By: Leah Alsept
Perspectives of those who were affected by not only the physical effects COVID-19, but the misinformation that came along with the pandemic
“She got so sick… My mom’s like, ‘she looked like skin and bones. She looked like she was gonna die.’”
That was the reality that University of Findlay student Tim Cunningham faced when he found out his family’s longtime neighbor was taking ivermectin to prevent contracting coronavirus.
The problem: ivermectin does not prevent contracting the virus or the lessening of symptoms associated with it.
Ivermectin, an anti-parasitic medication used to treat roundworms and threadworms in humans and animals, was also being tested in-vitro for use on coronavirus patients during the early stages of the pandemic. According to a peer reviewed article in BMC Infectious Disease released in July 2021, treatments of ivermectin during clinical trials found no significant change of the patient’s status while taking the drug for coronavirus. BMC Infectious Diseases is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on all aspects of the prevention, diagnosis and management of infectious diseases.
A large-scale trial of coronavirus patients in Brazil has shown that ivermectin did not reduce COVID-19 symptoms or improve patient’s condition, as reported by The Wall Street Journal on March 18.
Hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin were also being tested in scientific clinical trials to see if they could be repurposed to fight the coronavirus disease. Dr. Robert Charvat, immunologist and biologist and science professor at the University of Findlay, was front seat to this information as he saw it on social media.
“Hydroxychloroquine… changed the pH inside the cells and that was a necessary step for viral infection,” Charvat said.
Hydroxychloroquine is a less toxic derivative of chloroquine, and in a 2017 study published in the National Library of Medicine shows that chloroquine is effective in treating viral diseases in their early stages.
Early on in the pandemic, scientists published studies of clinical trials that hydroxychloroquine was helping prevent COVID-19 in vitro – meaning inside a test tube – outside a living organism.
“Neither hydroxychloroquine plus azithromycin nor hydroxychloroquine alone reduced upper or lower respiratory tract viral loads or demonstrated clinical efficacy in a [non-human primate]…” wrote the National Institute of Health (NIH) about a clinical trial done on monkeys. “In a large randomized controlled platform trial of hospitalized patients in the United Kingdom… hydroxychloroquine did not decrease 28-day mortality when compared to the usual standard of care…” the organization said about another study.
Results from trials like these caused the NIH and other medical and scientific organizations to advise against the use of hydroxychloroquine outside of a hospital or clinical trial situation.
The “Zelenko Protocol,” a drug cocktail of hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, and zinc, was created by a New York-based doctor, Vladimir Zelenko, who gave it to his patients and said they recovered 100% from the virus, in a now-deleted video addressed to Former Pres. Donald Trump.
Trump touted the use of hydroxychloroquine in 2020 being used to treat the coronavirus as he claimed taking the drug to prevent coronavirus infection. This gave hydroxychloroquine a lot of media attention.
Conservative pundits followed suit. Sean Hannity, a popular talk show radio host, went to Fox News to talk about his interview with Zelenko on his show to Former Vice Pres. Mike Pence. Media Matters is an organization dedicated to fact-checking 24-hour national news channels instances of misinformation. The group released a study that found Fox News promoted hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 146 times in a span of five days.
“But the problem was that individuals saw hydroxychloroquine and said ‘Oh, I know that people use that for their aquariums and their fish,’” Charvat explained. “So a lot of people were running out to pet stores and scooping up hydroxychloroquine and a lot of people got sick and died.”
There is one instance where Americans have had severe reactions from taking the fish cleaner version of chloroquine. An Arizona man ingested chloroquine from fish cleaner chemicals and died shortly after arriving at the hospital in March 2020.
While working at a bakery in his native Youngstown, Ohio, Cunningham saw his coworkers dismiss COVID-19.
”A lot of my coworkers at the bakery though were like, 40, 50, 60-year-old men, you know, they grew up in a different time. They all hated the idea of wearing masks,” Cunningham said. “They all thought it was like ridiculous. And it was unnecessary. None of them got vaccinated. None of them believed in the vaccine.”
