As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.
The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.
Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. Texas confirmed 313 additional deaths, pushing its total to 6,190, while South Carolina’s death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1.
“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they don’t believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”
Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.
“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don’t need people to be locked down.”
The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn’t negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.
None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.
Many of the claims in Immanuel’s video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying that cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald’s and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.
Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged that the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak’s early months claimed new 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.
Then there are the political theories — that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.
Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel’s video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.
“We did take it down because it violates our policies,” Zuckerberg said.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.
“Doesn’t that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can’t contain deadly content?” Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.
It wasn’t the first video containing misinformation about the virus, and experts say it’s not likely to be the last.
A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick — the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video down from its site.
Judy Mikovits, the discredited doctor behind “Plandemic,” had been set to appear on the show “America This Week” on the Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the company, which operates TV stations in 81 U.S. markets, canned the segment, saying it was “not appropriate” to air.
This week, U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity cited what they said was a clear link between Russian intelligence and websites with stories designed to spread disinformation on the coronavirus in the West. Russian officials rejected the accusations.
Of all the bizarre and myriad claims about the virus, those regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.
New York City resident Carlos Lopez said he wears a mask when required to do so but doesn’t believe it is necessary.
“They’re politicizing it as a tool,” he said. “I think it’s more to try to get Trump to lose. It’s more a scare tactic.”
He is in the minority. A recent AP/NORC poll said 3 in 4 Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — support a national mask mandate.
Still, mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages — such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members — but others remain.
Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.
Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.
Yet Trump remained reluctant to use a mask, mocked his rival Joe Biden for wearing one and suggested people might be covering their faces just to hurt him politically. He did an abrupt about-face this month, claiming that he had always supported masks — then later retweeted Immanuel’s video against masks.
The mixed signals hurt, Fauci acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month.
“The message early on became confusing,” he said.
Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.
Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.
“While face masks don’t lower your oxygen levels. COVID definitely does,” he warned.
Yet trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.
“Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life,” tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its COVID-19 restrictions.
Trump’s reluctant, ambivalent and late embrace of masks hasn’t convinced some of his strongest supporters, who have concocted ever more elaborate theories to explain his change of heart. Some say he was actually speaking in code and doesn’t really support masks.
O Tuathail witnessed just how unshakable COVID-19 misinformation can be when, after broadcasting his video, he received emails from people who said he cheated or didn’t wear the mask long enough to feel the negative effects.
That’s not surprising, according to University of Central Florida psychology professor Chrysalis Wright, who studies misinformation. She said conspiracy theory believers often engage in mental gymnastics to make their beliefs conform with reality.
“People only want to hear what they already think they know,” she said.
The breathing space afforded by lockdowns in the spring has been squandered, with new cases running at five times the rate of the whole of Europe. Things will only get worse, experts warn.
In early June, the United States awoke from a months-long nightmare.
Coronavirus had brutalized the north-east, with New York City alone recording more than 20,000 deaths, the bodies piling up in refrigerated trucks. Thousands sheltered at home. Rice, flour and toilet paper ran out. Millions of jobs disappeared.
But then the national curve flattened, governors declared success and patrons returned to restaurants, bars and beaches. “We are winning the fight against the invisible enemy,” vice-president Mike Pence wrote in a 16 June op-ed, titled, “There isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave’.”
Except, in truth, the nightmare was not over – the country was not awake – and a new wave of cases was gathering with terrifying force.
As Pence was writing, the virus was spreading across the American south and interior, finding thousands of untouched communities and infecting millions of new bodies. Except for the precipitous drop in New York cases, the curve was not flat at all. It was surging, in line with epidemiological predictions.
Now, four months into the pandemic, with test results delayed, contact tracing scarce, protective equipment dwindling and emergency rooms once again filling, the United States finds itself in a fight for its life: swamped by partisanship, mistrustful of science, engulfed in mask wars and led by a president whose incompetence is rivaled only by his indifference to Americans’ suffering.
With flu season on the horizon and Donald Trump demanding that millions of students return to school in the fall – not to mention a presidential election quickly approaching – the country appears at risk of being torn apart.
