Eric Sartori arrived home on April 19 after working in the COVID-19 unit of a community hospital in Arizona. After reading social media posts claiming the virus was a hoax, the intensive care nurse opened Facebook and vented.
“While we're busy working to save people's lives we're also growing really concerned about the conspiracy theory BS that's seeming to become a bigger problem than #covid19,” he wrote.
"If you don't know what the fuck you're talking about it's okay to just shut the fuck up right NOW. This is not a joke."
A month ago, Sartori was going to work and spending time with his family, in addition to tending to his Facebook page, where he posts about work and his urban farm for just over 5,000 followers. Now he had people telling him the virus was a hoax and sending him death threats.
“We're feeling personally attacked," Sartori told BuzzFeed News. “And it's just like we have this eerie feeling of ‘How can this be reality right now?’”
In addition to treating COVID-19 patients and worrying about their own health, health care workers like Satori are suddenly on the front lines of the coronavirus information wars. On social media and in person, they’re battered with conspiracy theories about Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, the COVID-19 death toll, and the existence of the coronavirus itself. In Mexico, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan, rumors and lies have led to nurses and other health care workers getting assaulted, doused with bleach, and chased by mobs.
It’s a shocking situation for nurses, who have been rated the most trusted profession in the United States for 18 years in a row. “For people to now say, ‘Well, I don't even trust the most trusted profession’ — that's baseless,” Dr. Eileen Sullivan-Marx, president of the American Academy of Nursing and dean of the New York University Rory Meyers College of Nursing, told BuzzFeed News.
Nurses are sad and angry — and pushing back.
Sartori’s Facebook post was shared more than 22,000 times. He’s received support from the post, but it has also attracted conspiracy theorists. “I've had people asking me if I'm paid by Bill Gates. They think I'm a crisis actor. It shows me how easily people can be manipulated.”
Sartori said he has empathy for people who mistrust the medical establishment. He was skeptical of vaccines before becoming a nurse and learning the truth about them. “When I'm on Twitter, I talk to anti-vaxxers a lot, and I try and understand their plight and understand where they're at,” he said.
But after a heated discussion on social media with someone who believed the coronavirus is a hoax, he realized how different things are with the pandemic.
“He just kept pushing and pushing, and he was saying horrible things. He called me a faggot. He said I should die. A whole bunch of horrible, nasty things,” Sartori said. “And then I found out that he actually works in health care. He works for some organizations that deliver things to my hospital.”
Sartori cut off the conversation once he realized the man lived near him. “It's a little disconcerting,” he said.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” Laura, a nurse at a hospital in North Carolina, told BuzzFeed News. “Not only are you saying nurses aren't trustworthy, you're also disputing my education when you're saying that what you think is right because you saw it on social media.” She asked to use her first name because she didn’t want to face blowback on social media.
“Never have I felt that distrust until recently. I just don't understand it,” Nicole Swiers, a nurse who works with elderly patients in their homes in northeast Minnesota, told BuzzFeed News. "We have nothing to gain by lying to you.”
Swiers said she’s blocked family members and friends on social media after they began spreading claims about the virus not being real and calling for stay-at-home orders to end. “I have hidden so many people that my Facebook feed is essentially just ads at this point,” she said.
People who used to come to Swiers for health advice now view her work with suspicion.
“My friends and family come to me with any little rash that one of their kids might have,” she said. “People went from ‘Please tell me if I need to take my kid to the doctor or not’ to believing that I'm lying about shortages of [personal protective equipment] or patient load.”
Swiers said there could be long-term effects if pockets of mistrust persist beyond the pandemic. “The problem is that if you don't trust your health care provider, you're not going to seek medical attention. This really is so much bigger than just the coronavirus — you're creating this sense of distrust with health care,” she said. “And gosh, don't get me wrong, there are a lot of problems in health care, but I really don't believe that untrustworthy nurses are one of them.”
Eric Sartori worked a day shift in the COVID-19 unit on April 19. An earlier version of this post said that he worked a night shift.