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When Misinformation Itself Is A Public Health Crisis

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Kootenai Health

A nurse at Kootenai Health in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. The state is facing an unprecedented surge in mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

Some state and local governments in the West are cracking down on misinformation about COVID-19 and its treatments. The moves come as a growing number of hospitals are becoming overwhelmed with mostly unvaccinated patients.

In Las Vegas, county commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday calling misinformation a “public health crisis.” It calls on county employees to combat the spread of falsehoods that threaten the safety of residents.

“Our public health workers in the community are facing rejection and harassment,” said Clark County Commissioner Justin Jones. “It’s important for this board to take a stand.”

The resolution faced fierce opposition from some members of the public, who called it an infringement of their First Amendment rights and labeled the commissioners “communists.”

Like much of the West, the Las Vegas area is facing a shortage of ICU beds due to a surge of mostly unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Last week, Idaho activated crisis standards of care for all of its overburdened hospitals, which means healthcare providers are now rationing care.

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Idaho's public health department announced on its Facebook page Tuesday that it would block users who threaten healthcare workers or repeatedly post misleading information.

A spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare said the move was in line with its existing social media policy.

“We’ve spelled that out in our terms and conditions since we first launched our [Facebook] page, but we felt the need to amplify it because of all of the false and misleading information being posted in the comments on our page,” wrote spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr.

Brian Labus, a public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, called the warning "an interesting approach that will hopefully keep the right messages out there and keep some of those incorrect messages from being distributed. Misinformation is keeping people from getting vaccinated.”

The Mountain West has some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country and has become a hotspot for the delta variant. This week, both Montana and Wyoming activated national guard troops to aid their overwhelmed hospitals. In Montana, the move comes a few weeks after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte spread misinformation about the effectiveness of masks in public school settings.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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