“I feel like it’s March all over again,” said William Hanage, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “There is no way in which a large number of cases of disease, and indeed a large number of deaths, are going to be avoided.”
The problem facing the United States is plain. New cases nationally are up a remarkable 50% over the last two weeks and the daily death toll is up 42% over the same period. Cases are on the rise in 40 out of 50 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico. Last week America recorded more than 75,000 new cases daily – five times the rate of all Europe.
“We are unfortunately seeing more higher daily case numbers than we’ve ever seen, even exceeding pre-lockdown times,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The number of new cases that occur each day in the US are greater than we’ve yet experienced. So this is obviously a very worrisome direction that we’re headed in.”
The mayor of Houston, Texas, proposed a “two-week shutdown” last week after cases in the state climbed by tens of thousands. The governor of California reclosed restaurants, churches and bars, while the governors of Louisiana, Alabama and Montana made mask-wearing in public compulsory.
“Today I am sounding the alarm,” Governor Kate Brown said. “We are at risk of Covid-19 getting out of control in Oregon.”
As dire as the current position seems, the months ahead look even worse. The country anticipates hundred of thousands of hospitalizations, if the annual averages hold, during the upcoming flu season. Those hospitalizations will further strain the capacity of overstretched clinics.
But a flu outbreak could also hamper the country’s ability to fight coronavirus in other ways. Because the two viruses have similar symptoms – fever, chills, diarrhea, fatigue – mistaken diagnoses could delay care for some patients until it’s too late, and make outbreaks harder to catch, one of the country’s top health officials has warned.
“I am worried,” Dr Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said last week. “I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are probably going to be one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health because of … the co-occurrence of Covid and influenza.”
Other factors will be in play. A precipitous reopening of schools in the fall, as demanded by Trump and the education secretary, Betsy DeVos, without safety measures recommended by the CDC, could create new superspreader events, with unknown consequences for children.
“We would expect that to be throwing fuel on the fire,” said Hanage of blanket school reopenings. “So it’s going to be bad over the next month or so. You can pretty much expect it to be getting worse in the fall.”
The list of aggravating circumstances goes on and on. A federal unemployment assistance program that gave each claimant an extra $600 a week is set to expire at the end of July. A new coronavirus relief package is being held up in Congress by Republicans’ accusations that states are wasting money, and their insistence that any new legislation include liability protections for businesses that reopen during the pandemic.
Cable broadcasts and social media have been filled, meanwhile, with video clips of furious confrontations on sidewalks, in stores and streets over wearing facial masks. In Michigan, a sheriff’s deputy shot dead a man who had stabbed another man for challenging him about not wearing a mask at a convenience store. In Georgia, the Republican governor sued the Democratic mayor of Atlanta for issuing a city-wide mask mandate.
The partisan divide on masks is slowly closing as the outbreaks intensify. The share of Republicans saying they wear masks whenever they leave home rose 10 points to 45% in the first two weeks of July, while 78% of Democrats reported doing so, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll.
Another divide has proven tragically resilient. As hotspots have shifted south, the virus continues to affect Black and Latinx communities disproportionately. Members of those communities are three times as likely to become infected and twice as likely to die from the virus as white people, according to data from early July.
The raging virus has prompted speculation in some corners that the only way out for the United States is through some kind of “herd immunity” achieved by simply giving up. But that grossly underestimates the human tragedy such a scenario would involve, epidemiologists say, in the form of tens of millions of new cases and unknown thousands of deaths.
“I think that every single serology study that’s been done to date suggests that the vast majority of Americans have not yet been exposed to this virus,” Nuzzo said. “So we’re still very much in the early stages.
“Which is good, that’s actually really good news. I don’t want to strive for herd immunity, because that means the vast majority of us will get sick and that will mean many, many more deaths. The point is to slow the spread as much as possible, protect ourselves as much as possible, until we have other tools.”
But the ability of the US to take that basic step – to slow the spread, as dozens of other countries have done – is in perilous doubt. After half a year, the Trump administration has made no effort to establish a national protocol for testing, contact tracing and supported isolation – the same proven three-pronged strategy by which other countries control their outbreaks.