Trump downplayed the severity of the coronavirus during the first three months of 2020. The Washington Post found 31 instances of Trump comparing COVID-19 to the flu, even saying “it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”
In late September 2020, it was revealed that Trump knew the severity of the pandemic and talked about it with Watergate journalist Bob Woodard over the phone.
Partisan divides over the pandemic are starkly contrasted. The Pew Research Center found in Feb. 2021 that the way people thought the pandemic affected the United States depends on political leaning.
Political leaning was also found to shape the way Americans consume the news. Pew found that Americans with consistent conservatives beliefs are tightly clustered around one news source: Fox News. Conservative Americans are also more likely to see posts on social media that align with their beliefs; Americans with consistent liberal ideology are more likely to block or defriend someone on social media due to disagreements about politics.
“I think that to get out of the bias bubble first, we have to admit that we’re each biased and then recognize that we need to get information from multiple sources,’ says Dr. Diana Montague, communications professor at the University of Findlay.
Montague sees people unable to break out of their filter system – a system that impacts the news and types of news sources that we seek out.
“Many people don’t consider [a filter] to be able to acknowledge and deal with other messages that may have information that either they don’t agree with or they had never heard before,” she said.
Charvat, who gets a lot of his news from scientific literature, knows that the general public – non-scientists — could have trouble understanding the results from a medical journal.
The ability of individuals to access scientific literature can be a bit of a challenge. Some journals have paywalls, so in order to access those journals you actually have to pay a subscription fee. So that limits the public’s access to scientific research articles,” Charvat said. “An accountant may not understand the molecular biology that goes into developing new therapeutics. So being able to digest that information might also pose a challenge.”
The constant changing of scientific results posed a challenge for the public – who, when faced with scientific information that changed over the course of a clinical trial, retreated back into their own beliefs – whether based on science or not, says Charvat.
“Individuals that thought that might be a viable treatment option for COVID, when presented with information that’s like ‘look, ivermectin’s not approved, it’s not safe, it’s not the best approach,’ either didn’t listen or retracted further into their belief that ivermectin would work,” he said.
And those who don’t look to the news, Montague says, don’t realize the impact they have when they don’t go to an unbiased source first.
“When you have your viable, real news media out there struggling to get the information they need and get it out to the population and it takes longer because they need to go verify it,” Montague explained. “But in the meantime, you have different social media feeds that are just throwing out whatever. Sometimes people will go to that first.
But how can Americans begin to get out of an echo chamber of news?
There are several fact-checking websites and media literacy resources on the web – for free – for Americans to access. Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org are all fact checking resources that consistently update with different events in the news.
“We need to acknowledge what type of source we’re getting that information from and whether or not we can take that information and assume that it is truthful and accurate and factual,” says Montague.
AllSides.com provides users with a media bias chart rating the bias from far left to far right bias of news organizations.
Cunningham, who contracted COVID-19 three times – all before a vaccine was released, doesn’t understand how his Youngstown neighbor can believe in conspiracies.
“Trump ran for president and now she’s literally insane… She believes in gangstalking. She thinks anyone who drives by her house is like out to get her or following her,” he said. Cunningham mows her lawn in the summer. When he returned home from UF last December, she told him about the reptilian race of democrats.
“How do people who believe in these conspiracy theories live in like constant fear? Like where does that get you in life? Where do you go? You can’t go anywhere. You’re so sucked into this hole. And like you can’t get out,” he said, exasperated. “And then you surround yourself with other people who are also in this hole. So there’s no way for any of you to get out of it. Cause you’re all just like corroborating the same ideas off each other.”
Correction (4/19/22): An error was made in a previous version of this article stating that the drug remdesivir is a derivative of hydroxychloroquine. A correction has been made removing the link to the two drugs.