21. Fighting COVID-19 Vaccine Myths featuring Dr. Todd Wolynn

Published April 7, 2021

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Show Notes

What can YOU do to fight against COVID-19 vaccine disinformation and misinformation on social media? Alliance President and CEO Sue Peschin talks with Dr. Todd Wolynn about best practices for dispelling myths about vaccines.

Todd Wolynn is a pediatrician and child advocate who is the Chief Executive Officer of Kids Plus Pediatrics, Executive Director of the Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh, and co-founder of Shots Heard Round the World, which defends and protects Vaccine Advocates from large, coordinated Anti-Vaxxer social media attacks.

Follow Todd on Twitter at @DrToddWo.

Kids Plus Pediatrics covers a range of topics pertinent to grandparents. Check out the KPP Facebook page, including Facebook Live sessions Thursday 10 to 11 a.m. ET, co-hosted by Todd: https://www.facebook.com/KidsPlusPediatrics. You can also listen to the Kids Plus Podcasthttps://kidspluspgh.com/our-story/podcast/.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hello everyone, and welcome to This is Growing Old, a podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. My name is Sue Peschin, and I’m the President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. It’s really hard to believe that we’re over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s been a very devastating and difficult time. And while life isn’t completely back to normal yet, there are some promising signs that make us hopeful, like the fact that nearly half of older adults over the age of 65 are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. But we won’t be able to truly return to normal unless enough of the population gets vaccinated. And unfortunately, even though there are safe and effective vaccines, disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is still pretty widespread, especially on social media. We all have a responsibility to stop the spread of harmful myths about vaccines and promote science.

Sue Peschin:

And today’s guest, Dr. Todd Wolynn, will share best practices to do just that. Dr. Wolynn is a pediatrician and child advocate, who is the Chief Executive Officer of Kids Plus Pediatrics, Executive Director of the Breastfeeding Center of Pittsburgh, and Co-founder of Shots Heard Round the World, which defends and protects vaccine advocates from large coordinated anti-vaxxer social media attacks. Todd, I can only imagine that you’ve been quite busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Todd Wolynn:

Thanks very much for having me.

Sue Peschin:

So first, could you please define the difference between disinformation and misinformation for our audience?

Todd Wolynn:

So, I tell people to think of misinformation as information that’s inaccurate, that’s shared, but not often with ulterior motives or with malice. So, misinformation is just erroneous inaccurate information. Disinformation is purposefully inaccurate information that is often shared and pushed out with an agenda. And that agenda can be a variety of things, but oftentimes revolves around things like profit and political gain and power, trying to gain power through increased popularity of their message.

Sue Peschin:

That’s terrific. I’m so glad you explained that for people, because I hadn’t heard that before.

Todd Wolynn:

They’re both harmful, but one is purposely harmful.

Sue Peschin:

Please tell us more about your professional life, and your journey to become an expert in this area?

Todd Wolynn:

So, I’m the CEO of an independent pediatric practice here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I am a pediatrician, born and raised in Pittsburgh, still in Pittsburgh. I was a lactation consultant for 25 years and really, I can’t say that heading into my career, I thought I would be doing so much with communication and information, but here I am. So, I will say that in my journey as a physician, I have gained complete respect for the importance of being a good communicator. That’s one, and I’ve also now recognized over these past three years, just how damaging disinformation can be.

Sue Peschin:

Well, these types of myths about vaccines were prevalent long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. So, when did you first start to notice vaccine disinformation and misinformation showing up on social media?

Todd Wolynn:

I appreciate you pointing out the fact that disinformation and anti-vaccine rhetoric has been around since the time of Jenner, the very first vaccines in the 1700s and 1800s. My journey into this world happened in 2017. Our practice in Pittsburgh is called Kids Plus Pediatrics, we’re known to be a little bit unique in that we really work very hard in the realm of communication, so much so that we have a full-time communications director, and we actually have a full production studio in our practice. And so in 2017, we actually decided to put out a 90-second PSA, a Public Service Announcement that was a video featuring all of our providers in our practice talking about the HPV, human papillomavirus vaccine, and talking about how important it was, as a means of preventing cancer, because we now know it prevents six types of cancer.

