The COVID-19 patient’s health was quickly deteriorating at a Michigan hospital, but he was having none of the doctor’s diagnosis.
Despite dangerously low oxygen levels, the unvaccinated man didn’t think he was that sick and got so irate over a hospital policy forbidding his wife from being at his bedside that he threatened to walk out of the building.
Dr. Matthew Trunsky says he didn’t hold back, telling the man: “You are welcome to leave, but you will be dead before you get to your car.’ ”
Such exchanges have become all too common for doctors facing COVID denial and misinformation that have made it exasperating to treat unvaccinated patients during the coronavirus surge driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.
The Associated Press asked Dr. Carl Lambert, a family physician at Rush University Medical Center, and five other doctors from across the country about misinformation and denial regarding COVID they face. Here are their stories:
DR. CARL LAMBERT, CHICAGO:
Nicki Minaj is wrong
Lambert hears lots of wild misinformation from his patients. Some comes from Bible interpretations, some from rapper Nicki Minaj.
Some is the stuff of Internet conspiracy theories. People cite falsehoods spread on social media, according to the Chicago physician, who says he’s had patients tell him microchips are embedded in vaccines as part of a ploy to take over people’s DNA.
“Impossible scientifically,” he tells them.
He also hears patients saying the vaccine will weaken their immune systems. He responds: “Immunology 101: Vaccines help your immune system.”
Recently, he got a flurry of messages from patients worried about damage to their testicles — a rumor he traced to a tweet from Minaj, who spread false information that the vaccine causes impotence.
“And I was, like, ‘That’s outlandish,’ ” says Lambert, who says he now has to do “a lot of just kind of counseling that I did not expect to have to do.”
Some of the misinformation is delivered from the pulpit, he says. People have sent him sermons saying the vaccine is “ungodly, or there’s something in it that will mark you” — a reference to a verse in the Book of Revelation about the “mark of the beast” that some Christians cite as a reason for not getting vaccinated.
“There’s a mixture of, like, almost fear,” Lambert says, “and saying, ‘Hey, if you do this, maybe you’re not as faithful as you should be as, say, a Christian.’ ”
Most often, though, he’ll have patients just wanting to wait, uneasy with how quickly the vaccine was developed and suggesting that the pandemic will end on its own.
He warns them: “Please do not try to wait out a pandemic. A pandemic will win.”
Lambert says his job is “a lot of just dismantling what people have heard,” answering their questions and reassuring them that “vaccines work like this, just like when we were kids.”
He has changed some minds.
“I’ve had patients that maybe four months ago said, ‘You are wasting your time. Dr. Lambert, I don’t want to hear you talking about it.’ And they’ll come back and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’ve been watching the news. I’ve seen some stuff. I think I’m ready now.’ ”
DR. VINCENT SHAW, LOUISIANA:
‘Stop looking at Facebook’
When patients tell Dr. Vincent Shaw they don’t want the COVID-19 vaccine because they don’t know what’s in it, he pulls up the ingredient list for a Twinkie.
“Look at the back of the package,” Shaw, a family physician in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says he tells them. “Tell me you can pronounce everything on the back of that package. I have a chemistry degree. I still don’t know what that is.”
Then, there are the fringe explanations, like this one: “They’re putting a tracker in, and it makes me magnetic.”
One explanation left Shaw speechless: “The patient couldn’t understand why they were given this for free because humanity, in and of itself, is not nice, and ‘people aren’t nice, and nobody would give anything away. So there’s no such thing as inherent good nature of man.’ And I had no comeback for that.”
Some who get mild cases tell him they now have natural immunity and can’t be reinfected. “No, you’re not a Superman or Superwoman,” he tells them.
He says one of the biggest issues is social media. Many patients say something they saw on Facebook made them decide against getting vaccinated.
“I am, like: ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ I shake my head, ‘No, no. That is not right, no, no. Stop, stop. Just stop looking at Facebook.’ ”
DR. STU COFFMAN, DALLAS:
Knows he can’t convince some people
Dr. Stu Coffman, a Dallas area emergency physician, says he has patients tell him they’re scared about vaccine side effects. They don’t trust the regulatory approval process and raise disproven concerns that the vaccine will harm their fertility.
