joseph Ladapo, Florida Surgeon General, wrote on Twitter.

CDC train to Twitter around noon Wednesday, citing Carlson’s tweet and noting that its Independent Vaccine Advisory Committee would vote Thursday “on an updated childhood immunization schedule.” The tweet also said, “States establish vaccine requirements for school children, not ACIP or CDC,” and linked to a page explaining state vaccine requirements.

The CDC’s response drew criticism from public health experts, who said the agency did not explicitly deny Carlson’s claim or speak in plain language. Two administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly, said they were uncomfortable that the CDC — by citing Carlson’s tweet — had inadvertently reinforced the falsity of his video.

Meanwhile, Saphier’s original tweet was still being sent Wednesday night and had been retweeted more than 2,400 times as of 8 p.m. 18. Asked about Saphier’s tweet, Fox News pointed to another tweet she sent more than nine hours later a context in which the states did not always follow the CDC’s recommendations. That tweet had been retweeted 55 times. Saphier also appeared on a Fox News segment Wednesday afternoon, clarifying her comments but repeating her criticism that the childhood vaccines needed further investigation.

Memorial Sloan Kettering said Saphier did not speak for the institution.

In a statement Wednesday, the CDC said the vaccine panel will update its 2023 childhood and adult vaccination plans, including whether to add approved or licensed coronavirus vaccines, as guidance for health care providers.

“It is important to note that there are no changes to the COVID-19 vaccine policy and this action will simply help streamline clinical guidance for healthcare providers by including all currently licensed, authorized and routinely recommended vaccines in one document, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an email.

The revised immunization schedules would not go into effect until January 2023. Early next year is also when the federal government will no longer provide the vaccines for free, federal health officials said. The practical effect of including vaccines on the CDC’s recommended immunization list means they are typically covered by insurance.

The updated schedule “is also the only place anyone can look to see exactly what all the recommendations are for all vaccines for all ages,” said James Campbell, professor of pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and vice president of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Infectious Diseases, who said the color-coded document is an important tool for busy clinicians.

Public health experts noted that recommendations issued by the CDC’s advisory panel do not necessarily translate into state-level mandates. For example, few states have adopted the panel’s 2006 recommendation that youth be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, or HPV.

The CDC “has wanted to stay away” from vaccination mandates and consistently leaves it up to local officials, said Jason Schwartz, an associate professor at Yale University who specializes in vaccine policy.

Polls have found a significant partisan divide in perceptions of the CDC and other agencies. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats say they rate officials at the CDC and other public health agencies favorably, compared with only a third of Republicans who do, according to a Pew Research poll conducted in September.

“This division will make it harder to get Republicans to embrace future covid-variant vaccines,” said Robert Blendon, a longtime Harvard University pollster.

Health leaders also said the episode underscored the challenge of informing the public about contentious public health issues. Drew Altman, head of the nonpartisan think tank Kaiser Family Foundation, said his organization was focusing on fighting health care misinformation “as our next big thing.”

“It’s just not enough for us to be in the process of sending out good information. We must now also be in the process of countering misinformation and deliberate disinformation, said Altman.

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