COVID-19 Misinformation & Disinformation

County anti-mask campaign risks spreading misinformation

A resolution before the county board to end protection for K-6 graders contains numerous inaccuracies about the efficacy of masks and vaccines.

A push for Kalamazoo County’s health department to rescind a mask and vaccine order for young school children is instead spreading misinformation – which health and media experts say is dangerous – according to a review by NowKalamazoo.

The county commission is to vote Tuesday on a resolution, promulgated by the Republican Party members of the commission, that contains numerous statements that are contradicted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and child health advocacy groups, and criticized by national misinformation researchers.

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The countywide mask mandate has been in place since Aug. 18 when James Rutherford, the county’s health director, issued the emergency order, with its removal being linked to the availability of a vaccine for children five-years-old and up.

The resolution comes after months of meetings organized by the Kalamazoo County Republican Party that included informational sessions regarding masks and other health department actions. The agenda for the Sept. 17 edition of County Commissioner Dale Shugars’ weekly “Coffee with Shugars” event was to “discuss the issue of masks in our schools.” 

Among the assertions in the resolution are that the CDC “does not claim and has not scientifically proven” that masks or vaccines “control, prevent or stop transmission of COVID-19,” and that kindergartners through sixth graders are “at risk for severe and irreversible respiratory damage and diseases” and “damage to the health and psychological well-being” if forced to wear a mask or be vaccinated.

The resolution does not provide any sources to substantiate its claims. Neither Shugars nor Kalamazoo County Republican Party Chair Scott McGraw replied to multiple requests for comment and additional information. 

The CDC, as well as U.S. and international researchers, have found that while neither masks nor vaccines are foolproof in eliminating coronavirus, both masks and vaccines reduce the spread of it. Vaccines have also been proven to reduce the risk of death and hospitalization.

“Vaccines and masks do stop/prevent most infections – significantly and substantially reduce risk of infection, transmission,” Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist and a Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, wrote in an interview with NowKalamazoo. “Just like seat belts and air bags don’t stop all deaths but they dramatically cut [them]. So I would say it [the assertion] is highly misleading.”

Feigl-Ding, a COVID-19 expert committee member for the World Health Organization who works to stop the propagation of COVID misinformation, among other work, added that the assertions made about masks and vaccines harming children’s health was “nonsense.”

Misinformation is the active dissemination of false information. Disinformation is doing so deliberately.  

“Medical professionals and scientists have time and time again debunked the idea that masks are dangerous, and rigorous authoritative studies have highlighted how mask-wearing has dramatically slowed the spread of viruses and saved lives,” Rachel Moran, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, who studies trust in information, trust in institutions, conspiracy groups and extremism, told NowKalamazoo.

“Unfortunately, we see people leveraging falsified and fake studies to spread misinformation about masks and to try to pass legislation to prevent mask mandates. This misinformation is not only counter-productive to ending the pandemic but it’s especially worrying to see it being used by public officials to further ideological goals over the health of their communities. Public officials are supposed to be using the best scientific evidence available in their decision-making so that they make sound community health decisions. It undermines their commitment to the public and their neutrality when they spread misinformation in this manner.”

The Democrat Party-controlled county board is expected to reject the resolution. In a special meeting last month the commission voted to support all of the health department’s orders because of the risk that new state legislation could force budget cuts if anti-COVID health orders were in force. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has said the clauses are unenforceable.

Kalamazoo Public Schools, the largest district in the county, said it was going to maintain the mask requirement regardless of county or state actions, at least for now.

“The KPS mask mandate was in place prior to the county mandate and will continue at least through the first trimester,” followed by a review prior to the start of the second trimester, said Sue Coney, executive director of communications. “Kalamazoo Public Schools has implemented a layered mitigation strategy against COVID-19. The first and the most effective layer is getting vaccinated when eligible. The second layer of defense is masking, which KPS has mandated. Utilizing a layered strategy provides the best opportunities for our students to remain learning in-person this school year.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has said masks are safe for anyone at least two-years-old, “with rare exception,” which is why it recommends masks for all kids under 12 years old in school.

“Consistent use of a face mask is one part of a comprehensive strategy (in addition to vaccination, physical distancing, and hand washing) to mitigate risk and help reduce the spread of COVID-19, particularly in those who are not fully vaccinated or not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Currently, there are no COVID vaccines for children under 12. Pfizer recently submitted research to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval of its COVID vaccine for kids ages five to 11, but shots may not be available until November.

Dubious claims and misinformation related to mask mandates and other COVID-related regulations are usually communicated as advocating for medical freedom or personal choice, Moran said.

“Ideologically, it’s a freedom argument, that government should not be legislating things that keep your choice away, it’s the idea that government has control over an individual’s health,” she said.

Courts have upheld most COVID-related mask mandates, however, and have long allowed health officials to require certain coverings to prevent the spread of illnesses, such as shirts and shoes in restaurants.

Moran said it’s “an easy get” for politicians to gin-up their base by sowing doubt in the efficacy of masking in public places or the safety of the various COVID-19 vaccines. The evidence, if any is given by these officials, is usually based more on ideology than a peer-reviewed study.

The result, says Feigl-Ding, the epidemiologist and COVID misinformation expert, is an exacerbation of the pandemic’s health crisis.

“Misinformation is worse than any single act of public endangerment – spreading misinformation has potential to cause mass casualty and mass death,” he wrote. “And we are seeing that happen now unfortunately.”

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