Cornell University was forced to shut down its campus and move to ‘alert level red’ after COVID-19 cases spiked

Cornell University
  • Cornell University shut down its Ithaca campus Tuesday amid a “rapid spread of COVID-19” among students.
  • As of Sunday, 469 active COVID-19 cases were reported, 214 of which were new positive tests.
  • The university’s president said evidence of the Omicron variant was present in a “significant number” of positive tests.

Cornell University shut down its Ithaca campus on Tuesday amid a “rapid spread of COVID-19” among students, the university president announced.

As of Sunday, 469 active COVID-19 cases were reported, 214 of which were new positive tests, according to university data.

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack said in a statement Tuesday evidence of the Omicron coronavirus variant was present in a number of positive tests from Monday.

“While faculty and staff case numbers currently remain low, just last evening our COVID-19 testing lab team identified evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples,” Pollack said.

Pollack added that the evidence of the Omicron coronavirus variant is still preliminary and additional sequencing will be done.

The university moved into “alert level red,” which entails moving all final exams to an online format effective immediately. All university activities, including a recognition ceremony for December graduates, have been cancelled.

Libraries, fitness centers, and gyms were closed to students, though offices and labs remain open.

“It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps,” Pollack said in the statement. “However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff, and students.”

She added: “We have faced many challenges together over the last many months. I am confident that we can once again rise to meet this current challenge so we can all take a well-deserved break.”

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, previously said early data shows that the Omicron variant, though highly contagious, “is demonstrating some decreased severity.”

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Retail pharmacists say they are overworked and burned out due to short-staffing and the increased demand for COVID-19 shots

covid vaccine empty pharmacy
An empty vaccine waiting area at a Walgreens in Miami Beach, Florida.

  • Six current and former pharmacists told Insider about their experiences during the pandemic.
  • Pharmacists described feeling stretched thin distributing medications and COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid say they are recruiting more workers to meet increased demand. 

In August 2021, Bled Tanoe was working as pharmacy manager in an Oklahoma Walgreens when she saw morale was flagging among her staff. She told them she would bring in pizza to perk the team up, when she realized a free pizza was nowhere near what she would need to fix the situation for her overworked staff.

“The state of pharmacies right now is beyond gift cards, jeans, or free pizza,” she told Insider, referencing some of the things companies have offered to pharmacists this year. That day, she went home and posted her reflections under the hashtag “pizzaisnotworking.” When she woke up the next morning, she was shocked to see it had been reposted over 500 times by other pharmacists sharing their own experiences. 

“I was grateful for the support, but very sad that so many people in the industry felt this way,” she told Insider. 

Insider spoke to 6 current and former pharmacists at CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid. Clinicians said they experienced burnout from high workloads and did not receive adequate support from the pharmacies to handle increased workload from COVID-19 vaccines.

Walgreens locations in Idaho recently shortened pharmacy hours due to lack of staff. Pharmacy patients said they experienced longer wait times at CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart locations in Indiana, Colorado, Kentucky, and Connecticut, according to local news reports.

The problem worsened as more people became eligible for COVID-19 vaccine and booster shots, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Food and Drug Administration authorized a Pfizer jab for kids aged 5 to 11 last month, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended all adults get a booster shot once eligible. 

“We are endlessly proud of Rite Aid pharmacists and pharmacy techs, as well as their peers at retail pharmacies across the country, for their integral role in the battle against COVID-19,” Rite Aid Chief Pharmacy Officer Jocelyn Konrad told Insider in a statement, noting that the company is “aggressively recruiting” new hires. 

A Walgreens representative recently told Insider the company was recruiting pharmacists in the fall to support demand for COVID-19 vaccinations, testing, and flu shots. The company raised its minimum wage for hourly workers to $15 this August, and offered technicians who become certified to administer flu and COVID-19 vaccines a $1,000 reward. 

CVS told Insider the firm is in the process of onboarding 20,000 new retail employees, including pharmacists and pharmacy technicians. The retail chain has also “begun the process of” adding pre-scheduled, daily break times.

