JoCo Health officials concerned misinformation — including from elected officials — is fueling COVID-19 spike

Shawnee masks

After some back-and-forth among city leaders over enforcement issues, the Shawnee City Council on Monday night decided to opt out of Johnson County’s recent pandemic health order. The health order is still in effect in Shawnee, regardless of the city council’s decision. This means that Shawnee will handle enforcement instead of utilizing county resources. File photo.

COVID-19 is highly contagious, but perhaps not as much as misinformation, Johnson County public health officials are finding out.

In the past week, as the case count has continued to soar in Johnson County and around the Kansas City metro, so has the discussion of highly disputed and debunked assertions, including ones about the health risks and effectiveness of masks and the skewing of death statistics attributed to the coronavirus.

Some of those views got a high profile airing last week during a special Board of County Commissioners meeting, when many of the 46 speakers who gave comment opposed new pandemic restrictions that were under consideration. But local elected officials with a broader personal reach have also jumped in from time to time.

Facebook removes Sen. Thompson’s COVID-19 post

The latest was former television meteorologist and newly-elected Kansas Sen. Mike Thompson, who recently posted a Facebook recitation of many of the points that have been argued by those opposed to masks mandates and the like.

The post has since been taken down by Facebook, which has begun removing post’s with misleading information. Thompson, a Republican, stands by what he wrote, saying he used extensive citations from accredited researchers.

“I’m not citing some voodoo witch doctor either. I’m looking at research coming out of accredited universities and research centers. Even though Facebook might disagree with that, the credentials of some of these speak for themselves,” he told the Shawnee Mission Post.

A COVID-19 focused Facebook post by newly-elected Kansas State Sen. Mike Thompson was taken down by Facebook, which has been removing posts it finds misleading. Thompson said he doesn’t believe the post contained misinformation. File photo.

In his since-removed post, Thompson mentions his background in meteorology.

“I know a thing or two about science,” he wrote, referencing his 40 years as a TV weather forecaster. “I can tell you that science is not achieved through consensus,” he said.

Science should not be used to “keep us frightened and compliant,” he went on.

Health official ‘strongly’ believes misinformation contributing to COVID-19 spikes

Thompson’s post made a number of claims that Johnson County Public Health Director Sanmi Areola identified as familiar misinformation that has been circulating throughout the country — for instance that masks lower blood oxygen levels and are detrimental for healthy people to wear, and that the number of deaths from COVID-19 is overstated.

Without knowing ahead of time who posted it, Areola said those assertions are typical of what comes over the health department transom every day from a variety of sources. He and county epidemiologist Elizabeth Holzschuh have said the health department gets hundreds of emails every week with misleading charts and cherry-picked statistics.

“They are based on inaccurate assumptions, which makes an already difficult job even more difficult,” he said.

“Right now it is not okay for you to be out there not wearing masks, and not physically distancing. You should right now assume everyone you come in contact with is infected,” he said, noting that last week’s 366 cases per day rate is almost four times as high as it was a month ago. “Infection is very, very high and right now is spiking. I strongly believe this misinformation is contributing to that.”

Johnson County Public Health Director Sanmi Areola said the worst type of misinformation surrounds the concept of herd immunity, saying the belief that individuals are not susceptible to the consequences of COVID-19 could not be further from the truth. File photo.

He also says the public mistrust created by these false and misleading assertions has resulted in less cooperation with his department trying to do contact tracing and less adherence to good health practices, Areola said. Although public health employees love what they do, he said they have been working long hours and weekends for months. The steady spread of the disease and non-cooperation wears on morale.

“It has been incredibly frustrating,” he said.

Then there’s the political element. At last week’s Board of County Commissioners meeting, Commissioner Mike Brown drew cheers from a gallery of onlookers by saying many people believe recommendations by County Public Health Officer Dr. Joseph LeMaster were made for political reasons.

Thompson charged in his Facebook post that “case rates are being grossly exaggerated and being used as the primary excuse to keep our economy on the verge of another shutdown,” although county leaders and health officials have emphasized that they want to avoid business shutdowns, and that continued community spread is the true long-term threat to the economy.