Todd Wolynn:

And at that time, the CDC was saying not nearly enough people were getting it, were literally letting people walk through our practice, and out of our doors nationally without protection. And so, we created this video, and it was amazing, 15,000 views. People calling up our practice and saying, “Wow, we want to get an appointment for our son or our for our daughter. Thank you so much for putting this message out there.” Three weeks after that video was launched, and after the 15,000 views, it was dropped into an anti-vaccine group, who in one of the first recorded large scale global coordinated anti-vaccine attacks started to attack our practice’s social media. So, what eventually happened over a six to eight-day period was that we had over 800 and… I forget like 850 different Facebook accounts who posted over 10,000 times to our Facebook page, really just huge amount of vitriol, hate, threats. They attacked our Google and our Yelp ratings, tried to attack our Facebook ratings, all because we decided to have the audacity to put up a 90-second message about making sure you got your HPV vaccine.

Sue Peschin:

Wow. That is nuts. It’s nuts.

Todd Wolynn:

It is nuts. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit of the norm. And I will say, and I hate to use kind of military terms, but anti-vaxxers and anti-science and other people with agendas like this are kind of bullies, and they’re used to attacking what I would describe as soft targets. So, a pediatrician or a pediatric practice, I would view as a soft target. They aren’t oftentimes prepared to deal with these kinds of attacks, more often than not, they’ll take down the post for fear of it continuing to increase the attack. And the anti-vaxxers actually celebrate this.

Todd Wolynn:

And I can tell you, we know all this, because we were getting screenshots from inside the attack. So, there are moles, there are people that are pro-science inside these groups who were sending us messages saying, “Wow, you better get prepared. They’re ready to attack you. Here’s some of the things they’re now doing to prepare to attack you.” And so, in coordinated fashion, they not only attack people that want to push forth evidence-based factual information, but they want to try and smear your reputation, while they’re also spreading their own disinformation.

Sue Peschin:

Wow. That just sounds awful.

Todd Wolynn:

It was terrible. The one thing we always say is they picked on the wrong group, because we decided to fight back, and we did. We fought back with research. We created a toolkit on how to prepare defending cleanup from these attacks. We created a digital calvery that’s now 1,000 strong of vetted volunteers. And I’ve been on a three-year road trip, both nationally and internationally creating awareness about this.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. That’s so great. Well, so you talked about how they went after you. I’m wondering how it plays out in the public. Why is it so harmful for this disinformation and misinformation to spread on social media? What have you seen play out?

Todd Wolynn:

Sure. So, for your listeners, I would like to point out that almost everybody, if you do surveys, well over 80%, 90%, depending on the demographic, 95% are using some form of social media, right? It doesn’t matter the age at this point, in 2021, everybody’s using some form of it. And what happens is that the software, the algorithms that drive what shows up in your suggestions to see or look at is driven in a very targeted way by your demographics. They take account for your age, your race, your gender, and what I like to say in 2021 and beyond is that social media delivers you your own little slice of hell, depending on what your demographic is. So, if you’re a woman between the ages of 20 to say 40, and disinformation is going to be served up to you, it’ll oftentimes reflect things like infertility or miscarriages, which are entirely false, but that’s why they deliver them.

Todd Wolynn:

If you’re in a group, a minority or African American, they’ll oftentimes evoke imagery of when experimentation like Tuskegee experiments were done on minorities in an atrocious history of science, but clearly not going on now, but they’ll try and sow distrust. If you’re a 70-year-old white male in the Midwest, they may try and explain that the government’s trying to take over, and they’re trying to control you with this vaccine with the mind control or chips being embedded into the vaccine.