Tanoe told Insider that the intense working conditions left her feeling like she might cause harm without having adequate time to do everything a pharmacist is supposed to do, like review all of a patient’s medications and check allergies before distributing a prescription.

Several other workers, who asked to remain anonymous, echoed Tanoe’s sentiments.

“We are expected to fill hundreds of medications per day, with less and less support staff, and more workload,” a former CVS pharmacist in Connecticut told Insider. “COVID has exacerbated this already inhumane situation.”

Another former CVS pharmacist in New York said she left in the fall due in part to fatigue and stress from the job. (Insider verified employment records of the pharmacists who asked to remain anonymous to protect their identities.)

At the start of the pandemic, the pharmacist said she had been the busiest in her entire career. But customers expressed gratitude for pharmacists working during the early months that made her job enjoyable. 

The pharmacist said she worked extra hours and still fell behind on filling prescriptions — and that was before the FDA authorized vaccines. After people began coming in for vaccinations, pharmacists struggled being the only clinicians who needed to check every prescription and administer vaccines. 

CVS told Insider thousands of stores operate vaccine clinics with a separate team of pharmacists who do not fill prescriptions or counsel patients.

Still, the pharmacist recalled some patients who grew agitated as stores got busier, including some people who ripped syringes out of her hands to “check it” due to misinformation-induced fear of microchips or other non-vaccine ingredients. 

“You could either focus on filling people’s prescriptions or you can focus on doing vaccines, but there was literally no way that you could do both,” the pharmacist told Insider. 

Read the original article on Business Insider

Meet the MIT professor who thinks he’s found biotech’s ‘holy grail’

Hello,

Welcome to Insider Healthcare. I’m healthcare editor Leah Rosenbaum, and today in healthcare news:

If you’re new to this newsletter, sign up here. Comments, tips? Email me at lrosenbaum@insider.com or tweet @leah_rosenbaum. Let’s get to it…


MIT Sloan School of Management professor Andrew Lo.
Andrew Lo studied financial models and behaviors for decades, before turning to the drug industry.

More than 90% of drug trials fail every year. A finance expert wants to help pharma predict when it will happen.

Dive in>>


A Sollis member receives care at home from an emergency physician.
Sollis offers in-home visits to its members for an additional cost.

See the 14-slide presentation a members-only concierge emergency-care startup used to raise $30 million in Series A funding

Read on>>


Rep. John Yarmuth, Rep. Carol Miller, Rep. Tom Malinowski and Rep. Marie Newman in front of Pfizer, Johnson&Johnson, and Moderna logos.

As the pandemic raged, at least 75 lawmakers bought and sold stock in companies that make COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and tests

Check it out>>


More stories we’re reading:


-Leah

Read the original article on Business Insider

2 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine cut the risk of hospitalization by 70% during Omicron surge in South Africa, real-world study finds

Omnicron coronavirus
A person is tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday November 27, 2021.

  • Pfizer’s shot cut hospitalization risk by 70% during Omicron surge, compared with no vaccine, a study found.
  • Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said it was a drop from 92% during Delta wave, but boosters “will help”.
  • The study didn’t confirm the cases were Omicron, so it’s not possible to tell precise effectiveness against the variant.

Two doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine shot offered about 70% protection against hospitalization during a recent surge in Omicron cases in South Africa, preliminary real-world data found.

This was a drop from about 92% in a previous Delta wave, the researchers from Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest insurer and South Africa’s Medical Research Council, said in a briefing Tuesday.  

Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council, said that boosters “will help” with the possible reduction in protection against hospitalizations, per local broadcaster eNews Channel Africa.

The preliminary study from South Africa, which hasn’t yet been formally published, is one of the first real-world insights into how much protection COVID-19 vaccines might afford against Omicron — a fast-spreading variant with 32 mutations in the part of the virus that infects cells and existing vaccines target. 

The study’s findings may be limited, however, because it assumed 78,000 of 211,000 lab test results from November 15 and December 7 were Omicron but didn’t confirm it. South African health officials said on December 2 that Omicron accounted for 70% of sequenced COVID-19 cases in the country in November. 

