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Alabama experts battle coronavirus misinformation

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Alabama experts battle coronavirus misinformation

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Jiyoung Lee started off her News Analysis class at the University of Alabama on Monday by asking her students to bring up a hot topic they experienced or saw over the weekend.

One of the students spoke up and said he saw something on social media: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supposedly released data showing that 6% of people who died from Covid-19 actually had the coronavirus, and that a whopping 94% of people who died had some other pre-existing condition that caused the death.

He said he saw it on Twitter and that he got the news from close friends on his Twitter network, said Lee. That shows a huge problem of facing misinformation on social media. My students are in senior level classes and are majoring in journalism. They can be called media literate, but they are also exposed to (falling for misinformation).

Indeed, a swirl of misinformation about the novel coronavirus continues to spread on Twitter, Facebook and beyond. A loop of conspiracy theories, hoaxes and falsehoods have linked the virus to bat consumption in China, allowed dangerous miracle cures to flourish and led to the spread of the Plandemic conspiracy theory to more than 8 million viewers. That debunked video alleged that top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China, and then wrongly warned that masks can make you sick.

The World Health Organization has already labeled the phenomena of bad information as an infodemic.

But where should the public go for their news on the coronavirus pandemic? Some journalism professors offer these tips:

– Gheni Platenburg, an assistant professor at the School of Communication and Journalism at Auburn University, said she would direct the public to websites like MediaWise and the Poynter Institute or any organization that is helping improve media literacy.

– Lee said that the website NewsGuard helps provide validity to the websites that appear on social media sites: A green checkmark indicates a credible site for news and information, while a red mark alerts the user to something that could be fictious.

-According to longtime Associated Press journalist and former Auburn University professor Phillip Rawls, the public should be concerned about reading information on websites that are filled with bad writing and grammar or those which are not updated regularly. They should also avoid any sites that do not provide contract information, including a street address or email address and phone number. Any legitimate news site will provide contact information, he said.

-Rawls also said the public needs to be mindful over the differences between a reporter and a commentator who pontificates often on cable TV news stations. Reporters, hopefully, are trying to give facts to the public, he said. Commentators are entertainers whose livelihoods depend on keeping the public interested in what they have to say. Commentators rarely do any reporting themselves. They comment on what others have reported.

-Variety is important, according to the professors, and that includes exposure to news and information outlets. According to Robbyn Taylor, a lecturer at Troy Universitys Hall School of Journalism and Communication, there is a danger in just receiving news from a Twitter or Facebook feed. The problem with using social media as a primary news source is that you only see people who are like-minded posting. Go somewhere else and see what the other side is thinking and saying and what credibility do they have to back (their information) up. Expose ourselves to different things, and do not be spoon-fed what people are handing us on social media.

Death certificate confusion

The latest chapter in the unfolding cases of coronavirus tall tales revolves around the misinterpretation of CDC data regarding coronavirus deaths posted on social media as a way to illustrate that the federal agency isnt providing accurate data, and that the severity of the virus which has led to a mandatory mask requirement in Alabama — is overblown. President Donald Trump retweeted a claim that discounted the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. last weekend, which Twitter took down over concerns that the post spread false information.

Frustration is mounting among public health professionals, including those in Alabama who are stressing that the CDC data does not discount the seriousness of a virus that has killed 188,401 Americans and 2,275 Alabama residents.

Dr. Scott Harris, the Alabama State Health Officer, said during a news conference on Wednesday that the social media activity underscored a deliberate misinterpretation of what the data actually shows.

Somehow people have used (the CDC) data to say that 94% of the deaths arent real deaths or something like that, said Harris. Its very frustrating for us in public health. I think there are people who, unfortunately, want to cherry pick statistics to show what they already believe in anyway, and they want to try and convince people.

He added, We hope people think about that information themselves. Contact a trusted health professional and talk to people at your health department on whether there are issues on how the data is interpreted.

The CDC data, which was released about one week ago, shows that for 6% of all deaths, Covid-19 was the only cause mentioned. For deaths with conditions or causes in addition to Covid-19, the CDC reports that on average, there were 2.6 additional conditions or causes per death. Among the additional conditions were respiratory diseases, circulatory diseases such as heart failure, diabetes, and obesity.

Health officials have further explained, in the past week, that public confusion stems from what is recorded on a death certificate. The certificates lists the causes and conditions that contribute to someones death and are submitted by a physician or a coroner. There may also be more than one contributing condition that leads to someones death, according to health officials.