Todd Wolynn:

So, it’s very nuanced and targeted disinformation. And I do want to point out, people might say, “Well, why would you want to spread disinformation about vaccines, what’s to be gained?” There are people that I would say, unfortunately, maybe ungrounded and believe the earth is flat and that vaccine is out to get you, but as I said earlier on with disinformation, there’s ulterior motives, and the people that pull the strings on those, are people that are trying to grab large swaths of demographics to swing to their side, whether it’s again, for profit. “Don’t use vaccines, but use our mineral oil or our essential oils or our crystals.” Or, “Government’s trying to get into your business, don’t get that vaccine and vote for me,” right? There’s the political gain or the power.

Todd Wolynn:

And you also have to realize that social media algorithms price and incentivize sensational content. So, what you won’t see blow up on social media is, “Today, 4 million people in the US got vaccines, and nobody got sick.” That’s not sexy. What you will see get pushed is, “Pharmaceutical companies and government are in bed with doctors to make money. And here’s what you don’t know,” right? And throw out a little conspiracy. And that’s what… And I know we’ll get to the point of what can listeners do, but you have to be mindful of the content that you gravitate to, and certainly what you share. Oftentimes, I see parents and grandparents saying, “Oh my God, did you see this?” And they’ll share it, and it looks horribly sensational, and oftentimes, that’s because it is called clickbait. It’s targeted for you to click on, because they make money every time you click on it, and it doesn’t have to be true, but it’s scary.

Sue Peschin:

Wow. Well, we have a lot of listeners that are older adults and many are grandparents, some of them are primary caregivers of their grandchildren. So, I think it’s important with regard to the COVID-19 vaccines to just talk about a little bit more specifically about what’s going around social media. And I don’t want you to be repeating myths necessarily to perpetuate them, but framing them in a sense of just giving some examples, and then countering the disinformation.

Todd Wolynn:

Absolutely. And very great point, because when we talk about these lies and mistruths and disinformation, we always state the fact first. So, the first thing that you should know about the COVID vaccines, that we now have three that are approved, and that’s Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson, is that all three have been shown to be incredibly effective and incredibly safe. And so, the myths, right? The misinformation and disinformation that’s floating around out there, the first thing we hear is, “Well, wasn’t this rushed to market? Doesn’t it take much longer to develop a vaccine?”

Todd Wolynn:

The answer is yes, it typically takes several years, but what was shortened here was not the safety nor the effectiveness part of the studies. What was shortened was the investment part, because in this case, countries from all around the world agreed to buy this vaccine, which took all the pressure of the research and development off of the companies that usually spend five to seven years in research and development finding a vaccine that might be successful at market. This took away that piece, which allowed them to exclusively focus on the core science, enrolling people in the studies, and crunching the data in a way that they always do before they would ever allow the vaccine to be used publicly.

Sue Peschin:

Another thing that we tell folks around how the process was able to move along at a faster pace is that they were simultaneously creating the vaccines, making the vaccines before the studies concluded, which is unusual, and the investment by the government allowed them to take that extra risk. So, that was also a big piece of things and super helpful.

Todd Wolynn:

Yeah. And thank you for drilling down, that’s right. In the more detailed portion of that, is exactly what you said. They were able to simultaneously produce, and have ready given that the study showed safety and efficacy, which again, they would never do that, because that’s way too risky, but in this case, because they knew that the investment was sound and already on their side, that they were able to proceed in that way. That’s exactly right. So, the Emergency Use Authorization and people say, “Well, isn’t that a risky?” Again, looking at the risk and the benefit as they went through the studies and the enrollment, and had to show hard evidence of convincing data to make that Emergency Use Authorization.

Todd Wolynn:

It was clear with the numbers that were given, which is at the point when they do these studies, they were enrolling about 30,000 people per study, oftentimes splitting placebo to a vaccine 50-50. So, 15,000 people getting the vaccine, 15,000 people not. Looking at first off against safety, what were the safety of the people enrolled in both arms of the study, placebo and getting the vaccine, showing no difference in increase of anything, fevers… Well, fevers from the vaccine, but not significant illnesses. So, people were getting fevers and some soreness, but they weren’t getting increased rates of cancer. They weren’t getting increased rates of infections. They weren’t getting of unrelated infections, increased risk of MS, things like that. They were looking for those things.