Simon Clarke, associate professor in Cellular Microbiology at University of Reading, cautioned that three weeks may not be long enough to give an accurate picture of how vaccines work against severe COVID-19. “It shouldn’t be forgotten that in the UK there was a five week gap between the first diagnosis and the first death,” he said in a statement to the Science Media Center Tuesday.

The latest analysis found that, compared with those who had not been vaccinated, the vaccine protected all age groups from admission to hospital with COVID-19 during South Africa’s Omicron wave, with protection ranging from the highest – at 92% – in 18 to 29 year olds, down to 59% protection in 70 to 79 year olds, according to the researchers. Older people were immunized first in South Africa so waning immunity may have contributed to the findings.

Early studies on Pfizer’s vaccine, from various labs worldwide, have already found a 20 to 40 fold reduction in antibody response against Omicron versus other variants.

It wasn’t clear from the experiments how well the vaccine would perform in real-life especially against severe disease, which relies on other components of the immune system, called T cells and memory cells, rather than antibodies. Antibodies stop the initial infection and then T cells and memory cells stop you from getting sick or dying, although a few people will inevitably become severely unwell from the virus. 

The South African researchers also said Tuesday that Pfizer’s vaccine was 33% effective against infection during the Omicron wave compared with 80% in the Delta surge. Antibodies are the first line of defence against infection so the reduction in protection could be in keeping with the lab studies.

Real-world data from the UK published Friday found that, after a booster, Pfizer’s vaccine was 70% to 75% effective against symptomatic COVID-19 caused by Omicron.

Read the original article on Business Insider

A ‘large wave’ of Omicron cases and hospitalizations is coming to the US, Biden official tells Axios

Women with mask, hat and gloves holds up rapid test.
A medical worker shows a COVID-19 rapid antigen test.

  • A Biden official warned “everything points to a large wave” of Omicron hospitalizations and deaths.
  • The Omicron variant currently appears to spread more rapidly.
  • “It won’t be as severe, but regrettably, there will be plenty of hospitalizations,” the official said.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus will bring a “large wave” of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations to the US soon, a senior Biden administration official told Axios.

“Everything points to a large wave. A large wave is coming,” said the official, who was not named in the report.

“It will be fast. It won’t be as severe, but regrettably, there will be plenty of hospitalizations.”

The Omicron variant appears to spread more rapidly, which means its likely to infect more people.

This means that even if the variant results in milder disease — which early evidence suggests it might — the variant could still bring about more severe infections.

Some European countries said their number of Omicron cases are doubling every two days, and warned of their health systems being overwhelmed. Many countries, such as the UK, are putting in new restrictions and ramping up booster vaccination efforts in response.

Experts are still rushing to figure if the variant is more infectious or more deadly, and if it weakens the effects of existing treatments and vaccines.

The Omicron variant has a high number of mutations, which is why experts are so concerned. Mutations are what can bring about changes in how infectious or deadly the variant is, or how it responds to treatments.

Pfizer announced last week that two doses of its coronavirus vaccine are less effective against the Omicron variant, but that a third dose greatly increases a person’s protection.

The UK has recorded one death of someone with the Omicron variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said as he warned that the variant was spreading rapidly.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Read the FDA report on the death of a woman who was taking a new Alzheimer’s drug, reigniting safety concerns

Hello,

Welcome to Insider Healthcare. I’m healthcare editor Leah Rosenbaum, and today in healthcare news:

If you’re new to this newsletter, sign up here. Comments, tips? Email me at lrosenbaum@insider.com or tweet @leah_rosenbaum. Let’s get to it…


A Biogen employee works in the company's lab
A Biogen employee works in the company’s lab.

A woman died while taking a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, increasing concerns about its safety. Read the FDA report on what happened.

See the document>>


omnicron swab
A passenger who arrived from Italy administers a self-collected nasal swab.

The most common Omicron symptoms include cough, fatigue, and a runny nose, according to health officials in the US and Europe

Read more>>


a man holds up three fingers, and his filled out CDC vaccine card, after getting a booster shot.
Dr. Richard Schwartz celebrates after receiving his COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine booster on October 6, 2021.