All United States deaths are recorded using standardized death certificates filled by clinicians, said Dr. Rachael Lee, assistant professor at the University of Alabama at Birminghams Division of Infectious Diseases and UAB Hospitals chief epidemiologist. One of the spaces on the form includes immediate cause of death followed by several lines for underlying causes underneath.

She said that CDC acknowledges 6% of deaths are labeled as Covid-19 only accounting for over 11,000 deaths in the U.S. in which there was no other underlying cause. Lee also said if someone looks further at the CDC tables, respiratory diseases and respiratory failure are a common immediate cause of death, which is unfortunately seen in Covid-19, with likely Covid-19 listed as an underlying cause. She noted that the CDC has considered Covid-19 as the underlying cause in more than 95% of the cases.

According to the CDCs chart last updated on August 29, and accounting for 166,044 deaths — influenza and pneumonia has contributed to deaths involving coronavirus in 71,700 cases (43.2%), while respiratory failure was involved in 57,502 cases (34.6%).

Recording deaths accurately is incredibly important for the public and clinicians, including looking at all causes of death when Covid-19 is included on the death certificate, said Lee. We continue to have higher numbers of excess deaths in this country and we all need to do our part to try and reduce the spread of Covid-19: Wash your hands, wear a mask and watch your distance.

Death statistics

But the presentation of the data has helped fuel misunderstanding, and radio show host Sean Sullivan is hearing from perplexed listeners who doubt the validity of the inundation of data they are receiving about the virus. Further fomenting confusion and misunderstanding is very nature of the novel coronavirus pandemic as an ever-changing news topic and one that lacks prior experience from the global medical community.

Im hearing a lot of frustration from my listeners that the information changes with such regularity, said Sullivan, who hosts the Midday Mobile radio show on FM Talk 1065 in Mobile. Its unprecedented how quickly the news changes with coronavirus. Thats because its new and there are so many changes and unknowns. It gives you pause on any new information coming out.

Sullivan said the CDCs recent death statistic illustrates some of the concerns he has heard regarding gray areas in the data. Those gray areas, he said, focuses on how much of a factor coronavirus plays into the underlying cause of someones death and then why the CDC even when other contributing factors play a role in a death labels it among the overall coronavirus statistics.

Sullivan, during an interview he had last month with Dr. Rendi Murphree, an epidemiologist with the Mobile County Health Department, posed a hypothetical situation: What if someone infected with coronavirus was killed in a fatal car crash or run over by a truck? Would that death still be included in the CDCs overall coronavirus death count?

Murphree responded that Covid-19 can be listed on that persons death certificate, even if the cause and manner of the death is related to trauma from a car crash.

It depends on what is on the death certificate and what the attending physician codes it as, said Murphree, during Sullivans show. These decisions are made by attending physicians who know the circumstances of that death. Yes, sometimes even something like a car accident or a heart attack might be classified as Covid-positive. Right now, were trying to gather as much information as we can about the causes of death in people who are Covid-positive. Our assumption is its an acute respiratory distress syndrome. But if we only code Covid deaths on that narrow definition, then we cant learn about deaths from maybe cardiac disease that were related to the Covid infections, but the science hasnt recognized that link yet.

The CDC does include a category called intentional and unintentional injury, poisoning and other adverse effects within its coronavirus death counts. According to CDC, 5,424 deaths or 3.3%, are listed as contributing factor in a coronavirus death.

Dr. Scott Chavers, also an epidemiologist at the Mobile County Health Department, said that listing Coivd-19 as a contributory factor stems from the diseases ability to affect other organ systems, including vessels in the brain that can cause disorientation, etc.

He said, There is a wider net that is being cast right now until we are able to really understand what the Covid-19 contributions are to mortality in Mobile County. I can say this, though, if you look at the CDC data which evaluates mortality on February 1 to now, and compare the 10 health indicators to historic levels, all 10 are elevated including overdose. Covid is having an effect beyond the straight died from Covid event.

Driven by politics

Trump speaks

President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 15, 2020, in Washington. Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci listens at left. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)AP

The frustrations with comprehending complex data is fueling rumor mills and conspiracies spread throughout social media.

Atop the concerns is that the coronavirus pandemic is an affront to Trumps re-election, and that public health restrictions such as mask mandates and advisories will be lifted after the November 3 election.

