NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn’t happen this week
A roundup of some of the most popular but completely untrue stories and visuals of the week. None of these are legit, even though they were shared widely on social media. The Associated Press checked them out. Here are the facts:
Post misrepresents Pfizer data on vaccine efficacy
CLAIM: Because 14 people in Pfizer’s placebo group died and 15 people in the vaccinated group also died, Pfizer’s own data shows its COVID-19 vaccine does not reduce the risk of dying from the disease.
THE FACTS: Those figures are irrelevant to the vaccine’s efficacy, as they are simply a tally of all deaths that occurred among participants in both the placebo and vaccine groups in Pfizer’s ongoing study. Pfizer’s data shows that the vaccine is highly effective at preventing serious illness. Data from countries that have used the vaccine widely show it is also effective at preventing death from COVID-19. On July 28, Pfizer released updated data from its vaccine study showing that as of mid-March, the shots were 97% effective in preventing severe disease from COVID-19 up to 6 months later. The data also showed the shots’ efficacy against COVID-19 symptoms dropped slightly with time: it peaked at 96% efficacy 2 months after the shots were administered and fell to 84% after 6 months. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the company’s vaccine in December 2020 after reviewing earlier data from Pfizer’s ongoing study, which includes 44,000 participants. The newly released data includes 6 months of follow-up data that is required to get full FDA approval. It is expected that in any long-term study, some participants will die for unrelated reasons. Clinical trials monitor deaths to watch for any potential red flags. Pfizer’s study states that 14 people in the placebo group and 15 people in the vaccinated group died before January 2021. The vast majority of the deaths were unrelated to COVID-19. Only two people in the placebo group died of COVID-19 and one person in the vaccinated group died of COVID-19 pneumonia, according to additional Pfizer data obtained by The Associated Press. The rest of the deaths were due to other factors, including heart disease and heart attacks. The report states that none of the deaths were related to the vaccine. A widely shared tweet misrepresented the significance of the death numbers to falsely suggest those deaths meant the Pfizer’s vaccine doesn’t reduce a person’s chance of dying from the virus: “The pivotal clinical trial for the @pfizer #Covid vaccine shows it does nothing to reduce the overall risk of death. ZERO. 15 patients who received the vaccine died; 14 who received placebo died,” the tweet reads. But those death figures, which include everyone in the study who died before January 2021, are irrelevant to the question of how efficient the vaccine is at preventing COVID-19 deaths. The claim made in the Twitter post “is not supportable by these data,” said Dr. David J. Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. The fact that both the vaccinated group and the control group had a similar number of deaths from causes other than COVID-19 is to be expected, Cennimo said. “To exaggerate the example for learning, the Pfizer vaccine doesn’t protect you from lightning strikes so equal numbers of people in the vaccine and the placebo control group should get hit by lightning,” Cennimo said. In fact, the tweet’s assertion that the Pfizer study aimed to measure efficacy against death is also wrong, Cennimo said. Rather, the study was designed to look at how effective the vaccine is at protecting against symptomatic illness. Since death from COVID-19 is a much rarer event than a COVID-19 infection, Cennimo said a much larger study sample is needed to answer that question. Real-world data from hundreds of millions of Pfizer vaccine doses administered in the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel show that the vaccine is exceedingly effective at protecting against death. A spokesperson for Pfizer told the AP the company could not comment on specific cases, but said, “No deaths were considered by the investigators to be related to the vaccine or placebo.”
— Associated Press writer Arijeta Lajka in New York contributed this report
Claim about resuscitation in breakthrough COVID-19 patients is false
CLAIM: Resuscitation is not possible for many vaccinated people who become seriously ill from COVID-19. In some cases, their hearts are too “stiff” to respond to paddles used to deliver an electric shock. Microclots in surrounding tissue may be the reason.