Todd Wolynn:

But what they quickly started seeing is, in the group that was in the placebo arm that did not get the vaccine, they saw very high rates, comparatively of COVID infection to the group that got the vaccine. Meaning if you got the vaccine, it was incredibly effective for preventing COVID infection, whereas in the groups that were getting placebo, they were not protected and they were getting infected, so much so that you were able to see these 95% and 90% efficacy rates, which was pretty darn amazing. So, what we have is three vaccines now that have this Emergency Use Authorization, but don’t forget, they’re still working through the process, because you need more time to get the standard approval, which we expect to be coming out, I think in the next month or two for the first two vaccines, because they’ve now been on an EUA for several months.

Todd Wolynn:

There’s other lies and mistruths again, that people have died getting the vaccine. Absolutely not true. People have been hospitalized, because they got the vaccine. Absolutely not true, right? We have great data now. Over 100 million doses have been given, over 80 million individuals have gotten at least one dose. Not one hospitalization, not one death related to it. When on the other side, we know that COVID has killed over 550,000 people [in the United States]. We don’t even have great data on the number of people that have been sick, and continue to remain sick for months and possibly years affecting heart, lungs, brain, musculoskeletal system. Unfortunately, that’s going to be data that’s going to take months and years to see what happens, and those are now preventable illnesses, if we can give people the vaccine before they’re exposed and infected.

Sue Peschin:

That’s great information. So, I have a question about what our listeners can do to fight against vaccine disinformation and misinformation?

Todd Wolynn:

Yeah. First and foremost, be wary. If you see something that looks frightening, something that looks sensational online, the fact that you click on it and share it and send it to people, actually helps it prosper and perpetuate in the webosphere. So, that’s exactly what those scary titles are meant to do is to get you to click on it. Like, Five Things You Didn’t Know the COVID Vaccine Could Do to You, right? Or other things, New Study Shows Vaccines Are Unsafe, but Government’s Covering It Up, right? If it looks sensational and it looks scary, that is absolutely what’s called clickbait. Now, if there is something that came out about a vaccine being unsafe, you can be guaranteed that it will be on ABC, NBC and every other major network that night, or even in breaking news.

Todd Wolynn:

But if there’s some message that you’ve come across that you haven’t seen anywhere, you’re likely not discovering some… Well, I will tell you, you’re incredibly likely to the point of almost, this is never going to be the case, finding something out that somebody didn’t know before. You’re finding a piece of a bait that they want you to click on, so they can make money off of it, and help enhance and basically help perpetuate that kind of strategy. So, not sharing and even, I would say, not clicking on, but definitely not sharing sensational content. My mother was famous for cutting out news clippings out of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and saying, “Did you see this?” And it was like, “Some new study on caffeine.” And then the next week, it was, “Wait, drink more caffeine,” right? So, I understand the parental and grandparental urge to keep your kids and grandkids safe. But I would tell you that there are nefarious groups in play online, and their job is to manipulate you, and manipulate you with fear.

Todd Wolynn:

As humans, they say, one of the things that have made us most successful as a species is our ability to adapt. And one of the ways we adapt is by remaining very vigilant for threat. And so, social media takes advantage of this notion of threat, and dangles pieces of information that look threatening to you, to get you to click on them and share them. And I would ask your audience, be wary. And if it looks kind of sensational, go to the CDC’s website, go to another site that I’m sure your listeners have sites that you guys recommend, that should help dispel myths, or at least give you what the facts are. And they may not be sexy sites, but the CDC gives very factual information, the FDA gives very factual information. And then your healthcare provider is another great place to go. In our practice, we make ourselves incredibly accessible to our families, not only in the office but online as well to help dispel myths.

Sue Peschin:

The Alliance for Aging Research is co-convening the COVID-19 Vaccine Education and Equity Project. And we partner a lot with the CDC and link to a lot of their information. So, you can visit that at covidvaccineproject.org to get a lot of that, that’s specific to COVID-19.