Here’s the data we have so far on the Omicron variant versus our vaccines — what scientists have found, and what remains unanswered

Here’s what we know>>


More stories we’re reading:


-Leah

Read the original article on Business Insider

Omicron could make you infectious more quickly than Delta — take a rapid test no earlier than a few hours before heading to a party, experts say

Women with mask, hat and gloves holds up rapid test.
A medical worker shows a COVID-19 rapid antigen test.

  • Experts have advised people to take rapid tests for COVID-19 hours before a party, not the day before.
  • A person with the new Omicron variant becomes infectious quicker than with Delta, early data suggest.
  • Make sure no-one attending the party has had cold-like symptoms in past few days, one expert added.

Partygoers should take a rapid test to check for COVID-19 closer to the start of an event, experts have said in response to the spread of the Omicron variant. 

People who catch the new Omicron variant become infectious much quicker than those with Delta, early data from the UK indicates. Testing too early could allow for cases to be missed, experts have cautioned.

The Omicron variant, which has 32 mutations in the part of the virus that infects human cells, is spreading fast in South Africa and the UK — possibly because its mutations help it partially escape the immune response from previous infections and existing vaccines. We still don’t know if Omicron will be more deadly than Delta – itself a mutated virus – which remains the most common variant worldwide, according to the World Health Organization

Michael Mina, former assistant professor in immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, said on Twitter Sunday that testing one or two days before an event “doesn’t work”.

“It doesn’t matter the type of test, the most important thing is to test just before the event of participation,” he said. You can go from “undetectable” to a “very high” number of virus particles, called a viral load, in 24 hours, he said.

Tim Spector, professor in genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said that the “transmission time” for Omicron was very short. People should take a rapid test “a few hours before leaving the house,” he told the Guardian Sunday, adding that people should wear a “high quality mask” if using crowded public transport to travel to an event.

Spector, who runs the Zoe COVID-19 symptom tracker app with 4.5 million users worldwide, said on Twitter Thursday that self-reported data from the app suggested the infection time was around 48 hours. Ideally rapid tests should be taken less than 12 hours before an event, he said.

“Avoid large gatherings and split your groups up into smaller ones where you can control the environment and get everyone to test that day,” Spector said, adding that people should also check no-one in attendance has had cold-like symptoms in the past three to four days, per the Guardian.

Spector said in a Tweet on December 5 that a Zoe app user attended a 60th birthday in the UK where all guests were vaccinated, some had received boosters, and all tested negative on rapid tests 24 hours before. Of the 18 in attendance, 16 reportedly caught Omicron that caused mild symptoms after the event, Spector said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people can use a rapid test regardless of vaccination status or symptoms. “A negative self-test result means that the test did not detect the virus and you may not have an infection, but it does not rule out infection. Repeating the test within a few days, with at least 24 hours between tests, will increase the confidence that you are not infected,” it says.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Fauci pleads with parents to get their children vaccinated as fewer than 1 in 5 eligible American children are protected against COVID-19

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.

  • The number of COVID-19 cases in children ages 5-11 has hit 2 million, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
  • Only 16.7% of US children ages 5-11 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • COVID-19 vaccination rates for children vary by state, mirroring the trend of the adult demographic.

Citing statistics that fewer than 1 in 5 US children ages 5-11 have been vaccinated against COVID-19, ABC’s “This Week” host George Stephanopoulos asked Dr. Anthony Fauci what message he has for reluctant parents during an interview on Sunday.

“If your child is five years of age and older, please get them vaccinated. We need to protect the children,” Fauci said. “This idea that children are not vulnerable at all is not so, George.”

Although children are statistically less likely to develop severe COVID-19 infections compared to adults and the elderly, Fauci said that the number of COVID-19 cases in children ages 5-11 sits at 2 million, which has resulted in nearly 10,000 hospitalizations and well over 100 deaths.

“It’s not only good for the health of the child but also to prevent the spread in the community. We have a very safe and highly effective vaccine for everyone, including children 5-11, and that’s the reason why we encourage parents to get their children vaccinated,” Fauci told Stephanopoulos.

