U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Thursday acknowledged San Diego County's first-of-its-kind policy declaring medical misinformation a public health crisis.
Late Tuesday evening, a divided county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to adopt a policy of COVID- 19 misinformation a public health crisis and to adopt a series of recommendations to actively combat it.
The resolution declares that “using health misinformation is causing a public health crisis” in San Diego County.
"On Tuesday night, @SanDiegoCounty Board of Supervisors voted to declare health misinformation a public health crisis," Murthy Tweeted. "I'm grateful @SupFletcher took on this issue -- it's the kind of bold action we need to ensure we all have accurate, science-based information to inform our health."
Murthy recently issued an advisory entitled "Confronting Health Misinformation."
In a news release, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Murthy's report and recommendations "helped us make the case for why health misinformation needed to be declared a public health crisis." He added, "It's an honor to have him acknowledge what we have started in San Diego County, but now it's time to address this national issue everywhere," adding that "We are ready to work with leaders at all levels to make combating health misinformation a priority in order to maximize booster shot vaccinations later this year."
At a news conference on Monday, Fletcher announced the policy, which directs the county's chief administrative officer to implement Murthy's recommendations with the following strategies:
- Devote resources to identify and label health misinformation and disseminate timely health information to counter misinformation that is impeding the county's ability to keep the community safe;
- Modernize public health communications with investments to better understand gaps in health information, and questions and concerns of the community, especially in hard-to-reach communities. Develop targeted community engagement strategies, including partnerships with trusted messengers;
- Expand research efforts to better define and understand the sources of health misinformation, document and trace its costs and negative impacts, and develop strategies to address and counter it across mediums and diverse communities;
- Invest in resilience against health misinformation including digital resources and training for health practitioners and health workers. Explore educational programs to help communities distinguish evidence-based information from opinion and personal stories;
- Partner with federal, state, territorial, tribal, private, nonprofit, research and other local entities to identify best practices to stop the spread of health misinformation;
- Identify resource gaps to combat health misinformation and work with state and federal partners to meet ongoing needs; and
- Work with the medical community and local partners to develop a website that will serve as a central resource for combating health misinformation in the community.
According to San Diego County public health officials, the policy comes as 83.7% of the county’s COVID-19 cases are amongst people who are not fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Since March 2021, 96.7% of the hospitalizations in San Diego County related to COVID-19 have involved people who are not fully vaccinated, the county added.
The board's decision on Tuesday, with Supervisors Jim Desmond and Joel Anderson voting no, came after hours of debate featuring testimony from hundreds of residents, many of whom opposed the measure. Fletcher characterized them as "mostly right wing anti-vaxxers." Along with Fletcher, Supervisors Terra Lawson-Remer and Nora Vargas voted yes.
Addressing adversaries during the meeting, Fletcher said: "Nothing in this measure will take away anyone's right to free speech. But this will empower medical experts to lend their knowledge to provide people with info about what they may be hearing. Our efforts today are to help us in the cause to get beyond COVID-19. I can promise you that no one ever ran for public office saying, 'I want to close businesses, I want to wear masks.' We want to get out of this pandemic without any closures or further mandates."
Some opponents worried that the measure would quash the free exchange of ideas.
"You can believe in science and also ask questions. In fact, science is all about asking questions," San Diego nurse Ciana King told the board, adding, "Science is a constant discovery and we know that the evidence is always changing.
"You can be a medical professional and respect a patient's right to choose. In fact, you must: This is called autonomy, and it's the first principle in the nursing code of ethics."
Prior to the public comment period, representatives from San Diego- area hospitals spoke out in support of the measure, saying that hospital resources are being stretched thin by a surge of COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated people.