COVID-19 misinformation contributed to 2,800 Canadian deaths, report suggests
A new report says misinformation about COVID-19 contributed to more than 2,800 Canadian deaths and at least $300 million in hospital and ICU visits.
The Council of Canadian Academies says misinformation led to people not believing COVID-19 was real or was exaggerated, fostering vaccine hesitancy.
The study suggests the false beliefs that COVID-19 was a "hoax or exaggerated," led to at least 2.3 million people delaying or refusing to get the vaccine between March and November of 2021.
The report authors estimated that if those vaccinations had happened, there would have been approximately 198,000 fewer cases, 13,000 fewer hospitalizations, and 2,800 fewer deaths from COVID-19 in Canada.
"This is a threat," said Alex Himelfarb, chair of the panel that did the research.
"Vulnerable communities always pay the biggest cost for things that go wrong in our society," he said.
The actual impact of COVID-19 misinformation is very likely much larger than the report findings show, Himelfarb said, because they only looked at that nine-month period during the pandemic, which has so far lasted for about three years.
The study also didn't include estimated "indirect costs and the ripple costs," he said, such as delayed elective surgeries and treating long-COVID cases.
Himelfarb told The Canadian Press that the mathematical models took the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine and eligibility during that time period into account.
The survey information about people's COVID-19 beliefs came from Abacus Data in 2021.
The study reinforces what many health-care workers "instinctively knew," said Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist with the Vaccine Hesitancy Clinic at Alberta Children's Hospital.
Constantinescu was not involved in the study.
"That is a huge cost, not only, you know, in terms of life lost, but also to the system," she said.
"I think we've always known this on a micro level and it's validating to see this done at a population level with a pandemic and having an actual cost number associated with it."
Constantinescu said she hopes the report helps vaccine hesitancy to be recognized as a "health crisis" in Canada and that funding agencies and government invest more in promoting vaccination and fighting misinformation.
The report recommended several measures to help combat health misinformation:
— Ensure that accurate health and science information is widely accessible
— Honest and understandable communication by "trusted messengers" to reach diverse populations
— Encourage individuals to identify, label and debunk misinformation when they see it.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada asked the Council of Canadian Academies to look at the "socioeconomic impacts of science and health misinformation and disinformation," the group's news release says.
The council bills itself as a not-for-profit that convenes experts in their respective fields to assess evidence on complex scientific topics of public interest and help inform policy.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021
Canadian Press health coverage receives support through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.
Nicole Ireland, The Canadian Press