As of December 5, estimates show that only 4.7 million of the 28 million children in the US ages 5-11, or 16.7%, have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Family Foundation. Only 4.3% of children are considered fully vaccinated, KFF stated.

“Overall, we find that after an initial period of high demand, vaccination progress among those ages 5-11 has slowed significantly,” KFF stated. “The rate of vaccination among 5-11 year-olds has slowed considerably, a drop that preceded the Thanksgiving holiday and has continued since.”

Similar to COVID-19 vaccination trends in adults, data shows that vaccination rates for children vary depending on the state. While the four states with the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates of children are in the northeastern US,  the four states with the lowest vaccination rates are in the South, according to data from the CDC COVID Data Tracker.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Former Trump advisor Peter Navarro defies House subpoena in COVID-19 probe, points to former president’s claim of executive privilege

Peter Navarro
Trade advisor Peter Navarro speaks with reporters outside the White House on July 27, 2020.

  • Former White House trade advisor Peter Navarro is refusing to comply with a House subpoena.
  • The select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis has sought documents pertaining to Navarro’s influence over health policy.
  • Rep. Jim Clyburn wrote that Navarro’s noncompliance to the subpoena “in its entirety” is “improper.”

Former White House trade advisor Peter Navarro — who tussled with scientists over the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and retains deep ties to former President Donald Trump — is refusing to comply with a congressional subpoena for documents, according to a letter sent to the investigating House panel.

In the correspondence addressed to Democratic Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, Navarro stated that he’s adhering to a “direct order” from the former president not to comply with inquiries from the panel regarding the Trump administration’s pandemic response.

“At this time, I am unable to respond to the Subpoena, based on former President Trump’s invocation of executive privilege with respect to the very topic covered by the Subpoena. … Therefore, until such time as the scope of the privilege is negotiated or negotiated, this matter is out of my hands and something that the Sub-Committee should discuss with President Trump’s counsel,” Navarro wrote in his letter to Clyburn.

According to The Washington Post, the clash with Navarro represents the first time that a witness has rejected a subpoena order issued by the select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis

House Democrats on Saturday disclosed Navarro’s response to their subpoena and made public their letter asking the former advisor to appear for a deposition before the subcommittee on Wednesday.

The subcommittee is investigating whether Trump officials impeded any scientific findings regarding COVID-19.

Clyburn, the House majority whip and chairman of the subcommittee, sent a sharply-worded response to Navarro.

“Your blanket refusal to comply with the subpoena in its entirety is improper,” he wrote. “Courts have clearly held that White House advisers, such as yourself, cannot avoid compelled congressional process. The records and information that you possess are critical to the Select Subcommittee’s investigations.”

He added: “Your refusal to comply is particularly indefensible given that you disclosed many details about your work in the White House, including details of conversations with the former President about the pandemic response, in your recent book and related press tour. The Select Subcommittee therefore expects you to promptly produce all responsive records and information in your possession and appear for a deposition on December 15, as the subpoena requires.”

Choosing to ignore a subpoena can place a potential witness in “contempt of Congress,” which can result in increased financial penalties and possible jail time.

House Democrats could push for a vote to hold Navarro in contempt for declining to appear before the panel.

In November, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was held in contempt for refusing to comply with subpoena issued by the House panel investigating the January 6 riot.

Bannon subsequently turned himself in to law enforcement after he was indicted on two counts of contempt of Congress.

In Navarro’s letter to Clyburn (which he mistakenly writes as “Rayburn,” where the offices for the subcommittee are located), the former advisor claims that he didn’t have access to documents from his government-issued account pertaining to COVID-19 decisions. 

During his time in the administration, Navarro advised Trump on a range of economic matters.

Navarro also pushed for individuals who had contracted COVID-19 to take the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, an unproven drug for treating the disease, and sparred with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases.

However, the former advisor also pushed the administration to get ahead of the pandemic early, warning in a January memo that the coronavirus could cause “half a million” deaths domestically.

More than 797,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the US, with nearly 49.9 million confirmed cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Read the original article on Business Insider

For every COVID-19 death ‘partisanship’ should be listed as a ‘contributing cause,’ expert says, but politicians on both sides of the aisle are still pointing fingers

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the center in front of a large coronavirus shape. Syringes, vaccine vials, and masks are scattered behind them on a red background.
Experts say partisanship are a key part of why the US hasn’t been able to get COVID-19 under control.

