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38% of US adults believe government is faking COVID-19 death toll

A man walks through
Enlarge / A man walks through “In America: Remember,” a public art installation commemorating all the Americans who have died due to COVID-19, on the National Mall September 21, 2021, in Washington, DC.

From the very beginning, misinformation has plagued the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, undermining efforts to stop the spread of the disease and save lives. New survey data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) spotlights just how monstrous the problem of misinformation is.

Among a nationally representative sample of US adults, 78 percent reported that they had heard at least one of eight common COVID-19 falsehoods and either said the falsehood is true or said they’re not sure if it’s true or false.

The most common falsehood that people marked as true was that “the government is exaggerating the number of COVID-19 deaths.” Thirty-eight percent of respondents said they had heard this falsehood and that it is true. An additional 22 percent said they had heard it but weren’t sure if it is true or false.

The finding is likely unsettling to the surviving loved ones of the nearly 756,000 Americans who have already died of COVID-19. It also squares with previous survey results from KFF showing that personally knowing someone who became severely ill or died of COVID-19 was one of the strongest motivators for convincing unvaccinated people to get vaccinated.

Since June 1, around 160,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 amid the wide availability of death-preventing vaccines. To date, only 68.4 percent of people eligible for vaccination in America (people ages 12 and above) are fully vaccinated. Nearly 79 percent have had at least one dose.

Myths and news

The next most common falsehoods respondents marked as true were that “deaths due to the COVID-19 vaccine are being intentionally hidden by the government”—18 percent said this is true and 17 percent said they aren’t sure—and that “pregnant women should not get the COVID-19 vaccine”—17 percent believe this and 22 percent are unsure. With more than 7.3 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered globally under intense monitoring, the vaccines have proven remarkably safe. Additionally, because pregnant people are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19, vaccination is especially recommended to protect pregnant people and their babies.

Among the remaining common falsehoods, 31 percent believe or are unsure whether COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to cause infertility. Twenty-eight percent believe or are unsure of whether Ivermectin is a safe and effective treatment for COVID-19. Twenty-five percent believe or are unsure whether you can get COVID-19 from a COVID-19 vaccine, while 24 percent believe or are unsure whether the shots contain a microchip. And 21 percent believe or are unsure whether the vaccines can change your DNA.

Susceptibility to misinformation was not uniform across the survey respondents, KFF noted. “Belief in COVID-19 misinformation is correlated with both vaccination status and partisanship, with unvaccinated adults and Republicans much more likely to believe or be unsure about false statements compared to vaccinated adults and Democrats,” the nonprofit health organization reported.

There were also differences based on what news sources people trusted. Belief in misinformation was highest in those who reported trusting conservative new sources. For instance, among Newsmax viewers, 46 percent believe or are unsure of four or more of the eight common falsehoods included in the survey. An additional 40 percent of Newsmax viewers believe or are unsure of between one and three of those falsehoods. Thirty-seven percent of OAN (One America News) viewers believe or are unsure of four or more falsehoods, and 43 percent believe or are unsure of between one and three. Among Fox News viewers, 36 percent believe or are unsure of four or more false statements, and 52 percent believe or are unsure of between one and three.

“One thing this study cannot disentangle,” KFF noted, “is whether this is because people are exposed to misinformation from those news sources or whether the types of people who choose those news sources are the same ones who are predisposed to believe certain types of misinformation for other reasons.”

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