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San Diego supervisors to consider declaring COVID misinformation a public health crisis

"Health misinformation about COVID-19 is causing people to die and contributing significantly to our struggles with the Delta variant."

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The San Diego County Board of Supervisors is meeting Tuesday to decide whether to adopt what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation policy of declaring COVID-19 misinformation a public health crisis and adopt a series of recommendations to actively combat it.

"Health misinformation about COVID-19 is causing people to die and contributing significantly to our struggles with the Delta variant," said board Chair Nathan Fletcher, who drafted the resolution.

"The reality that disinformation is leading people to use a medicine for horses, instead of the safe and FDA-approved vaccine, is unbelievable," he said in a statement released Monday. "I feel bad for those who fall victim to misinformation. It's ridiculous the amount of misinformation that is out there, and I want San Diego County to help stop it from spreading."

Speaking to the media Monday morning, Fletcher said, "Misinformation is literally killing people."

He explained the need, in his view, for more resources to deliver accurate information, such as a new website accessible to the public "so that they can make informed decisions based on the best science, research and advice of doctors, and things that we know are correct."

Watch the County Board of Supervisors meeting live:

Fletcher's proposal refers to an advisory issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, which labels "misinformation" as contrary to "the best available evidence," acknowledging that what counts as misinformation can change over time with new evidence and scientific consensus.

"I don't really think this is needed," said County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who pointed to this evolution of scientific consensus over the past year and a half, from advice on masking to vaccines to where the virus originated.

"Today's facts could be tomorrow's misinformation," Desmond told News 8. "Instead of blaming somebody else for misinformation out there, really what that tells me is that we, the county, should be doing a better job with the right information."

"COVID-19 is a very divisive, emotional issue," said News 8 legal analyst Wendy Patrick. "Everyone is concerned about public health."

Patrick said that at the heart of this divide is the First Amendment: the freedom of expression.

"So many people look at the evolving science that we have witnessed together collectively over the course of the past year, and they are saying, 'We want to hear new ideas, we want to hear from all sides, all viewpoints, so that we can make informed decisions about our own health,'" Patrick said. 

Fletcher said he "fully support(s) the First Amendment, and people's right to say and believe what they want, but we also have the right and responsibility to call out things that are objectively false. The pervasiveness of health misinformation was on full display at our Board of Supervisors meeting a couple of weeks ago, and we have an obligation to make sure we are defending the science and pushing back on the non-science."

"Nothing we are doing is going to infringe on someone's ability to say whatever it is they want to say," Fletcher added. "But we have to say what we have an obligation to say: which is that these statements are dangerous, are untrue and will hurt your health."

Along with the declaration, Fletcher developed a series of recommendations to actively combat health misinformation, which include:

-- devoting resources to identify and label health misinformation and disseminate correct information;

-- modernizing the county's public health communications to better understand gaps in this information;

-- expanding research efforts to better define and understand the sources of health misinformation, document and trace its costs and negative impacts, and develop strategies to address and counter it;

-- investing in resilience against health misinformation, including digital resources and training for health practitioners and health workers; and

-- working with the medical community and local partners to develop a website that will serve as a central resource for combating health misinformation.

Public health experts view health misinformation as a major contributor to rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and vaccine hesitancy. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently issued an advisory entitled "Confronting Health Misinformation" to push back on the bad science and lies.

Fletcher's office has spoken with several leading experts who also have noted that health misinformation poses a public health crisis.

"Health-related misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic has undermined public health efforts and has led to increased case numbers, putting an incredible burden on hospital systems, yet this threat has not been met with the coordinated and concerted efforts necessary to combat the problem," said Tara Kirk Sell, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Center for Health Security.

"I'm excited that the County of San Diego and its board has taken the first step towards responding to this urgent threat to public health and I look forward to working with them and other local governments to inform a coordinated approach to building a resilient health information ecosystem," Kirk Sell said.

WATCH RELATED: San Diego County Chair responds after public comment becomes heated during supervisors meeting