  • More than 790,000 Americas have died from COVID-19 since it first emerged two years ago.
  • Experts told Insider that one of the biggest contributors to US COVID-19 outbreaks is partisanship.
  • Politicians on both sides of the aisle still blame each other for the pandemic response. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the US for almost two years, but experts told Insider politics have played as much of a role as the virus itself. 

“For every single death certificate that has COVID-19 as a primary cause of death, partisanship should be listed as a contributing cause. This pandemic was politicized from day one,” Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a philanthropic foundation working on advancing public health policy, told Insider.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a cluster of patients began experiencing pneumonia-like symptoms on December 12, 2019, in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic

In the past two years, COVID-19 has infected close to 267 million people, including 49 million in the US alone, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The virus has killed more than 5 million people worldwide, including over 790,000 in the US. 

Castrucci, an epidemiologist, said politics have played a huge role in America’s inability to get the pandemic under control, especially as several states push to limit the role of public health officials or fight against public health efforts like vaccines and mask-wearing. 

“Politics has indelibly shaped this pandemic from the moment that our former president framed it as lives versus livelihoods, putting public health officials on the side of lives and somehow against livelihoods, which is simply not true. And that has contributed not only to the pandemic but to the open assault on public health officials, the harassment, the ridicule of public health officials. More than 200 [state and local public health officials] have been forced to resign, retire, or have been terminated,” Castrucci said. 

Anti-mask protestors march to the home of Utah Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
Anti-mask protestors march to the home of Utah Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

Problems with messaging go back to the beginning of the pandemic

Castrucci told Insider one of the contributing factors was the way officials spoke about the coronavirus from the start. He said when officials gave orders with certainty on the virus, it made it easier for people to distrust messaging as more information was learned and advice changed.

“I will honestly admit that there were public health officials at the federal level who spoke with far too great of certainty in the face of a novel virus,” Castrucci said. 

That lack of certainty made it easy for misinformation and disinformation to spread. For instance, at the very start of the pandemic in late February and early March 2020, health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, told Americans they did not need masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus, before switching course a few weeks later. 

Fauci said the advice was based on the shortages of masks for healthcare workers who needed that personal protective equipment most, not based on the effectiveness of masks against the virus. 

That messaging, however, contributed to the polarization around masks, Castrucci said. 

Briony Swire-Thompson, the director of the Psychology of Misinformation Lab at Northeastern University, told Insider the coronavirus pandemic “right off the bat was just primed for misinformation.” 

Swire-Thompson, who researches what drives people to believe in misinformation, told Insider falsehoods are more likely to spread when we don’t have all the facts. 

“We had nothing, especially in the early days, we really didn’t have anything to counter it with. It doesn’t take much to make up a piece of misinformation and share it online, but it took a really long time for us to even know what we were dealing with. I think right from the beginning, we were on the back foot,” she said.

“It’s a topic that people really do want answers and quick answers about,” she said. 

New York City municipal workers protest outside the Gracie Mansion Conservancy against the coming COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in New York.
New York City municipal workers protest outside the Gracie Mansion Conservancy against the coming COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in New York.

Politicians play a role in addressing and correcting misinformation

Swire-Thompson told Insider that politicians can play an important role in addressing misinformation because correcting it sometimes boils down to trust rather than expertise. 

“A politician with very little medical expertise or training in COVID or training in epidemiology can have a much bigger impact on people’s beliefs if they’re perceived to be trustworthy,” she said. 

That played a role in what Castrucci said was a public issue being discussed without actual health in mind. 

Castrucci told Insider the framing of the coronavirus was one of “lives versus livelihoods, which then fit into what is our basic political divide in this country, individualism versus collectivism.”

He said a recent poll conducted by de Beaumont showed that among those unvaccinated, 79% of respondents said they value personal freedom over community health.

An August USA Today/Ipsos poll also found that while 78% of Democrats said protecting the common good was more important than personal liberties, 62% of Republicans said protecting personal liberty was more important.