Critics say that instead, Trump has dithered and denied as the national death toll climbed to almost 140,000. The Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, who is hoping to unseat Trump in November, blasted the president for refusing until recently to wear a mask in public.
“He wasted four months that Americans have been making sacrifices by stoking divisions and actively discouraging people from taking a very basic step to protect each other,” Biden said in a statement last weekend.
Meanwhile the White House has attacked Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s foremost expert on infectious diseases whose refusal to lie to the public has enraged Trump, by publishing an op-ed signed by one of the president’s top aides titled “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on” and by releasing a file of opposition research to the Washington Post.
Trump claimed the number of cases was a function of unusually robust testing, though experts said that positivity rates of 20% in multiple states suggested that the United States is testing too little – and that in any case closing one’s eyes to the problem by testing less would not make it go away.
“We’ve done 45 million tests,” Trump said this week, padding the figure only slightly. “If we did half that number, you’d have half the cases, probably around that number. If we did another half of that, you’d have half the numbers. Everyone would be saying we’re doing well on cases.”
Such statements by Trump have encouraged unfavorable comparisons of the US pandemic response with those in countries such as Italy, which recorded just 169 new cases on Monday after a horrific spring, and South Korea, which has kept cases in the low double-digits since April.
But the United States could also look to many African countries for lessons in pandemic response, said Amanda McClelland, who runs a global epidemic prevention program at Resolve to Save Lives.
“We’ve seen some good success in countries like Ghana, who have really focused on contact tracing, and being able to follow up superspreading events,” said McClelland. “We see Ethiopia: they kept their borders open for a lot longer than other countries, but they have really aggressive testing and active case-finding to make sure that they’re not missing cases.
“I think what we’ve seen is that you need not just a strong health system but strong leadership and governance to be able to manage the outbreak, and we’ve seen countries that have all three do well.”
But in America, the large laboratories that process Covid-19 tests are unable to keep up with demand. Quest Diagnostics announced on Tuesday that the turnaround time for most non-emergency test results was at least seven days.
“We want patients and healthcare providers to know that we will not be in a position to reduce our turnaround times as long as cases of Covid-19 continue to increase dramatically,” the lab said.
“You can’t have unlimited lab capacity, and what we’ve done is allow, to some extent, cases to go beyond our capacity,” said McClelland. “We’re never going to be able to treat and track and trace uncontrolled transmission. This outbreak is just too infectious.”
Public health experts emphasize that the United States does not have to accept as its fate a cascade of tens of millions of new cases, and tens of thousands of deaths, in the months ahead. Focused leadership and individual resolve could yet help the country follow in the footsteps of other nations that have successfully faced serious outbreaks – and brought them under control.
But it is clear that the most vulnerable Americans, including the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, face grave danger. Republicans have argued in recent weeks that while cases in the US have soared, death rates are not climbing so quickly, because the new cases are disproportionately affecting younger adults.
That is a false reassurance, health experts say, because deaths are a lagging indicator – cases necessarily rise before deaths do – and because large outbreaks among any demographic group speeds the virus’s ability to get inside nursing homes, care facilities and other places where residents are most vulnerable.
“If we don’t do anything to stop the virus, it’s going to be very difficult to prevent it from getting to people who will die,” said Nuzzo.
There is a question of whether the United States, for all its wealth and expertise – and its self-regard as an exceptional actor on the world stage – can summon the will to keep up the fight. People are tired of fighting the virus, and of fighting each other.
“I think unfortunately people are emotionally exhausted from having to think about and worry about this virus,” said Nuzzo. “They feel like they’ve already sacrificed a lot. So the worry that I have is, what willingness is there left, to do what it takes?”
It is as if the country is “treading water in the middle of the ocean”, Hanage said.
“People tend to be shuffling very quickly between denial and fatalism,” he said. “That’s really not helpful. There are a number of things that can be done.
“What I would hope is that this marks a point when the United States finally wakes up and realizes that this is a pandemic and starts taking it seriously.
“Folks tend to look at what has happened elsewhere and then they make up some kind of magical reason why it’s not going to happen to them.
“People keep making these excuses, and the virus doesn’t care about the excuses. The virus just keeps going. If you give it the opportunity, it will take it.”