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U.S. Surgeon General calls misinformation public health crisis

Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users

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U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Hallegere Murthy (Screenshot via C-SPAN)

WASHINGTON – Speaking to the White House press corps on Thursday during the daily briefing, U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek Hallegere Murthy warned that health misinformation is “a serious threat to public health,” as Biden administration officials grow increasingly concerned about misleading claims about coronavirus vaccines.

Earlier on Thursday in a twenty-two page long advisory memorandum the Surgeon General wrote; “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, harm people’s health, and undermine public health efforts. Limiting the spread of health misinformation is a moral and civic imperative that will require a whole-of-society effort.”

Indirectly taking aim at social media giant Facebook, Murthy told the reporters in the briefing room, “Now, health misinformation didn’t start with COVID-19. What’s different now though is the speed and scale at which health misinformation is spreading. Modern technology companies have enabled misinformation to poison our information environment with little accountability to their users. They’ve allowed people who intentionally spread misinformation — what we call “disinformation” — to have extraordinary reach,” he said.
 
“They’ve designed product features, such as “Like” buttons, that reward us for sharing emotionally-charged content, not accurate content. And their algorithms tend to give us more of what we click on, pulling us deeper and deeper into a well of misinformation,” he added.

He then outlined the recommended steps being promoted by the Biden Adminstration coronavirus task force;

“First, we include recommendations for individuals and families. We ask people to raise the bar for sharing health information by checking sources before they share, to ensure that information is backed by credible, scientific sources. As we say in the advisory, “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”

Second, we’re asking health organizations to proactively address misinformation with their patients. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics is announcing an educational campaign to help parents navigate online health information. I’m encouraged to see this commitment. And, again, this is just the beginning.

Third, we’re asking educational institutions to help improve health information literacy. We’re asking researchers and foundations as well to help us learn more about how health [mis]information spreads and how to stop it.

Fourth, we’re saying we expect more from our technology companies. We’re asking them to operate with greater transparency and accountability. We’re asking them to monitor misinformation more closely. We’re asking them to consistently take action against misinformation super-spreaders on their platforms.
 
Fifth, we’re also asking news organizations to proactively address the public’s questions without inadvertently giving a platform to health misinformation that can harm their audiences.
 
And sixth, we know that government can play an important role too by investing in research, by bringing individuals and organizations together to address misinformation, and by supporting groups that are working on this issue.”

He then added; “On a personal note, it’s painful for me to know that nearly every death we are seeing now from COVID-19 could have been prevented. I say that as someone who has lost 10 family members to COVID and who wishes each and every day that they had had the opportunity to get vaccinated.
 
I say that also as a concerned father of two young children who aren’t yet eligible for the vaccine, but I know that our kids are depending on all of us to get vaccinated to shield them from this virus.
 
Every week, I talk to doctors and nurses across our country who are burning out as they care for more and more patients with COVID-19 who never got vaccinated — all too often because they were misled by misinformation.
 
We must confront misinformation as a nation. Every one of us has the power and the responsibility to make a difference in this fight. Lives are depending on it.”

During the questioning period after his statement, one reporter asked, “Surgeon General, is misinformation the number one reason why people are not getting vaccinated?”

He responded saying; “Well, it’s one of several reasons why people are not getting vaccinated, but it’s a very important one because what we know from poll is that two thirds of people who are not vaccinated either believe common myths about the COVID-19 vaccine or think some of those myths might be true. Myths like, “You can get COVID from the vaccine,” which is absolutely not true. So we know that it’s not the only driver that’s leading people not to be vaccinated, but it is a very important one.”

Another reporter asked; “We had an ABC News-Washington Post poll that showed that 93 percent of Democrats say they’re vaccinated or will be vaccinated, but only 49 percent of Republicans say the same. So, how do you break through to the people who may be trusting some of these elected leaders that are pushing, maybe, some of this misinformation more than they actually trust members of your administration?”

Murthy replied; “[…] We’ve got to recognize that sometimes the most trusted voices are not the ones that had the most followers on social media or are the ones that have the most, you know, name recognition. Sometimes the most trusted sources are a mother or father or a faith leader or a local doctor or a nurse, and that’s why, to reach people with accurate information, what we have to do is partner with those local trusted voices.
 
That’s why, in this advisory, one of the things that we point out an important role for government is to support local organizations, including healthcare professionals, so that they can get out there and speak directly to people and share that information.”

