(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Nurses fight conspiracy theories along with coronavirus

‘You have patients that are literally dying, and then you have patients that are denying the disease’

Los Angeles emergency room nurse Sandra Younan spent the last year juggling long hours as she watched many patients struggle with the coronavirus and some die.

Then there were the patients who claimed the virus was fake or coughed in her face, ignoring mask rules. One man stormed out of the hospital after a positive COVID-19 test, refusing to believe it was accurate.

“You have patients that are literally dying, and then you have patients that are denying the disease,” she said. “You try to educate and you try to educate, but then you just hit a wall.”

Bogus claims about the virus, masks and vaccines have exploded since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic a year ago. Journalists, public health officials and tech companies have tried to push back against the falsehoods, but much of the job of correcting misinformation has fallen to the world’s front-line medical workers.

In Germany, a video clip showing a nurse using an empty syringe while practicing vaccinations travelled widely online as purported evidence that COVID-19 is fake. Doctors in Afghanistan reported patients telling them COVID-19 was created by the U.S. and China to reduce the world population. In Bolivia, medical workers had to care for five people who ingested a toxic bleaching agent falsely touted as a COVID-19 cure.

Younan, 27, says her friends used to describe her as the “chillest person ever,” but now she deals with crushing anxiety.

“My life is being a nurse, so I don’t care if you’re really sick, you throw up on me, whatever,” Younan said. “But when you know what you’re doing is wrong, and I’m asking you repeatedly to please wear your mask to protect me, and you’re still not doing it, it’s like you have no regard for anybody but yourself. And that’s why this virus is spreading. It just makes you lose hope.”

Emily Scott, 36, who is based at a Seattle hospital, has worked around the world on medical missions and helped care for the first U.S. COVID-19 patient last year. She was selected because of her experience working in Sierra Leone during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak.

While many Americans were terrified of Ebola — a disease that isn’t nearly as contagious as the coronavirus and poses little threat in the U.S. — they aren’t nearly afraid enough of COVID-19, she said.

Scott blames a few factors: Ebola’s frightening symptoms, racism against Africans and the politicization of COVID-19 by American elected officials.

“I felt so much safer in Sierra Leone during Ebola than I did at the beginning of this outbreak in the U.S.,” Scott said, because of how many people failed to heed social distancing and mask directives. “Things that are facts, and science, have become politicized.”

ER nurse L’Erin Ogle has heard a litany of false claims about the virus while working at a hospital in the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri. They include: The virus isn’t any worse than the flu. It’s caused by 5G wireless towers. Masks won’t help and may hurt. Or, the most painful to her: The virus isn’t real, and doctors and nurses are engaged in a vast global conspiracy to hide the truth.

“It just feels so defeating, and it makes you question: Why am I doing this?” said Ogle, 40.

Nurses are often the health care providers with the most patient contact, and patients frequently view nurses as more approachable, according to professor Maria Brann, an expert on health communication at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. That means nurses are more likely to encounter patients spreading misinformation, which gives them a special opportunity to intervene.

“Nurses have always been patient advocates, but this pandemic has thrown so much more at them,” Brann said. “It can definitely take a toll. This isn’t necessarily what they signed up for.”

In some cases, it’s nurses and other health care workers themselves spreading misinformation. And many nurses say they encounter falsehoods about the coronavirus vaccine in their own families.

For Brenda Olmos, 31, a nurse practitioner in Austin, Texas, who focuses on a geriatric and Hispanic patient population, it was a no-brainer to get the vaccine. But first she had to debate her parents, who had heard unsubstantiated claims that the shot would cause infertility and Bell’s palsy on Spanish-language TV shows.

Olmos eventually convinced her parents to get the vaccine, too, but she worries about vaccine hesitancy in her community.

When she recently encountered an elderly patient with cancerous tumors, Olmos knew the growths had taken years to develop. But the man’s adult children who had recently gotten him the vaccine insisted that the two were connected.

“To them, it just seemed too coincidental,” Olmos said. “I just wanted them to not have that guilt.”

Olmos said the real problem with misinformation is not just bad actors spreading lies — it’s people believing false claims because they aren’t as comfortable navigating often complex medical findings.

