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Applause and anger as Contra Costa board declares Covid misinformation a public health crisis

on October 12, 2021

After nearly two hours of impassioned public comment, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday that declares COVID-19 misinformation a public health crisis. 

Misinformation about the coronavirus has “significantly undermined public health efforts and the unmitigated proliferation of health misinformation has created a culture of mistrust and has prolonged the COVID-19 pandemic,” the resolution reads. 

It goes on to say the county’s health department will continue to share scientific information about COVID-19 and correct misinformation about vaccines. The resolution also will give a platform to medical experts and allow the public to ask questions or request information on social media from the health department.

“Misinformation is responsible for some lower vaccination rates in some communities,” said Supervisor John Gioia, who introduced the resolution along with Supervisor Karen Mitchoff. “ It’s responsible for a higher number of hospitalizations and serious illnesses and even deaths.” 

While some at the meeting applauded the measure, others were incensed by it, saying it promoted censorship and violated their First Amendment rights. “Who gives you the authority to define misinformation?” one resident asked, adding that only she could decide “what is true for myself.” 

Another accused the supervisors of politicizing the pandemic and demonizing people’s decisions regarding it. 

The supervisors said combating misinformation doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. 

“We’re going to declare that health misinformation is an urgent public health crisis that affects our community, and we are going to commit to combating health misinformation and curb the spread of falsehoods that threaten the health and safety of our residents,” said Supervisor Candace Andersen. “We say curbing the spread, but we don’t have any legal ability to stop someone from saying what they’re going to say. But we do have the ability to provide correct information.” 

According to Contra Costa Health Services, nearly 87% of the county’s residents above the age of 12 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 82% are fully vaccinated. To date, 958 people have died of the virus, with deaths sharply declining between February and June, as vaccines became more widely available. That trend reversed in July, however, which county health officials attributed to the more contagious delta variant. In August, 67 people died of COVID-19 and in September, 43 died. 

On Tuesday, 70 people were hospitalized with the virus in Contra Costa, including 26 in intensive care units. 

Earlier this month, West Contra Costa Unified School District mandated that students ages 12 and older must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 15. And the state will require vaccines for school children as early as January, if the federal government has fully approved vaccines for children by then. 

Some speakers Tuesday expressed concern about possible long-term side effects of the vaccine. Those concerns also were voiced at school board meetings across the region and in cities throughout California, some of which are mandating vaccines for employees. Oakland recently announced it is drafting a vaccination requirement for its workers. 

Speaking in support of the resolution, Cheryl Sudduth, president of the West County Wastewater board of directors, focused on the communities most vulnerable to misinformation. 

“This particular crisis affects the community that looks like me, the Black community or the Latino community, the Indigenous community,” Sudduth said. “I hope that while we are thinking about these so-called liberties that people want, we are taking into account not only our personal privileges.”

The medical community is encouraging people to get vaccinated, saying vaccines are safe and the best way to keep the virus at bay. Joe Greaves, the executive director of the Alameda Contra Costa Medical Association, which represents approximately 5000 East Bay physicians, agreed with the supervisors that misinformation has caused real damage. 

“Misinformation has led people to decline life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments that can actually cause more harm to patients,” Greaves said.

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