University of Nebraska Medical Center

How COVID Lawsuits and Media Coverage Keep Misinformation Churning


Public health has had its day in court lately. And another day. And another day.

Over the course of the pandemic, lawsuits came from every direction, questioning public health policies and hospitals’ authority. Petitioners argued for care to be provided in a different way, they questioned mandates on mask and vaccine use, and they attacked restrictions on gatherings.

Historically, “there’s been nothing but a cascade of supportive deference to public health,” said Lawrence Gostin, JD, LLD, a professor specializing in public health law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. That changed during the pandemic. “It’s the opposite. It’s been a torrent,” he said.

Even as COVID-19 wanes, lawyers representing the healthcare sector predict that their days in court aren’t about to end soon. A group of litigators and media companies, among others, are eyeing policy changes and even some profits from yet more lawsuits.

Because such groups can reach millions of people, public health advocates like Gostin and Brian Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a public health nonprofit in Bethesda, Maryland, suggest that the result, beyond creating legal setbacks, could spread more misinformation about their work. The imprimatur of a lawsuit, these advocates think, can help spread vaccine skepticism or other anti-public health beliefs, if only through news coverage.

“You know, lawsuits have a galvanizing effect,” Gostin said. “They tend to shape public opinion.”

Lawyers are organizing to promote their theories. Late in March, a group of them gathered in Atlanta for a debut COVID Litigation Conference to swap tips on how to build such cases. “Attention, Atlanta lawyers!” proclaimed an ad promoting the event. “Are you ready to be a part of the fastest-growing field of litigation?”

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