Combatting COVID-19 misinformation to prioritize safety inside a nonprofitThe Nonprofit Journal Project

We have access to more information today than we’ve ever had.

Throughout the pandemic, I, like billions of people around the world, have used the internet more than ever before. During lockdown, I was entertained by videos, I used social media platforms to stay in touch with people, and I watched up-to-the-minute accounts on the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests. I also frequented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and reliable news outlets to learn COVID-19 updates.

As chief operations officer at Mariners Inn, a shelter and treatment center for the homeless in Detroit, one of my greatest challenges has been to combat misinformation about the coronavirus and vaccines, particularly among my staff. This has been extremely frustrating on many levels. My staff has often come to me with very detailed conspiracy theories about the virus. Earlier in the pandemic, I was able to talk through their concerns, help ease their fears, or correct the misinformation – but in 2021 that became harder.

Many people, I've found, are getting their news from social media rather than credible news outlets or, regarding the virus, the CDC website. This year, I've had at least 10 staff quote something they've read or seen on Facebook or Instagram concerning COVID-19, and it's usually been about someone dying from getting the vaccine. 

In order to combat this type of misinformation, we’ve enlisted the help and expertise of our medical director, Dr. Angee Roman. She facilitates discussion groups for our staff and clients and has been able to calm fears and answer questions and concerns about COVID-19, the Delta Variant, and the vaccine. She’s also made herself available through email or phone to staff who want to talk privately or more in-depth.

We’ve learned the best way to deal with misinformation is to provide experts, to share factual (science-based) information, and to make that connection over staff concerns personal.  It’s been difficult that the government hasn't had a consistent message when it comes to the virus, vaccines, and the booster. A more consistent message would make it easier for me to fight misinformation. 

At Mariners Inn, we haven’t made the vaccine mandatory, but currently, 73 percent of our staff are vaccinated, and, thankfully, a few more have started asking more questions about it. We’ve partnered with Midtown Rx Pharmacy to help make access to the vaccine easy. They visit our shelter and treatment center bi-weekly to provide vaccines to clients, staff and family members. About 10-14 clients have been getting vaccinated here monthly. The biggest struggle with the men is that many of them leave before they can get the second dose.  

Throughout these challenges, something that's given me hope has been the care shown by the staff at the city of Detroit Health Department. They were the first to come and take temperatures and test the men here. They also came to give the vaccine. Their team of contract tracers keeps me in the loop constantly and they seem to genuinely care about the safety of our clients and staff. Recently a group came to tour the facility to find out how they could help us more, and even asked about the staff's mental health. That hit me differently because it showed their concern for us. They’ve definitely made this process smoother. 

It’s hard to be a leader during the pandemic, trying to navigate the safety of those we lead. There are many days I feel defeated because we’ve put protocols in place to make the building as safe as possible, yet the virus has been relentless. I think many people (including me) got a little relaxed and let some things slide (using sanitizer, sanitizing high-touch areas, always wearing masks). We have to remain vigilant while still conducting our daily lives. I spend a lot of time reading and having "bubble guts."

You couldn't tell me last year, that in November 2021 I would have to try to convince anyone to get a vaccine when so many have died or have feared death. It is up to us as leaders to continue fighting COVID-19 misinformation by communicating with those we work with about the virus and vaccines, by setting good examples ourselves and by helping to guide people to get their information from reputable sources.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.