Areola said elected officials’ opinions carry extra weight as leaders of the community. With Thanksgiving coming up, he said, it would be better to have officials promote messages consistent with public health to reduce the number of infections.

Of all the misinformation, Areola said, the worst is that herd immunity can be achieved by letting young people go out and freely catch COVID-19, while resources are used to protect more vulnerable populations, like the elderly. Underlying that is the belief that “nothing will happen to [young people], they are not susceptible to adverse consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Areola said. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing to put out there but that’s out there locally but also nationally and that’s pretty sad.”

‘People need to have different opinions’ — Thompson said his post is not misinformation

Herd immunity was not mentioned in Thompson’s Facebook post.

But Thompson said people should be open to different sorts of research. “The problem with this whole thing is it’s very emotional and it makes objective approaches to dealing with this difficult,” he said.

Thompson compared the reaction to public health measures with those he used to get as a TV weatherman regarding tornado warnings: “You don’t want to cry wolf too often or people stop listening to you. I feel like this in some regards is a similar sort of thing. People are getting fatigued hearing this stuff.”

People should be willing to consider the impact on the economy and to look at other points of view, he said. “People are choosing which science they choose to believe and that’s not helpful,” he said.

After his Facebook post was taken down Sen. Thompson said he would be setting up an account on the conservative-leaning social media platform Parler.

But Thompson said he doesn’t believe his post contributes to public confusion.

“I think people need to have different opinions. This is where I think people misunderstand science too,” he said.

Thompson said he is always seeking out different scientific opinions. “I’m absolutely not a doctor, but I’m somebody who’s used to dealing with data. I understand that data can be misleading. Sometimes data can be used to lead you down a path that you’re not realizing.”

But Thompson did not agree that public health officials are playing politics and have the health of the people at heart. “Where I have issues is we need to look at bigger picture, all the side effects of theses shutdowns and mandates. I think public health officials don’t necessarily understand the economics.”

If people are going to evaluate scientific studies, Areola suggests they consider whether the researchers are trained in public health or in some other field. Public health officials worldwide are giving consistent advice on wearing masks and social distancing as the holidays approach, he said.

Commissioner concerned residents getting incomplete picture of public opinion on COVID-19 restrictions

Public meetings can also play a role in the spread of misinformation. Anyone who listens in on a county commission meeting may come to the conclusion that Johnson Countians are overwhelmingly against all manner of public health directives, said Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick. Lately the majority of speakers at public meetings have been passionately against most types of government directives requested by health officials, and many of them cite the same types of studies and information Thompson mentioned.

Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick said she’s concerned anyone listening to the Board of County Commissioners meetings will conclude that Johnson Countians are against public health directives, as many attendees have spoken against restrictions while citing studies similar to those in Thompson’s Facebook post. Hanzlick pointed out that individuals who believe in public directives may not feel comfortable coming to the meeting to speak. File photo.

But Hanzlick said listeners aren’t hearing the other side. Since opponents of masks, vaccinations and other health measures often crowd the stairwell gallery without masks or distancing, people who support those measures and those at risk don’t feel comfortable coming to speak, she said. A politely-worded email just doesn’t have the same impact.

Commissioners also have the policy of not engaging with speakers, so any misinformation goes unchallenged. All of that gives the questionable data more traction, she said.

Hanzlick said elected officials have a responsibility to convey accurate information.

“It’s distressing when elected officials actively undermine the professional opinion of public health officers,” she said. “At the same time, they’re entitled to their opinion on it.”

Meanwhile, Thompson told his Facebook followers he plans to soon switch to Parler, a newer social media platform that bills itself as a “free speech” alternative to Facebook and Twitter and has recently gained traction among some prominent conservatives. He said he’s not leaving Facebook altogether because they took down his post, though he was frustrated by the decision.

“I just want to be able to communicate as best I can,” he said. “I have their best interest at heart — not just the people who voted for me but everybody.”