Todd Wolynn:

Part of what came out of our attack was this group that we formed a non-profit around called Shots Heard, which comes to the aid of groups that have been attacked, meaning vaccine advocates or science advocates. But there’s a couple of references I can give you as well, which is Stronger.org, which is a site that helps fight disinformation, targeting science and medicine and vaccines. Shots Heard again, as I said, is a group that comes to the aid of vaccine advocates, but they all lie under a really amazing public health entity called the Public Good Projects, and they really help oversee the groups that I just mentioned.

Sue Peschin:

Two things you said really struck me, one, which I think is a great tip for people. When you said, if something is real and it’s like super big in science, it’s not just going to be like in a little ad on Facebook. It’s going to be on ABC News and CNN and all that other stuff. So, I just think that’s a wonderful tip for people that sort of think about it, if there’s this giant news breaking story, it would be everywhere. And then the other thing that I wanted to just sort of bring up with you again, sort of going to the grandparents is we’ve found that grandparents can be wonderful messengers, because they remember polio, and they remember times before there were vaccines for big diseases, and how scary that was. And so, they naturally are some of the most pro-vaccine in the country of any other group and can be terrific messengers around all of this.

Sue Peschin:

I was wondering, I know that there’s still a lot of folks that are hesitant, and we work a lot in the long-term care settings and advocating for the nursing homes and assisted livings, and other congregate settings to make sure that both the residents and the folks that work there are vaccinated. And there’s a real sort of difference between uptake by residents and uptake by folks who work in those places. So, I’m just wondering from your perspective, not talking about that particular group, but when you’re dealing with parents who are hesitant or maybe colleagues in the office who might be hesitant, what are your key messages to them about vaccines in general, and the COVID-19 vaccines, specifically?

Todd Wolynn:

Again, our group is all about evidence-based recommendations. And so, that’s where we start. And what I will say is that healthcare providers actually are one of the most trusted, and most influential about helping people make decisions like vaccination. And so, the first thing I always recommend is talk to your healthcare provider. Now, unfortunately, since this is a newer vaccine, I would say that not all healthcare providers have the same amount of information. So, if your healthcare provider says they don’t have all the information they’d like, going to the sites that we’ve just discussed are helpful, and the CDC is an amazing site for that. The hesitancy is an interesting thing, so oftentimes, driven by the disinformation and misinformation we hear, and so sometimes, it requires a discussion that allows people to really be heard about what their concerns are, and to find information out that addresses their concern.

Todd Wolynn:

The problem is that oftentimes, physicians fall victim to this problem, which is they aren’t always the best listeners. So, they want to just give you a, “Look it’s safe, go ahead and get it.” And the person wants to be heard, right? And so, there are communication skills that really need to be in play, and this includes physicians as well. There’s data showing that physicians interrupt their patients within about 23 seconds. And this is one of the projects I work actually with the International Pediatric Association, which is teaching good communication skills, and part of that is active listening. And then, if there is hesitancy asking that patient to share more about what their concern is, and then mirroring back that concern to them, so that they know that you know what concerns them. In the communication science, we call that feeling felt, that they know what you’re concerned about.

Todd Wolynn:

And that oftentimes can then change the dynamic of that relationship to now allow a more meaningful exchange between the healthcare provider and the patient. And that methodology is called AIMS, Announce, Inquire, Mirror and Secure the relationship, and it’s something that again, is taught through the International Pediatric Association. And I’ve taught a lot of healthcare providers that it doesn’t take long to learn it, but it does allow some mindfulness to go into talking to people that might have hesitancy.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. That’s going to be probably very useful over the coming months as the vaccine reaches the pediatric population. And there was just an announcement today about that, so it’s starting.

Todd Wolynn:

Yeah, it is. And the hesitancy, like I said, can vary from things like, the lies and mistruths pushed about infertility or death or all these things. And so, it’s not unreasonable for people to have questions when faced with what the World Health Organization is now calling an infodemic. There’s an onslaught of misinformation and disinformation, and so it’s reasonable for people to be confused. The one thing that we continue to see is really strong trust at a local granular level, which is with your healthcare provider. And with more and more information coming out from the state, from the federal level, your healthcare providers are always a good place to go to start.

