President Joe Biden spent much of the last week publically blaming misinformation for the lagging vaccination rates in many American communities, and a new survey shows that some conspiracy theories enjoy widespread support in pockets of the country.
Cases of COVID-19 have tripled over the past three weeks, and hospitalizations and deaths are rising among unvaccinated people. While the rates are still sharply down from their January highs, officials are concerned by the reversing trendlines and what they consider needless illness and death. And cases are expected to continue to rise in coming weeks.
The rising numbers are being driven by large pockets of infection among the more than 90 million eligible Americans who have yet to get shots. Just four states with low vaccination rates made up 40% of new cases last week, and nearly half of them came from Florida alone.
“Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said Friday.
The White House has long acknowledged that, given rampant disinformation about the vaccines and the nation’s partisan divides, it would have little success convincing the GOP to get on board. Instead, administration officials have amped up criticism in recent days of public officials and social media companies for spreading or not condemning vaccine misinformation spreading among the GOP.
“They’re killing people,” Biden said Friday of social media companies. A day earlier, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy warned that false information about vaccines spreading on platforms such as Facebook posed a public health risk to the nation.
An Economist/YouGov poll released last week did not attempt to link false beliefs to social media use, but it did find wide confidence in a popular conspiracy theory among 1 in 5 Americans.
The Economist/YouGov asked 1,500 Americans to respond to a set of statements, including, “The U.S. government is using the COVID-19 vaccine to microchip the population.” Five percent of all respondents said the statement was “definitely true,” and 15% said it was “probably true.” Fewer than half of respondents — 46% — said it was definitely false.
The debunked theory has circulated widely in the past year, and proponents suggest implanted chips will be used at some future date to subjugate humanity. Reuters reported in late 2020 that a single video in support of the conspiracy had been viewed 27,000 times on Facebook.
The belief in the microchip conspiracy was most commonly held by lower-income voters, white non-college-educated Americans and Hispanic respondents, according to the published results. The theory was relatively evenly believed across four regions of the country: Northeast, South, Midwest and West. Some 29% of 2020 Trump voters thought the statement was either definitely or probably true. The survey recorded 0% of Biden supporters saying the statement was definitely true and 8% calling it “probably true.”
A smaller number of respondents — 17% — thought the statement “Vaccines have been shown to cause autism” was either definitely or probably true.
Two out of five Americans said the statements “Millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2020 general election” and “The threat of the coronavirus was exaggerated for political reasons” were probably or definitely true. More than half of respondents identified as Trump voters believed there was truth in the statements.
Many Americans remain resistant or unmotivated to get shots despite months of often creative efforts by federal and state officials and the private sector to spread information about vaccine safety and accessibility.
Surgeon General Murthy added that while the government can play an important role, “this has got to be an ‘all of the above’ strategy with everybody in,” including schools, employers, technology companies and individuals.
Following Biden’s statement, Facebook officials have rejected accusations of spreading misinformation.
“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister said in a statement. “The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet.”
The new government expression of frustration comes amid near disbelief that tens of millions of Americans continue to refuse to get vaccinated, needlessly extending the pandemic and costing lives, as health officials emphasize that nearly all serious cases and deaths are now preventable.
More than 99% of COVID-19 deaths and 97% of hospitalizations are among people who have not been vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.