As a rural Alberta man fights for his life in an Edmonton ICU, his wife, who was once against COVID-19 vaccines, is urging others to get the shot and guard against misinformation online.
On Tuesday, Carla Palkun, 41, made an impassioned plea over Facebook — where she’s a member of several anti-vaccination groups — for unvaccinated Albertans to get the jab after the virus tore through her family last week and left her husband, Chris Palkun, 40, in an intensive care bed more than 200 kilometres away.
Having an otherwise healthy family with no comorbidities, Carla said she was adamantly against COVID-19 vaccines, even when she was driving Chris, who was on the same page, to an Edson hospital on Saturday to be treated for the disease. But on the drive over, her husband had a change of heart, she added.
“He said to me, ‘I think when I get out, I’m going to go get a shot,’ and I said to him, ‘That’s fair enough … but I’m probably still not gonna get it,’ ” Carla told Postmedia in a phone interview Thursday. “I didn’t know he was going to need all this. As soon as he was intubated and taken to (Edmonton) my mind instantly changed over — that I’m going to get the shot too.”
Living “out in the country” near Edson, where the couple’s lives had been untouched by the disease, Carla said she and her husband began to believe that the virus wasn’t real. She sought out information online and joined “anti-vax” Facebook groups that led her to accept some conspiratorial views.
“Everybody’s saying that you shouldn’t get vaxed because there’s something in the vaccinations that the government wants in your body so they can follow you everywhere and control you,” she said.
That all changed when her husband was transferred to the Grey Nuns Community Hospital in Edmonton on Sunday.
“It sounds so stupid now,” Carla added.
Timothy Caulfield, a University of Alberta professor and Canada research chair in health law and policy, warns that the volume and character of online misinformation makes it easy for almost anyone to get sucked in. Actors in this field, he explained, are adept at appealing to people’s fears, concerns, values and sometimes even their better judgment.
“Those pushing misinformation are very good at making it seem scientifically legit,” Caulfield said. “They refer to studies and they use sciency language, and it can be very, very persuasive.”
However, he added, studies show that efforts to debunk misinformation online are proving effective, and initiatives like ScienceUpFirst, a collective of scientists, researchers and health-care experts, are working to counter false information about COVID-19.
“It’s specifically designed to tackle misinformation where it resides, and we know — research tells us — that this is largely, not entirely, but largely a social media phenomenon,” he said. “So we’re trying to create content that’s relevant to all Canadians, and that works across all social media platforms.”
But unlike Carla, most people don’t change their minds overnight on polarizing topics like COVID-19 vaccines. Breaking through to those who hold false beliefs about the vaccine is a long game, Caulfield said, and one that requires patience. But it doesn’t hurt to use tools of misinformation against it either.
“One of the reasons that misinformation spreads is those pushing it often rely on anecdotes,” Caulfield said. “They rely on testimonials, even if they’re not true, but those testimonials can be very, very powerful, especially if they speak to someone’s values.”
And personal stories like Carla’s, he added, can help push back against the noise.
As of Thursday, Chris is in critical condition, Carla says. She’s been trying to keep in touch with him when possible by video chat from Edson.
Once he gets better, “if he gets better,” she added, she plans to share her story with the anti-vaxxers she used to follow. She says she doesn’t want others to learn her lesson the hard way — firsthand — and hopes to save them from grief by changing their minds instead.
“But it’s so hard to try and turn somebody’s mind around,” she said, “because I know how stubborn we were, and no one was going to tell us to get the shot.”
In the meantime, she’s thinking about how to counter misinformation offline and closer to home.
After exposing her children to false information about COVID-19 vaccine causing infertility, Carla says she’s concerned that she might have misinformed them and is thinking about how to course correct.
“I feel terrible for that as well,” she said. “You have to really be careful what you say to your kids because they listen to everything you say.”