Coronavirus pandemic gives health care workers a chance to shine on social media

From debunking myths to providing tips, health care workers have been sharing their expertise on TikTok, Facebook and other platforms.

Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials
  • 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
Queenie Wong
4 min read

Medical workers have been growing their followings on social media during the pandemic.

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This story is part of a series on life one year into the pandemic. Make sure to read part one: Zoom anxiety is still a major problem, one year into the pandemic, part two: Zoom anxiety is real. Here's how to combat it, and part three: Streaming, shopping and delivery: Why COVID may have changed our habits forever.

When Dr. Adam Goodcoff got a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, he shared the experience with his 1.4 million followers on the short-form video app TikTok .

"I do have some muscle aches and pains but it's really not that bad. It's a lot better than getting COVID," Goodcoff said in a video posted earlier this year.

TikTok users chimed in with their own thoughts. Some commented that Goodcoff's video helped ease their anxiety about getting vaccinated, while others still expressed skepticism about receiving the shots.

Goodcoff, a 27-year-old emergency medicine resident physician in Chicago, is among the health care workers who've grown their following on social media during the pandemic. Health care influencers existed long before the pandemic, but the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus , has provided a chance for health care workers to showcase their expertise as people spend more time on social media. These workers are turning to TikTok, Facebook , Instagram, Google-owned YouTube and other sites to educate the public, debunk misinformation, provide health care tips, boost vaccination rates and tackle hot-button topics such as health equity.


Dr. Adam Goodcoff shares his experience getting vaccinated against COVID-19 on TikTok.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

"The pandemic was a huge opportunity for health care providers to recapture the interest of the public and regain some trust," Goodcoff said. On TikTok, videos with #doctors have more than 1 billion views. Videos with #nursesoftiktok have nearly 2 billion views, while #coronavirus videos have more than 107 billion views.

Some doctors turn to social media as a megaphone to advocate for a cause during the pandemic. Dr. Uché Blackstock, CEO and founder of Advancing Health Equity, has spoken out against racism and health disparities during the pandemic. The 43-year-old physician and Yahoo News medical contributor, who has more than 93,000 followers on Twitter, has also talked about the topic in discussions on Facebook Live and Zoom.

The physician and her colleagues saw the pandemic as an "opportunity to be messengers of accurate and responsible science messaging and public health messaging," Blackstock said.

Social media apps such as TikTok also give health organizations and workers a way to reach people throughout the world, including teenagers. And in turn, the platforms have been trying to direct people to trustworthy sources such as the World Health Organization as they battle online lies about the coronavirus and vaccines. The WHO started posting videos on its TikTok account in February 2020, sharing tips about how to protect yourself from the coronavirus, encouraging people to wash their hands through the #safehands challenge, posting clips from press conferences and featuring health care workers and other experts. 

Aleksandra Kuzmanovic, a social media manager at the WHO, said the group explored using TikTok before the pandemic, but that the coronavirus was a topic on everyone's minds. The WHO's TikTok account now has 2.8 million followers. "It was the right moment for us to start our presence there and to educate TikTokers on the virus," she said. While the group wants to make the content fun and engaging, she said, it also works with scientists to make sure the information is accurate and is presented in the right way.

Outside of battling coronavirus misinformation, including false claims that the rollout of 5G wireless service spreads COVID-19 or drinking bleach is a cure for the respiratory illness, online stardom comes with risks for health care workers. They can face online harassment and bullying, or be put under fire for not following social distancing guidelines themselves. Some doctors have also been fired after criticizing their employer's pandemic response.

'Misinformation is its own epidemic'

Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, who has 6.8 million followers on YouTube, posted an apology video after he was photographed not wearing a mask at his birthday party on a boat in Miami in November. The doctor, who has encouraged his viewers to wear masks, has a series of YouTube videos in which he debunks coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation. 

"I messed up. I really did and I need to do better," he said in the video, noting that his trip impacted the message he's been pushing about taking COVID-19 seriously.

See also: How to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment

In an email, Varshavski didn't address the controversy surrounding the party, but he said that in a way, all doctors are influencers because they share information with their patients hoping "they'll listen or ask questions to learn more."

"It is so important to make sure facts reign," he said, "because misinformation amid a pandemic is its own epidemic."

Goodcoff, who also posts on YouTube and Facebook-owned Instagram, is aware that social media can be a double-edged sword. He said he doesn't post about his patients on his social media accounts, opting instead to share his personal experiences or information found in textbooks. Though Goodcoff tries to steer away from posting controversial content, he felt it was important to share his experience about getting vaccinated after working with COVID-19 patients directly. About 69% of Americans plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey conducted the Pew Research Center. People who didn't intend to get vaccinated cited concerns about side effects or that the vaccine was developed too quickly.

In live videos on TikTok, Goodcoff has also interacted in real time with people who were wary about the COVID-19 vaccine. Of that experience, he says: "It was nice to be able to have that kind of conversation in a public space and say, 'I respect your decision. All I'm here to do is give you information to help you make the best decision that you can make for yourself.'"

Watch this: Kids and schools will need to recover from massive COVID impact