Sullivan said he hears from callers, and not just hardcore ideologues, who are skeptical about whether the virus concerns will continue beyond Election Day.

I heard people say, how much of this is driven by politics? he said. The problem with this is because, I think, once again, the failing is in the way the information was coming out and its easy to make it political.

He added, If Trump came out and said, we have now found a treatment for the coronavirus and supported it in every way, it would be discounted because he said that. And that is the case where people have to make decisions based on facts and not facts they are making based on whether they are fans of President Trump or if they are against Trump.

A report from the Pew Research Center in late June shows that Americans are divided through partisanship on who and what they believe when it comes to coronavirus information.

Majorities of Democrats and independents who lean toward the Democratic Party say the CDC and other health groups (76%), governors and state governments (62%), local news media (62%) and national news media (60%) usually get the facts right, while only 9% say the same about Trump and his administration. Conversely, 54% of Republicans and Republican leaners say Trump and his administration get the facts right at least most of the time which is slightly above how many in the GOP say the same thing about the CDC (51%). Republicans are less likely to say the same about governors and state governments (45%), local news media (38%) and the national media (25%).

I think that a large part of the reason why there has been so much confusion and misinformation being spread is that people are in their own filter bubbles, said Platenburg, the Auburn University journalism professor. People are on social media. People are consuming news. The type of news, if you even can call some of its news, and the different platforms they are consuming, doesnt always yield the best results of information delivery.

For journalism and mass media instructors in Alabama, the challenge is trying to communicate how best the public can absorb an inundation of news articles, data and research related to the ever-evolving news story of the pandemic.

The explosion of information about the coronavirus also comes at a time when the public has grappled with the issue of news literacy, which represents the ability to determine the credibility of news and other content. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, a minority of adults can correctly differentiate between fact and opinion while a 2019 Stanford History Education Group study found that 96% of high school students did not consider the validity of a news source.

There is so much information out there to sift through and its coming from so many directions, said Taylor, the Troy University journalism lecturer. She said a small percentage of the hundreds of thousands of articles circulated on social media during the beginning of the pandemic in March were coming from science and health care Websites.

It can be confusing quickly, she said. We have to think about the experts we listen to. When we go for medical advice, we go to a doctor. We dont go to a celebrity or a politician. And we go to a specialist for certain things. I wont go to a cardiologist if I have a broken leg.

She, like a lot of others, are urging the public to be mindful about sharing coronavirus-related information especially if it comes from a politician.

If it comes from a politician, does (the information) back up their campaign? said Taylor. If it comes from a celebrity, does it increase their value somehow? We have to be cynical, somewhat.

She added, We have this idea that were maybe being victims of misinformation and fake news. But we cant just sit back and be passive consumers of information. We have to be active, especially on things posted to social media. We have to critically evaluate things we see, and people have to really focus on being news literate or trying to make sure that the information (they are consuming) is truthful and trustworthy.

Wise choices

Democratic U.S. Senator Doug Jones, for months, has hosted several video conferences with medical experts and epidemiologists including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious diseases. He said the purpose of these sessions is so that the public can get updates from experts who are routinely dealing with the coronavirus.

And Jones is warning the public to avoid the politicians, especially as we go into the silly season of an election year.

Doug Jones

In this Thursday, May 7, 2020, file photo, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., speaks during a Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee hearing on new coronavirus tests on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool, File)AP

We have never seen this virus before until December of last year, said Jones. It is still new. This is a work in progress. Some of the guidance have changed. Were getting better with therapeutics and opportunities for treatment. Things change even among health care professionals as we get more data and more studies. Thats important to remember. Simply because someone is telling us something that maybe wasnt what they were saying five to six months ago, it means that they got new information and better information. Keep up to date with it.

Said Harris, the State Health Officer, We share everyones frustration over the mixed messages we get from so many different sources. Ultimately, we all have to make our own decisions. But there are way too many crazy or conspiracy ideas out there or just people with axes to grind who are saying things all across the spectrum. Please reach out to a trusted professional who will give you the best possible information.

Sullivan, at FM Talk 1065, said his advice for listeners who are confused or frustrated over the litany of coronavirus news and data is to absorb as much reliable information as possible, and then let it go through the filter of common sense.

American people are smart enough that when given the information and when getting it from multiple sources, will make wise decisions for themselves and their families, he said.