“So this was almost never a public health debate. This was almost never a conversation about health. This was a conversation about political ideology,” Castrucci said. 

In this Jan. 7, 2021, file photo, two nurses put a ventilator on a patient in a COVID-19 unit in Orange, California.
In this Jan. 7, 2021, file photo, two nurses put a ventilator on a patient in a COVID-19 unit in Orange, California.

Politicians, however, still point fingers at the opposite party

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have blamed each other for partisanship. GOP Sen. Ron Johnson told Insider that Democrats have “been pushing their agenda when Republicans just kind of want to let people live, but the left won’t let us.”

Johnson blamed Democrats for “draconian shutdowns” and said they refused to focus on medication to treat the symptoms of COVID-19, which he said Republicans were focused on from the beginning.

While he blamed Democrats for partisanship, Johnson opposed shutdowns to curb the spread of COVID-19. He was one of several GOP lawmakers who threatened to block the passage of the government funding bill if Democrats didn’t withdraw funding for President Joe Biden’s mandate that large companies get their employees vaccinated by January.

Stopping the bill would have shut down federal agencies. The senator from Wisconsin has also accused Fauci of overhyping the pandemic. 

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren blamed Republicans for not signing on to the pandemic relief package last spring.

“We know how bad the partisanship has gotten. And [during] a national emergency [we] probably should be working together. We can’t confirm government officials who need to be in place, we can’t confirm ambassadors who need to be foreign countries representing our interests, including working with local officials on public health issues,” Warren told Insider. “The impact of excessive partisanship on the part of the Republicans is hurting us in every dimension.”

GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw told Insider partisanship around the pandemic stems from the fact that Republicans and Democrats fundamentally view solving issues differently.

However, he blamed Democrats.

“Call me biased but I certainly blame the left. I mean, the side that wants to control more of your life is generally not the good guy. I do think their hatred of Trump and desire to make this a Trump pandemic played into a lot of the problematic policies that occurred and a lot of the partisanship that occurred,” Crenshaw said. 

Anthony Fauci (R), Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, speaks alongside US President Joe Biden as he delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant following a meeting of the COVID-19 response team at the White House on November 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Anthony Fauci (R), Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to the President, speaks alongside US President Joe Biden as he delivers remarks on the Omicron COVID-19 variant following a meeting of the COVID-19 response team at the White House on November 29, 2021 in Washington, DC.

‘Not only are we failing at this pandemic, we have already laid the path towards failure for the next.’

Castrucci told Insider that misinformation and disinformation online is helping solidify people’s viewpoints and further contributing to the polarization around the pandemic.

“It’s coming from internet newsletters, where people are suggesting that there have been many, many more deaths attributable to the vaccine and that disinformation,” Castrucci said. “I think the most important point is this is not been because people are anti-science. That’s an easy explanation. The more complex challenge is that they found scientists who agree with them.”

He added that a lack of attention to public health infrastructure and a belittling of the necessity for robust public health institutions and guidance has also expanded this issue. 

“There are 26 states that are actively pursuing or passed legislation, limiting public health authority. So not only are we failing at this pandemic, we have already laid the path towards failure for the next,” he said. “Those are political decisions and that’s what we have to reckon with.”

Castrucci said governors like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who have prohibited mask mandates and sued the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over cruise restrictions need to understand that public health is not a partisan issue and these efforts erode trust in health officials. 

“Public health is not one side of the aisle or the other. It’s the ground on which those very aisles are built …. Health is the foundation of our society. There’s nothing you can do if you are not healthy,” Castrucci said. 

Castrucci added that politicizing this issue has meant instead of fighting the virus, “we were debating each other.”

“As people were dying in this country, we debated wearing face masks,” he said. 

He said it was unfortunate that despite the toll of the pandemic, the country is still unable to depolarize this issue. 

“It is disheartening that the loss of 600,000 plus Americans didn’t get us there,” he said. “I mean, that’s, that’s three football stadiums full of people. That’s 600,000 tables with empty seats and that that loss of American life didn’t unify our country trivializes this loss. That’s what’s really disturbing.”

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