The most surprising thing someone told him was that there was “actually poison in the mRNA vaccine” — a baseless rumor that originated online.
He can’t understand the pushback.
“If you’ve got a gunshot wound or stab wound, or you’re having a heart attack, you want to see me in the emergency department,” Coffman says. “But as soon as we start talking about a vaccine, all of a sudden I’ve lost all credibility.”
He sees the key to overcoming hesitancy as being to figure out where it originates. When people come to him with concerns about fertility, he can point to research showing the vaccine is safe and their issues are unfounded.
But he says of those who think the vaccines are laced with poison: “I’m probably not going to be able to show you anything that convinces you otherwise.”
DR. RYAN STANTON, KENTUCKY:
Amazed at conspiracy theories
Dr. Ryan Stanton recently had a patient who began their conversation by saying, “I’m not afraid of any China virus.”
That warned him about what he might be up against in dealing with the patient’s politics and misguided beliefs about the virus.
Stanton blames conspiracy theorists for spreading some of the misinformation that has taken root. Among them is that the vaccine contains fetal cells. Another said it “is a simple fact that the vaccine has killed millions.”
“In fact,” Stanton says, “that couldn’t be more wrong.”
There was hope after the vaccines arrived. But then came the Delta variant and a slowdown in immunizations.
“Really, it amazes me the number of people who have this huge fear, conspiracy theory about vaccines and will honest to God try anything, including a veterinary medicine, to get better,” Stanton says.
DR. ELIZABETH MIDDLETON, SALT LAKE CITY:
‘I should have been vaccinated’
Dr. Elizabeth Middleton, a pulmonary critical care doctor at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City. says COVID patients she’s treating often cite a fear of side effects to explain why they haven’t been vaccinated.
As they get sicker and sicker, Middleton says, “They sort of have this sinking look about them, like, ‘Oh, my God. This is happening to me. I should have been vaccinated.’ ”
She’s heard some speculate there must be a “secret agenda” behind the push to get vaccinated.
“ ‘There must be something wrong if everyone is forcing us to do this or everyone wants us to do this,’ ” patients tell her. “And my response to that is, ‘They are urging you to do it because we are in an emergency. This is a pandemic. It is a national and international crisis. That is why we are pushing it.’ ”
Middleton says she tries not to push vaccines too hard and perhaps risk losing patients’ trust.
Often, people who have been on ventilators need no convincing.
“They are, like, ’Tell everyone that they have to be vaccinated. I want to call my family. They need to be vaccinated.’ ”
DR. MATTHEW TRUNSKY, MICHIGAN:
Facebook post unleashes his frustration
For Trunsky, the vaccine pushback grew so intense that he posted on Facebook about eight encounters he’d had in just the previous two days at Beaumont Hospital in Troy, Michigan, with COVIDpatients explaining their misinformation-fueled reasons for not getting vaccinated or demanding unproven treatments.
Example No. 5 was a patient who told him he’d rather die than get the vaccine. Trunsky’s response: “You may get your wish.”
He has had patients tell him the vaccines aren’t proven and only experimental, though, in fact, neither is true.
Others tell him getting vaccinated is a “personal choice and that the government shouldn’t tell me what to do.”
He also has heard patients say they were too sick and didn’t want to risk side effects.
One young mother told him she wasn’t vaccinated because she was breastfeeding, though her pediatrician and obstetrician had explained that it was safe and urged her to get the shots. She ended up being hospitalized but eventually got a shot.
Some patients threaten to call lawyers if they don’t get a prescription for the veterinary drug Ivermectin, commonly used by vets to kill worms and parasites. They get angry when told it’s not a safe coronavirus treatment, has harmful side effects and that there’s little evidence it helps with COVID.
Trunsky estimates he has cared for 100 COVID patients who have died — including the man who threatened to walk out of the hospital.