Todd Wolynn:

And then your group, like we just talked about, groups like we talked about PGP and Stronger group places. And I will tell you that groups are now… I think we’re starting to finally see this in the adult realm, but I will tell you in the pediatric realm, what we’re doing is not only are we on multiple social media platforms, and have a very broad digital platform online. But we host Facebook Lives, we have parents and grandparents who jump on there and just say, “Hey, what about this?” Or they’ll say, “I read this article. What do you think about that?” And we’ll do a live session, every Thursday morning at 10:00 a.m., And get tons of people coming on, they’re just saying, “Well, is this true? Or, “What do you think about this?” Which is a great way, and it is one of our calls to action that healthcare providers in 2021 and beyond can no longer live by this fallacy that all of our wisdom and knowledge will be imparted within the four walls of the exam room, right?

Todd Wolynn:

The reason that we see… I’m holding my phone up, but your listeners won’t be able to see it, but the reason why we need to be there is that’s where our patients are, on their phones or on their laptops or on their tablets. And they want information when they want it, which is oftentimes at night on their couch, in their living room. And you know what it’s like at a doctor’s office, you, “Oh my God, I forgot to ask this,” right? So.

Sue Peschin:

Right. Yes, that’s right. It’s like, we’re all schooled to bring your pen and paper, and have your questions, and everybody goes flies by the seat of their pants.

Todd Wolynn:

Yeah. And in pediatrics, you usually have a sibling that’s crying, and a parent that’s late to get to school to pick up the other kids, so.

Sue Peschin:

Right. Right. All right. So, I am switching gears a bit to ask you a question we ask all of our guests, which is when you were a kid, what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Todd Wolynn:

What did I imagine? I pretty much was sure, I’d get taller, and I thought I would be a marine biologist is kind of how it went in my head, until I saw Jaws, and then that changed everything. So, but yeah, I thought it would be cool, I thought it’d be neat that I could drive. One of the questions I always ask my patients at their well visits is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And then I record it in their chart. So, at four it’s like, “I want to be an ice cream taster.” And at five, “I want to design roller coasters.” And at six, “I want to be a football player,” or whatever. And at eight or nine or 10, when they’re too cool to answer the question, they’re like, “I don’t know.” Like at 10, because it’s just not cool to talk about that. Then I say, “Well, it says here at four, you wanted to be an ice cream taster.” And then start reading back all their answers, and they usually smile pretty big when I do that.

Sue Peschin:

That’s awesome. That’s a great thing to do. That’s too bad, you can’t, I wish you could circle back when they’re 80, and they probably go back to ice cream taster.

Todd Wolynn:

Yeah. I think we should make that part of the medical record. Like, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I think it’s a very valid question.

Sue Peschin:

Yep. So, what do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Todd Wolynn:

I definitely like the wisdom that comes along with added age. So, there are things that you just wish like, “Wow, I wish I knew this when I was younger.” But that’s just not the way life works, but I think trying to live life without a lot of regret, right? If you want to do something, try and do it. There’s a lot of just things in life that can be scary, and taking that step or speaking publicly or whatever the phobia it is that we all have to face down, or dealing with our kids as they get older. So, that’s a scary one for a dad of three teenagers, but I would say having the gained knowledge that I have over time, and that’s pretty cool when trying to apply it, and also to give back through either volunteering or teaching people behind me.

Sue Peschin:

Excellent. Well done. That’s great. Todd, thank you so much for joining us today.

Todd Wolynn:

Thanks very much. It’s been a real honor, and I strongly suggest, please, everybody out there, get your vaccine and keep wearing your mask.

Sue Peschin:

Thank you. Great tip. So, we hope you enjoyed this conversation. Please stay tuned for new episodes every other Wednesday. Thank you for listening to This is Growing Old, and have a great day.