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Why the distrust of public officials and news reports on COVID protocols?

lowes_mask_sign_may_2020.jpeg
RLH
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A sign outside a Leland, NC grocery store in May 2020

The highly contagious COVID-19 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom last month, is now present in North Carolina. While the vaccine is not yet widely available, the state still has a mask mandate -- just one of the steps Governor Roy Cooper has taken to stem the tide of the virus. 

Other measures include social distancing, curfews, and closing some businesses. But public trust in those protocols could be a direct result of a person’s primary information pipeline.

 

Connette Bradley is a health insurance broker who respects the mask mandate when she’s face to face with members of the public.  But she’s skeptical about claims made by public health officials.

"I don't think it's as deadly as people think…*I wear a mask out of a new-formed habit, because I feel like I do possibly prevent people from getting my germs, whatever germs I may have...I don't have any problem with that. My problem is with the inequity of the shutdowns."

Bradley said that policy, crafted by Governor Roy Cooper’s administration, was biased. 

"I mean, if you can fill a restaurant 50% capacity, why can't you fill a gym at 50% capacity?"

Michele Mott, a loan officer at a credit union in Wilmington, agreed that state officials bungled the coronavirus response, but for opposing reasons. 

"I think if we would have actually shut everything down for two whole weeks, there's a good chance that we wouldn't be in this situation right now. If we could have taken it seriously and actually closed everything and not just almost everything."

Bradley said her doubts are rooted in her mistrust of the information that comes out of Washington, D.C. and Raleigh and flows to the mainstream news media.

"I think they're receiving misinformation. And they're just gullible enough and are falling into the slum enough that they just spew it out. There's a lot of corruption."

 

Michele Mott has chronic health issues and said her life could depend on whether people wear a mask.  

 

"So I have Crohn's disease and I've been immunosuppressed on various different drugs for about four years now."

As Assistant Health Director in New Hanover County, Carla Turner, also a Registered Nurse, said new data continues to affirm the importance of masks to public health.

Why this statement is actually controversial in the United States is not entirely clear, but Turner has a theory.

"I can pull up Google right now and type in, ‘should I wear a mask?’ and I'm going to get hundreds of entries as to should I wear a mask on the pro side and on the con side.

 

"But what I want to caution people to do is to make sure that where you get your information is a trusted source, and it's based on science. I have yet to find any article from a trusted source that tells me that this mask is not helping me."

Connette Bradley said China is influencing the government and the information flow.  

"It’s always greed and money. Follow the money. And China is paying off people…They're paying off the politicians to disseminate what they want."

And the mainstream news media?  

"They don't check all the facts. They don't."

"When you are reading things that are in Twitter or in an email, you can't deny it." **

Bradley also trusts YouTube videos, Fox News, and Newsmax.  

Michele Mott prefers primary sources for her information.  

"I'm trying really hard to get impartial science data, but it is becoming more and more difficult as the pandemic wears on. So I have sort of leaned into more, um, Washington Post as my baseline for unbiased-as-you-can-get news.  

Mott doesn’t fully trust the Washington Post, either.  She reads it to learn about the studies its reporters cite.  Then she seeks out that research herself.    

"I feel like I can't really trust the media, especially about the pandemic. And I think a lot of that comes from even watching hurricanes on the Weather Channel, where you can tell that it's being dramatized almost and trying to make a big deal out of nothing."

What Mott and Bradley see as inconsistencies in public health policy are understandable, says Assistant County Health Director Carla Turner.  Officials have multiple factors to balance. 

 

But when skeptics point to the changing recommendations coming out of the CDC as evidence of something more sinister, she’s adamant:  

"This is a rapidly evolving situation and it does change and it is frustrating, but this is a novel virus, meaning we have never seen this type of virus before. And so novel being new meaning we're learning as we go along. Is that ideal? No, it is not, but that's the way we have to approach this."

Some raise questions about the divergence between what’s allowed and what is safe.  For example, is there a conflict between what Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci says about restaurants being a higher-risk choice during the pandemic – while state health officials urge people not to commingle private households and yet allow restaurants to be open at reduced capacity? 

 

Turner says no.  She rightly points out that state officials have never said going to a restaurant is safe.  

"But if you go into a restaurant the best way to protect yourself is this [holding up a mask]. So I don't think anybody's said it's safe to sit in -- and I'm much like Dr. Fauci. If we get restaurant food in my family, I drive by and pick it up and take it home. We're not sitting inside a restaurant either."

If separate groups of people each trust their own information sources, which often have mutually exclusive premises, how can citizens engage in debate – much less find any agreement?

Michele Mott thinks exploring the fear built into opposing views is a good place to start.    

"So I think if the left that is pushing science very hard or the science-based folks can say I understand why you're afraid to have shutdowns. I understand that you're afraid of the economy shutting down. I understand your fears.

 

"And then from the other side, the same thing:  I understand that you're afraid people will die from this.  And kind of say, okay, so … how do we keep people safe and alive and also keep the economy open and booming and getting back to our normal lives? Is there a middle ground on that?"

But there’s no middle ground when it comes to wearing a mask, said Mott, regardless of beliefs.  

"I feel the same way as I do about drunk drivers. Like there's no good excuse for it. There's no reason not to.  Even if you don't believe the science or even if you think the government is overreaching, it's a mandate just like shoes and a shirt to go walk into this place, but you don't have the right to breathe on me."

There are beliefs, and then there’s plain old Covid fatigue.  Assistant County Health Turner said she understands.  

"I get that.  I'm a human being. I'm living it every day with you, but know that there is a light at the end of this tunnel, but we have to continue with the three Ws. And we have to encourage folks to get the vaccine if we want to be able to step out on the other side."

Both Bradley and Mott say they’ll get the shot when their doctors advise it.  

Editor's Notes:  After this story was published, Connette Bradley wrote to us with two clarifications. 

*She had what she thought was Covid before officials its presence in North Carolina, as did several of her friends.  This is why she's not convinced it's "as deadly as people think". 

**She also had this to say:  "When I said if you read something on Twitter, it can't be denied, I meant if someone writes a tweet, and I read it, they can't deny what they said...as with Kamala tweeting to raise money to help get rioters out of jail."

Those three Ws are:  wash your hands, wait six apart, and wear a mask when not in your home.

For more information on North Carolina Covid-related mandates and directives, follow this link:

https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/about-covid-19/latest-updates

For information on getting the Covid-19 vaccine, follow this link:

https://covid19.ncdhhs.gov/vaccines