“Low health literacy is the real pandemic,” she said. “As health care providers, we have a duty to serve the information in a way that’s palatable, and that’s easy to understand, so that people don’t consume misinformation because they can’t digest the real data.”

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the state’s mask mandate this month against the guidance of many scientists, nurse practitioner Guillermo Carnegie called the decision a “spit in the face.”

“I was disgusted,” said Carnegie, 34, of Temple, Texas. “This governor, and different people, they act like, ‘Oh, we’re proud of our front-line workers, we support them.’ But then they do something like that, and it taxes the medical field tremendously.”

Brian Southwell, who started a program at Duke University School of Medicine to train medical professionals how to talk to misinformed patients, said providers should view the patient confiding in them as an opportunity.

“That patient trusts you enough to raise that information with you,” Southwell said. “And so that’s a good thing, even if you disagree with it.”

He said medical workers should resist going into “academic argumentation mode” and instead find out why patients hold certain beliefs — and whether they might be open to other ideas.

That act of listening is imperative to building trust, according to Dr. Seema Yasmin, a physician, journalist and Stanford University professor who studies medical misinformation.

“Put down your pen, put down your notebook and listen,” Yasmin said.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This photo shows crews the fire at 7987 Galbraith Cres. that caused extensive damage and displaced six residents early Sunday morning. (Central Saanich Fire/Department Twitter)
Central Saanich rallies around couple who lost home of 25 years

A GoFundMe campaign is currently underway for Carla and Brian Wallace

The government map (as of April 22) showing vaccine availability doesn’t have any Saanich Peninsula pharmacies listed, but the situation is fluid, and many readers have already registered. (Province of B.C. screenshot)
Vaccine availability a fluid situation for Saanich Peninsula

Government site may not show pharmacies, but registering still an option

Volunteers with the Esquimalt Farmers Market will be on hand at Bullen Field to direct attendees and clarify public health protocols. The market runs Thursdays now through Sept. 16, from 4:30-7:30 p.m. (Facebook/Esquimalt Farmers Market)
Esquimalt Farmers Market continues tonight at Bullen Field

Award-winning market features farm-fresh products, food trucks, COVID-19 protocols for safety

A member of the Belmont Secondary School in Langford has tested positive for COVID-19, the Sooke School District announced Thursday afternoon. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Positive COVID-19 case identified at Belmont Secondary School in Langford

Other school members could’ve been exposed on April 20

While Buccaneer Days public events are cancelled again, such as the annual parade, a home and business decorating contest will allow the spirit of the event to live on. (Facebook)
Esquimalt Buccaneer Days COVID-19 cannon fodder again

Annual celebration cancelled a second time, decorating contest full steam ahead

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Have rising prices caused you to give up hope of buying a home?

Do you have a spare 50 grand or so kicking around (have… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 20

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

MLA Shirley Bond, right, answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on February 19, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Former B.C. gaming minister says she wasn’t told directly about dirty cash flowing to casinos

Shirley Bond said Thursday civil forfeiture, gang violence and gambling addiction were also major concerns in 2011

RCMP Constable Etsell speaks to tourists leaving the area at a police roadblock on Westside Road south of Fintry, B.C., Thursday, July 23, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Yvonne Berg
B.C. police say they take ‘exception’ to conducting roadblocks limiting travel

Asking the police to enforce roadblocks exposes officers to further risk and possible COVID-19 infections, says federation president Brian Sauve

The conservation service confirmed they do not relocate cougars from settled areas but that euthanasia is not necessarily the fate for an animal in the Fanny Bay area. The hope is that the animal will move on to wild areas. (File photo)
Woman hopes cat-stalking Fanny Bay cougar can avoid euthanization

Conservation officers do not relocate the animals from Vancouver Island

Tofino residents expressed frustration over a recent post by Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett that falsely claimed all residents have been vaccinated. (Westerly file photo)
Resort owner apologizes for suggesting Tofino is safe to travel to

Long Beach Lodge owner Tim Hackett apologizes to community and visitors

BC Hydro released a survey Thursday, April 22. It found that many British Columbians are unintentionally contributing to climate change with their yard maintenance choices. (Pixabay)
Spend a lot of time doing yard work? It might be contributing to climate change

Recent BC Hydro survey finds 60% of homeowners still use gas-powered lawnmowers and yard equipment

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Most Read