By Daniel Dale and Tara Subramaniam, CNN
As Covid-19 infections and hospitalizations surge on account of the Omicron variant, false claims related to the pandemic continue to spread widely on social media — and they are sometimes being shared by people with substantial online followings.
Here is a fact check of four of the many false claims that were circulating in late December and early January.
A fake Betty White quote about the booster
Legendary actress Betty White died on December 31 at age 99. Her agent and longtime friend, Jeff Witjas, told CNN that White had died peacefully in her sleep of natural causes.
But some social media users have been sharing a supposed quote of White purportedly saying, three days before she died, that “I just got boosted today.” The supposed quote has been used to suggest that the booster played a role in White’s death.
Facts First: The quote is fake. White never said she got a booster shot on December 28 — and agent and friend Witjas says she did not get a booster at all. “Betty never received a booster before her passing,” Witjas said in a Tuesday email to CNN, “period.”
It’s also worth emphasizing that even if someone did receive a booster and then died soon after, that would not be evidence that this person died because of the booster. The booster shots, like other Covid-19 vaccines, have proved to be safe.
A fake screenshot about the White House
Chris Buskirk, the editor and publisher of the right-wing website American Greatness, tweeted an image on December 20 that looked as if it was from the White House website.
Under the heading “President Biden’s new winter plan,” the image showed a list that began with these three items: “Learn about Restrictions on Cross-State Travel,” “Read About the New Booster Requirements” and “See America’s New Quarantine Centers.”
Facts First: This image is fake — a photoshopped alteration. No such list ever appeared on the White House website. And the Biden administration has not announced plans to restrict travel between states, to open “new quarantine centers” or to force people to take booster shots. A winter pandemic plan the White House published in early December includes none of these supposed policies.
It’s possible that the Biden administration will eventually announce some sort of booster requirement for some Americans; Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in December that there were “active discussions” about making boosters mandatory for members of the military, whom the Pentagon already requires to be “fully vaccinated” (with one or two shots, depending on the vaccine, but not a booster). But that future possibility doesn’t make the screenshot any less fake.
Buskirk, who had about 43,000 Twitter followers in early January, added his own inflammatory words above the screenshot — claiming in his tweet that Biden “apparently” wanted to “open concentration camps,” referring to the supposed “new quarantine centers.” Buskirk’s tweet was retweeted by J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for a US Senate seat in Ohio, who had more than 171,000 followers as of early January.
Vance took down his retweet the same day, after conservative website The Bulwark pointed out that the image was fake. But Buskirk’s own tweet has remained online for more than two weeks. It was still up on Wednesday even though CNN had emailed him Tuesday to tell him the image was fake and ask for comment. Buskirk didn’t respond.
A false claim about illnesses vanishing
Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner — who served three years in prison for tax fraud and other offenses but was later pardoned by President Donald Trump — tweeted on December 27: “Has anyone asked themselves what happened to the common cold, flu, allergies, bronchitis, asthma, etc…? They’ve all disappeared! It’s all Covid now. How stupid and naïve are the American people and when is this going to stop?”
Kerik, who had more than 273,000 Twitter followers in early January, did not explain what he meant by his conspiratorial remark about Americans being stupid and naive, and he did not respond to a CNN request for an explanation. (There have been false claims throughout the pandemic that flu cases are being deliberately misclassified as Covid-19 cases.) But Kerik’s claim about various illnesses having vanished was false regardless.
Facts First: The common cold, the flu, bronchitis and asthma all very much continue to exist. It’s true that 2020-2021 was an exceptionally light influenza season; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with outside experts, said the measures people were taking to limit the spread of Covid-19 were likely helping to limit the spread of the flu as well. But the circulation of the flu in the US returned to normal levels in late 2021.
Lynnette Brammer, team lead on the CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team, said in an email to CNN this week: “While flu activity during the 2020-21 flu season was historically low, it’s not accurate to say flu disappeared. There were still flu viruses in circulation during 2020-2021, albeit at very low levels. This season, we have already begun to see flu activity increase to levels similar to what we might have seen at this time of year before the pandemic, signaling the return of more typical seasonal flu circulation.”
The CDC reported that 1,825 people had been admitted to hospitals with influenza in the week ending December 25, up from 1,269 people the week prior.
Less than 24 hours after Kerik’s tweet about the flu and other ailments having supposedly “disappeared,” he tweeted out a Fox News article with a headline that contradicted his original tweet: “Flu season resurges in US as omicron cancels flights, stokes NYE fears.” He struck a conspiratorial tone here too, writing: “THEY FOUND IT!!!!”
But nothing had actually been “found.” Media outlets had been saying for months that US flu activity was likely to be higher this season than it was last season. CNN reported 12 days before Kerik’s original tweet that US flu cases were rising.
Another nonexistent link between a sports injury and the vaccines
NFL player Donald Parham Jr., a tight end for the Los Angeles Chargers, suffered a concussion during a game on December 16. In a frightening incident, his head slammed against the ground as he attempted to catch a pass. After he lay motionless on the ground with his arms raised in a bent position, a known response to concussions, he was wheeled off the field on a stretcher.
But some social media users claimed that Parham had experienced a serious heart problem related to Covid-19 vaccines — with at least one user claiming that his heart had exploded in midair after he had recently received his booster shot.
Facts First: Claims linking Parham’s injury to Covid-19 vaccines are not only false but ridiculous. There is no reason to doubt that Parham had a concussion; what happened during the televised incident was entirely consistent with that diagnosis, which was announced by the Chargers on December 17. There is zero indication that he suffered a catastrophic heart problem.
For months, social media users have baselessly linked various athletes’ medical issues to Covid-19 vaccines. FactCheck.org debunked a bunch of these claims here; Reuters has debunked false claims about Parham’s injury in particular.
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