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Minnesota

Trans student leads walk out over sexual assault allegations in Minnesota

“It was disturbing how many kids came forward to say that they too had been the victims of sexual harassment or assault”

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Melinda, Eben, Ferris, and Steven Santineau (Photo Credit: Santineau family)

PLYMOUTH, Mn. – Armstrong High School senior Ferris Santineau had decided that he was over being talked down to and patronized by school officials over his concerns that an alleged perpetrator of sexual assaults- a fellow student, was still allowed on campus.

The 17-year-old, who identifies as trans-male and bisexual, led a protest of approximately 250 plus fellow students and classmates out to the athletic fields Friday afternoon to send a highly visible message that enough was enough.

Santineau, who spoke to the Blade by phone immediately after the protest rally, said that his actions and the support from other students stemmed from a series of alleged sexual assaults against another 17-year-old Trans student on the campus that he is a close friend of.

According to Santineau, school administrators had been far less willing to believe the victim and when he attempted to intervene, he was met with an adversarial attitude by the school resource officer, (SRO) and a staff member who kept him in room for ninety minutes and interrogated him by himself. Santineau, told the Blade that he felt threatened by that encounter, noting that the entire time of the interview, the SRO had his hand placed on top of his taser on his duty belt.

Santineau, also told the Blade that he has been diagnosed with Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, (ADHD) which made the confrontation with the SRO and staff member worse.

“I felt like it was an interrogation, I have ADHD and asked them to be patient, but they kept interrupting me which made it worst,” he said. “I was trying to keep track of what we were talking about, then they’d interrupt and I’d try to ask a question then they told me I needed to be patient.” He added that he felt as though they were not listening at all.

He characterized the school administrators, the SRO and other staff as not believing the victim and even after multiple students and he had approached them to plead for the alleged perpetrator to be removed from campus, instead allowed him to stay enrolled and at least two occasions escorted the alleged assailant to his car. His presence had caused the victim to not attend classes and stay away from the school..

Santineau noted that Armstrong is running both in-person and virtual classes as a result of COVID-19 protocols.

Asked why the victim, his best friend, hadn’t reported the incidents to law enforcement or others and Santineau’s answer was blunt; “He didn’t think anything would be done about it especially since he was dating the assailant- and he wasn’t going to be believed.”

Steven Santineau and his wife Melinda, Ferris’ parents, are frustrated and angered by the high school administrators attitudes. Steven Santineau told the Blade that he and his wife had gone to the school Friday to support his son’s rally and to be there in solidarity with the students and the victim who they also know.

“I spoke to the principal who basically said that I was lucky that the school was communicating with me. He literally implied that the only people the school would be dealing with was the victim and his parents- it was a ‘ we don’t need to deal with you mind your business,’ attitude,” Steven Santineau said. He indicated that the school was also blaming his son for creating a firestorm on social media when according to the school, “as a result of the ‘interview’ the school claimed that only Ferris was knowledgeable of the assaults.” The Santineaus say that is untrue.

What stood out to both he and his wife were the number of students at the rally who spoke out on the subject of sexual assaults. “It was disturbing how many kids came forward to say that they too had been the victims of sexual harassment or assault and the school took no action,” Melinda Santineau said.

In the case of the first victim, according to Ferris Santineau, nearly half the of sexual assaults took place on campus with the remainder off-campus. His father noted that the school claimed to him that it had reviewed three years of video surveillance footage from school property in a single day prior to Friday’s rally.

Ferris Santineau indicated that because the alleged perpetrator was still attending Armstrong, he and the others want him expelled and a proper investigation conducted. His father told the Blade that principal said that the victim needed to file a police report and the school would then take appropriate action.

“I want my friend to feel safe,” Santineau told the Blade “I want the school to actually do something when somebody comes to them, because during the protest I asked ‘How many people felt like they weren’t being heard?’ many more hands came up. ‘how many people were sexually assaulted?’ too many hands came up. ‘How many people were silenced?’ and like that.”

His parents want a greater sense of accountability but are frustrated with the lack of proactive action on the part of staff. The school notified parents via text and emails about the situation after the rally not prior Steven Santineau said and provided the Blade with a screenshot. He added another screenshot with student comments taken after the text was posted to social media accounts.

Calls to the Robbinsdale Area Schools, the district for Armstrong High by the Blade were not returned, however, in a statement to local NBC affiliate KARE 11 in Minneapolis, Armstrong administrators say they are investigating the alleged sexual assault between two students while students demand expulsion.

KARE also reported that on September 16, a letter was sent to inquiring parents that detailed the initial investigation.

“We have been in contact with the family and shared options with them, including the option to file a police report,” the letter stated, in part.

In the meanwhile the Santineau family is upset at the seemingly cavalier manner the school is handling the situation and angered at the treatment their son has received.

