The omicron variant is fueling misinformation about COVID. Experts explain why and how to spot false claims. – USA TODAY

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Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic– and vaccines to fight it – existed long before the omicron variant arrived to the United States, but it appears to be fueling new and old claims.
As scientists continue to learn more about the new strain, public health experts say the dearth of instant data is prompting some to seek out whatever scant information they can find. Others are seizing the opportunity to spread disinformation.
“Those initial weeks when there’s scientific uncertainty, there’s a new pivotal window for that information environment to shift,” said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, associate research scientist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and a preparedness fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “When misinformation or disinformation can provide that certainty in a definitive way, that information can become more appealing.”
The latest claim stemmed from a social media post of an apparent movie poster with the title, “The Omicron Variant,” and a caption reading “An Italian film from 1963.” The Facebook post was shared 300 times in a day, and the same image was retweeted more than 1,700 times.
While some user comments claimed the poster predicted the appearance of the omicron variant, others said they believed it was proof global organizations invented the new strain to control the narrative of the pandemic.
“It is just a recycling of prior misinformation that is being fueled by something that is new and in the news,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “It gives it new life.”
The image turned out to be a movie poster from 1974 digitally edited as a joke, the image’s creator Becky Cheatle told USA TODAY in a Twitter message.
“That’s my handiwork,” she said. “I made them  just because I felt ‘the omicron variant’ sounded like a 70’s sci-fi movie title.”
Although Cheatle posted the image with a clear disclaimer that it was a digital alteration, and later clarified with a second post it was made as a joke, it fueled conspiracies.
Misinformation, however, is not limited to the online sphere.
Two-thirds of state medical boards said they saw an increase in complaints against doctors accused of spreading false information about COVID-19, according to a survey released Friday by the Federation of State Medical Boards. 
“The staggering number of state medical boards that have seen an increase in COVID-19 disinformation complaints is a sign of how widespread the issue has become,” said Dr. Humayun J. Chaudhry president and CEO of the FSMB.
Public health experts worry the resurgence in misinformation spurred by the appearance of the omicron variant will diminish confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters. They urge Americans to take a critical look at suspicious posts or claims before passing them onto family and friends.  
“That’s my major concern,” El-Sadr said. “Anything that can undermine vaccine confidence or dissuade anyone from getting a booster dose, all of that can be a setback for the COVID response.”
Instead of addressing specific claims, Piltch-Loeb said, the pandemic taught public health experts it’s more effective to train people to spot misinformation. 
“You don’t want to be stuck doing counter-messaging,: she said. “Another approach to consider is called ‘pre-bunking,’ giving the public a heads up that there’s going to be misinformation and disinformation out there, to think critically and don’t take everything at face value.”
The details may be different, but Piltch-Loeb said many false claims contain at least one of these characteristics:
Misinformation is woven into the information landscape and it’s difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, Piltch-Loeb said. But she hopes people willpause and critically think about claims before instinctively sharing them. 
“It’s an infodemic,” she said. “If you’re not sure (about a claim), do your best not to pass on the information.”
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.


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