Interview with Dr. Margaret Zimmerman on Health Information Seeking During Pandemic

  • Where are the best sources for folks to find information about the current Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic?

I default to the NY times, BBC, and the Washington Post as my main sources of news. I have also been routinely looking at the Hopkins COVID tracker for numbers. The CDC site only updates each day at 4pm, so it's numbers are lagging most of the day. It's current news and "situation summary" right now was last updated 5 days ago. Many of these sources synthesize associated press stories so a lot of it is the same. If you trusted a source of news prior to the beginning of the epidemic, I would assume the same level of trust now."

  • What has been the role of misinformation and disinformation in the current pandemic?

"I feel that some of the misinformation that is being spread has the potential to cost lives. Most of the misinformation, and the arguing and debating around it, has been unhelpful and distracting from the true crisis. I feel like it's hard to mobilize people to do what they need to do when there is in-fighting distracting from the overall messages that we should be getting from our leaders. Arguing about how many ventilators and masks are really needed is not helpful. Arguing about social distancing requirements is not helpful. Further, I personally feel confused about what direction we are supposed to be taking and where that is coming from. As far as I could tell, most people I know (and this is purely anecdotal) decided for themselves to self-quarantine long before we had leaders recommending it. I feel like there has been a real lag between what we, as citizens, should be doing and what official statements have been to us."

  • What are the challenges for folks seeking reliable and trustworthy information?

"I think that there is no way to fact check. We've never really done this before. Yes, I know about 1918. But, we can only look at that from an historic perspective and trust the record. Just like now, numbers and information were hidden then. So, typically, if you are conducting research you can look for verification of facts from different accounts. We can't do that here.

One thing that is also a challenge is the promotion of remedies and covid preventative medicines that are essentially snake oil. I've seen posts on social media about things like drinking vinegar, and a lot of homeopathic companies that sell health drinks or essential oils have used this as an opportunity to cash in on people's fear. It's vile. I don't understand how people think that things like this would work and they wouldn't be promoted by reputable health agencies. (What is this misconception that public health officials are not doing their level-best to improve people's health?) In addition, giving people a faulty sense of security right now may also lead them to make less cautious choices. When reading about something like, say, gargling bleach cleans coronavirus from your system, I think it is crucial to fact check this with public health officials."

  • How have you seen global cooperation or disjointedness in providing health information to citizens?

"I see cooperation in general. Most of the countries I have looked at have leaders, be it government of public health, addressing their nations regularly through speeches and press releases. There is effort to explain the severity of the pandemic and seriousness of the public health interventions employed. I spent some time the week before spring break looking at the press releases of 7 different governments and comparing their language used at various stages in the epidemic thinking that this could be an interested research project. I dropped it because ultimately I don't speak a foreign language and decided that only reading English translations was a faulty way to conduct the project. What I did notice was that the governments that had more regular informational briefings, used the term pandemic earlier, and formally announced preventative measures earlier (Here's looking at you Israel and Australia), had slower rates of infection and today have lower death rates. I want to be clear that I am citing correlatives results, not causation. I did not study the United States in this preliminary research because at the time, those long two weeks ago, the US was unable to test most people. So, there was no way to look at the information coming out of our government and compare it to infection rates as we didn't know what they were."

  • While the pandemic is still underway, have you noticed any trends regarding health information during this time?

"Yeah, we don't know anything. Look at the CDC page on how the virus spreads or how to protect yourself. It's a lot of sentences that start out with the word "may." This or that may happen... We have no idea. This is from the highest experts in our country. This virus has been around for 3 months today (12/31 was first report of a new virus in Wuhan) and we still don't have reliable data on how it is transmitted. Most of the articles out there that give this kind of information are based on very small scale, quickly conducted studies. This is understandable because the virus is so new. But, it means that a lot of the really important information that we are being fed by the media is speculative and may prove to be unhelpful in the long run. And, unfortunately, there is such a demand on our media to produce information on this disease that they jump on anything that comes out and fire it out to the public. My assumption is that a lot of the information that we are being given now will be proven as preliminary and erroneous later."

  • Is there anything else you'd be willing to share insight on?

"In reference to my "who knows" above, I think that this is a situation where we will only know the true numbers and cost a few years from now. As an example, a leading story today is that China's numbers are being criticized for accuracy. In our first months with this virus in the US we did not have the ability to test everyone. We truly have no idea how many people are affected and what death tolls look like. This is in part because we can't assess everyone properly and in part because there will be a whole series of ramifications for those affected secondarily- people who couldn't get adequate care for heart attacks and car accidents because the system is overwhelmed, as examples. A couple of years after this is all over (if it ends. It's going to end, right?) studies will be conducted in which we will get grim, large-scale estimates of the real toll of all of this- in infections, deaths, and financial ramifications. Today, we have no idea."