Video from KARE NBC 11 Minneapolis: Hundreds of students walk out of Armstrong High School to protest sexual assault allegations:

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Texas

High School removes LGBTQ ‘Safe Space’ stickers- students walk out

“These aren’t political stickers, they are merely a signal that a teacher has the confidence to have conversations with LGBTQ+ students”

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Photo Credit: GLSEN

IRVING, Tx. — A sizable number of the student body of a suburban Dallas, Texas high school walked out in protest after faculty members were forced to remove LGBTQ “safe space” stickers from their classroom doors.

Dallas ABC News affiliate WFAA ABC 8 reported that hundreds of students walked out of MacArthur High School on Wednesday after students said they began noticing the stickers were being removed from the classroom doors by the administration.

Carrying rainbow flags, the students walked out protesting what they describe as targeted discrimination against the school’s LGBTQ+ students and teachers.

One teacher reported a Safe Space poster she had printed and laminated was missing from outside her classroom too. “I was freaked. The kids were freaked out,” Rachel Stonecipher, an English teacher and sponsor of the campus’ Gay Straight Alliance told CBS-DFW.

Students, she said, immediately wondered who had removed them and what message their disappearance was sending.

“I was a little scared too because I’m the only openly, very obviously gay teacher, lesbian teacher,” said Stonecipher. She and at least four other teachers signed an e-mail to the principal asking for an explanation.

In a statement released to the media, the Irving Independent School District administration said that district policy does not allow teachers to use classrooms to “transmit personal beliefs regarding political or sectarian issues.

“To ensure that all students feel safe regardless of background or identity, the district has developed guidelines to ensure that posters, banners, and stickers placed in classrooms, hallways, or offices are curriculum-driven and neutral in viewpoint,” the statement added.

“These aren’t political stickers, they are merely a signal that a teacher has the confidence to have conversations with LGBTQ+ students,” Stonecipher told reporters.

Irving police were at the school during the walkout as an added presence.

“We have extra resources deployed at MacArthur HS to maintain a safe environment for all,” Irving police tweeted.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Lambda Legal seeks to add two more Trans plaintiffs in West Virginia suit

Federal class-action lawsuit challenging blanket exclusion of health care for Trans people in WVA’s Medicaid & state employee health plan

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Shauntae Anderson and Leanne James (Photo Credit; Lambda Legal)

CHARLESTON, WVa. – Lambda Legal filed a motion seeking leave to add two additional plaintiffs—a Medicaid participant and a public employee—to its federal class-action lawsuit challenging West Virginia’s blanket exclusion of health care coverage for transgender people in West Virginia’s Medicaid and state employee health plans.

If granted, Shauntae Anderson, who is a Medicaid participant, and Leanne James, a public employee and Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) member would be added as additional plaintiffs to Fain v. Crouch.

“My life as a Black transgender woman has not been easy. I suffered years of agony and desperation without appropriate care and treatment for my gender dysphoria. Like other Medicaid participants, I rely on Medicaid for health care coverage and it has been heartbreaking to hear that just because I am transgender, I can’t access coverage for care that is medically necessary. It is not only inhumane but also unjust to be singled out this way,” said plaintiff Shauntae Anderson.  

“It is deeply upsetting that I am deprived of coverage for critical and urgent health care simply because I am transgender. As a public employee and PEIA member, being denied coverage for medically necessary care that cisgender state employees have full access to is an insult to my dignity. The exclusion in the state employee health plans is a reminder to myself and other transgender state employees that we are being denied equal compensation for equal work.” said plaintiff Leanne James.

Filed last November in West Virginia’s Southern District, Fain v. Crouch is a class action lawsuit challenging blanket exclusions of coverage for gender-confirming care in West Virginia state health plans. The blanket exclusions of coverage for care are stated expressly in the health plans offered to Medicaid participants and state employees. West Virginia’s state health plans serve approximately 564,000 Medicaid participants and 15,000 state employees, some of whom are transgender. 

“The state of West Virginia continues to deny medically necessary gender-confirming health care to transgender West Virginians – via explicit and targeted exclusions. West Virginia’s ban on gender-confirming care is unconstitutional and discriminatory; it causes physical, emotional, and financial distress; and it denies transgender West Virginians basic dignity, equality, and respect. Ms. Anderson and Ms. James are just two of many transgender people in West Virginia who are being denied basic health care just because of who they are.” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Staff Attorney at Lambda Legal and lead attorney on the case.

“We admire Ms. Anderson and Ms. James for stepping forward and joining our original plaintiffs in this lawsuit,” said Nicole Schladt, Associate Attorney at Nichols Kaster, PLLP. “Together, we seek an end to healthcare discrimination in West Virginia.”

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