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories – KTVZ

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Sanders and Schumer call on McConnell to hold hearings to fight election conspiracy theories - KTVZ

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Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York are calling on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to create a new bipartisan committee focused on election integrity and schedule hearings to reassure Americans over a process President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to undermine.

There is growing anxiety among Democrats, and some Republicans, that Trump will not only continue to sow doubt over the legitimacy of the coming election but throw the subsequent count into chaos by declaring victory before all the votes can be tallied, including the millions that will arrive by mail.

In a letter to McConnell, Sanders and Schumer quote back the Kentucky senator’s own words, in which he attested to the reliability of mail-in voting by citing its successes in Oregon, Washington and Colorado, which have been using the system for years.

Trump has repeatedly questioned the validity of mail-in voting, promoted conspiracy theories questioning election security, called on supporters to act as unsanctioned “poll watchers,” and suggested that the absence of a clear result by the evening of November 3 would in some way cast doubt on the eventual outcome. Key allies in powerful positions, like Attorney General Bill Barr, have followed suit. Barr has persisted in puffing up a debunked claim that ballots received by mail would somehow strip the sender of their privacy — ignoring well-established safeguards.

By escalating the matter now, Sanders and Schumer are responding to growing concern, in partisan and nonpartisan spaces, that Americans are not adequately prepared for the potential of a longer-than-usual wait for results or Trump’s willingness to short-circuit the democratic process if he smells defeat.

“Democrats and Republicans in Congress must come together to ensure that we have a free and fair election where every vote is cast and counted without intimidation,” Sanders told CNN, “where no one has to put his or her health in danger to cast a ballot, and where we have full confidence in the results.”

The proposed hearings would invite a cross-section of election officials from across the country to testify to the security and reliability of mail-in, early- and in-person voting — subjects on which Sanders and Schumer, again, referenced McConnell’s own words.

“Despite the clear security of our vote-by-mail system, some have continued to undermine it with unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” they wrote. “As you have correctly said, people ‘can vote early, you can vote on Election Day, or you can drop it in the mail,’ and that voters should ‘not worry about your vote not counting.’”

The minority leader and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, also want more detailed discussion about the fraught hours, or days, after the polls close and a real-time watch of the election horse race potentially swings from one candidate to another.

“We know a number of states may well be counting ballots for a period of time after Election Day, and that those votes may be determinative in this election,” the senators wrote to McConnell. “To avoid disinformation, conspiracy theories, and suspicion about results, we must understand the likely timeline for this process.”

The letter goes on to reference the recent war games-style preparations conducted by a group called the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan gathering of operatives and academics that made headlines when some of the outcomes of their exercises — including “both street-level violence and political impasse” — were reported on in late July.

“A bipartisan group of experts and officials have studied multiple scenarios where the outcome of the election was not immediately known. Some of these scenarios resulted in unrest and even violence,” Sanders and Schumer wrote, suggesting the Senate should elevate similar discussions and familiarize the public with the uncertainties ahead. “We would like to hear from the most knowledgeable people in the country as to how we can do everything possible to make sure that the election and the period afterward is secure and peaceful.”

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS official sorry for conspiracy theory video

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HHS supported Caputo, with a statement that called him a critical, integral part of the presidents coronavirus response, leading on public messaging as Americans need public health information to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was no immediate statement from the White House.

Attempts to reach Caputo were unsuccessful.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called on Azar to fire Caputo, accusing the spokesman of trying to interfere with CDC reports to the medical and scientific community, as well as the public at large. And Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on Azar himself to resign, citing interference with the CDC as one example of what he termed the administration’s failures.

Officials at CDC have privately complained of recent efforts by political appointees at main HHS to try to edit or press for changes in the agency’s weekly MMWR publications, a go-to resource for public health professionals.

MMWR articles are technical, but they reveal telling details. One published earlier this year noted that while Trump’s travel restrictions dramatically reduced travel from China in February, nothing was being done at that time to restrict travel from Italy and Europe, where the coronavirus was spreading widely and rapidly. Analysis of virus samples from hard-hit New York in March suggested it was introduced there from Europe and other parts of the U.S., the CDC article reported.

Caputo is an unswerving Trump loyalist. His recent book, The Ukraine Hoax, claims the presidents phony impeachment was rooted in a vast conspiracy.

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS…

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unwinona:This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS...

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My RSS Feedunwinona:

This is exactly what conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers have done with their HIV/AIDS and Polio narrative (among others), only we’re seeing it escalated to weeks and months instead of years or decades.

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