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Health & Science

Primary Care Providers Could Be Key To COVID19 Vaccine Rollout In Appalachian Communities

Advanced registered nurse practitioner Erin Forsythe administers the COVID-19 vaccine in Seattle, Washington.
Advanced registered nurse practitioner Erin Forsythe administers the COVID-19 vaccine in Seattle, Washington.

One in four Americans say they don’t want a coronavirus vaccine. That’s according to a recent poll by NPR and Marist. Misinformation could be one cause, including posts and stories that are shared on social media.

Researchers at Virginia Tech are looking at how this is playing out with people in Appalachia. It’s called, “Trust in Healthcare and Trust in Science Predict Readiness to Receive the Covid-19 Vaccine in Appalachia.”

The researchers asked a group of Appalachians who they trusted the most from a list of 15 healthcare-related choices. According to Dr. Michelle Rockwell, lead investigator on the project, most people surveyed said they trusted a primary care doctor.

“We are interested in knowing if there are any subtle interventions that a healthcare provider or healthcare organization could take to help with the spread of misinformation,” Rockwell said. “We designed a social media simulation based on some other work that has shown that little nudges, thinking through accuracy, before reading, social media can make a difference in how that information is shared, or how accurate it’s perceived to be.”

The intervention showed a social media post presented by a trusted health care provider. The post discussed an incidence of misinformation on social media to see if people were less likely to share misinformation.

“So whoever their most trusted was, they got to view a post, just a regular Facebook post, talking about the problems associated with misinformation. And then after viewing that just regular posts (from) someone they trus, they all looked at four different misinformative posts that have already been super spreaders on social media. They ranked the accuracy of those and their likelihood of sharing those,” she said.

Basically, the researchers showed people several stories that reportl misinformation about the vaccine. None of what these posts say is true. However, they are the most popular conspiracy theories currently being passed around on social media.

“One of them was about the vaccine causing infertility. One was about the vaccine causing severe side effects, commonly, again, misinformation,” Rockwell said. “One was about if you get the vaccine, you might also have some sort of tracking device implanted with it. And then the fourth one was that there really isn't a virus at all. So we certainly don't need a vaccine if there isn't a virus.”

Participants were less likely to believe these conspiracy theories if they had already seen a post from their health-care provider, or whoever they trusted, talking about misinformation.

Rockwell also saw a connection between trust and readiness to get the vaccine, especially trust in healthcare and science.

Rockwell hopes the study is an effective reminder that misinformation is an issue, but trusted communities can make a difference.

“So we hope that might empower healthcare providers and healthcare organizations to keep posting on social media and keep reminding patients, keep communicating that the misinformation issue exists,” Rockwell said. “And when we're making really important health decisions, like getting the COVID vaccine, we should weigh the positives and the negatives, the risks and the benefits. But hopefully, we're basing it just on factual information, not the rapidly spreading misinformation.”

While this study focused on the Appalachian region, Rockwell says it does not indicate that the region is more susceptible to misinformation.

We know vaccine uptake isn't as great. We know social media use is getting more common and it is new to more people,” Rockwell said. “We would love to see people understanding that not everything they believe is going to be helpful, is going to be factual, and talking to someone they trust, like their primary care provider can go a long way in helping them make these important decisions.”

Rockwell points out that while her research is still ongoing and making its way through the peer review process, they felt it critical to get this information out as quickly as possible.

Rockwell is also assistant professor with the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech and with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine. The project is funded by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and the Data and Decisions Destination Area.

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