THE FACTS: Emergency room physicians say they have heard of no such issues involving people vaccinated for COVID-19 who become sick, and the claim, which circulated on Twitter, was not supported by any evidence. “This post makes zero sense,” said Dr. Howard Mell, an emergency medical physician in St. Louis and a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. “It is flat out wrong.” Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency physician in Lexington, Kentucky, said he has only admitted one vaccinated person with COVID-19 at his hospital. The majority of his patients suffering from COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Studies have shown that COVID-19 vaccines approved for emergency use in the U.S. are highly effective at preventing severe disease. In cases where those inoculated against the disease become infected, the illness is far less severe than if they had not received the vaccine. Experts warn that those who are unvaccinated are more at risk for being hospitalized. “The vaccine has no regard whatsoever on my efforts of resuscitation,” Stanton said. “It makes it less likely that they will need resuscitation.” Mell said the claim being shared online is also off base because people who die of COVID-19 are more likely to experience respiratory arrest and defibrillation is not used to resuscitate those patients. Furthermore, Mell said that the post misrepresented what defibrillation is. “We don’t use the paddles to put electricity back into the heart,” he said. “When we shock somebody, we are actually stopping their heart, that is the goal of defibrillation.” Asked about the issue of microclots, experts said that clots are more likely to occur in people with COVID-19, not those who have been vaccinated. “For the most part, the people we are resuscitating who have had COVID-19, especially with the rising cases of delta, are by far not vaccinated individuals,” said Dr. Mark Conroy, emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Those who receive the vaccine and experience a breakthrough case will see typically mild symptoms, though serious breakthrough cases may occur in those who are immunocompromised. Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston University School of Medicine, said there is no evidence that people who experience breakthrough cases do not respond to treatment, including resuscitation. In fact, he said, in the cases he has seen they did not become that sick. “They were nowhere near needing to be resuscitated or end up in an ICU,” he said.
— Associated Press writer Beatrice Dupuy in New York contributed this report.
Post gives false advice on ‘best way to avoid COVID-19’
CLAIM: The best way to avoid COVID-19 altogether is to exercise, eat healthy and let your immune system beat it naturally.
THE FACTS: A screenshot of a tweet circulating widely on Instagram this week revived a harmful misconception that has proved pervasive throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: the false claim that letting your immune system fight the virus is safer than getting vaccinated. “The best way to avoid COVID altogether is to exercise, eat healthy and let your immune system beat it naturally,” the post reads. “The lazy way is to do none of the above and just let strangers stick an emergency cocktail in your arm countless times because some short guy on your TV told you to.” In reality, while being overweight or having chronic health conditions can increase your chances of suffering from COVID-19 complications, no combination of exercise or healthy food can shield you from becoming seriously ill or dying if you get the virus, experts say. Vaccination, on the other hand, provides robust protection from serious illness or death. “Many very healthy people can and do get severe COVID,” said Dr. Grant McFadden, director of the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at Arizona State University. “In general, immunity from vaccination is stronger and more reliable than just recovering from a natural infection with the virus.” People who get COVID-19 also risk developing long-term symptoms that researchers are still working to understand, Columbia University Center for Infection and Immunity Director Dr. W. Ian Lipkin added. While breakthrough cases do occur in a small percentage of vaccinated people, studies show the vaccines are very good at reducing the severity of the illness. As COVID-19 infections surge due to the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, vaccines have continued to offer strong protection. Ongoing research also suggests immunity from vaccines may outlast immunity from many COVID-19 cases, according to Sabra Klein, a microbiologist and immunologist at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Especially among those that have mild disease (not hospitalized) or are asymptomatic, immunity wanes within 6 months,” Klein said. “So far, it is apparent that immunity following vaccination lasts longer.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people get vaccinated even if they have already been infected with COVID-19. The Food and Drug Administration granted emergency use authorization for the vaccines available in the U.S. after clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people showed the shots were safe and effective.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed this report.
No, the delta variant is not why California is mailing ballots for upcoming election
CLAIM: California is mailing out ballots for the governor recall election because of the delta variant.
THE FACTS: The California Legislature passed a bill in February, months before the delta variant surge, requiring that mail-in ballots be sent to all registered voters ahead of an election. On Sept. 14, California will hold a recall election that could remove first-term Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, from office. In February, the state Legislature passed a bill mandating that all active registered voters get a ballot in the mail for the election even if they didn’t ask for one. Ballots will be mailed this month. Even before the pandemic, more than half of California voters chose to mail in their ballots; in 2018 statewide elections, two-thirds of voters cast vote-by-mail ballots. False posts on Twitter claimed that the delta variant led the state to send out mail-in ballots, when in reality, the bill requiring it was signed before the ongoing delta surge. “Due to new ‘delta variant’ California will be mailing in ballots for recall election,” a false tweet claims. Other conspiracy posts online suggested that the variant was somehow “planned” to affect election results. To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the bill expands mail-in voting for all elections before January 2022, a spokesperson with the California secretary of state told the AP in an email. “Voters can return their ballots by mail, drop box, or take advantage of the in-person voting options available in every California county during the September 14, 2021 Recall Election,” the spokesperson said. The state enacted a similar bill earlier in the pandemic for the presidential election last year, the AP reported.
— Arijeta Lajka
Report claiming ‘excess’ Biden votes doesn’t show fraud
CLAIM: A state-by-state report of excess votes for President Joe Biden in the 2020 election suggests there was election fraud and affirms that former President Donald Trump actually won seven key states that were called for Biden.
THE FACTS: A former army captain’s report that gained traction among some conservatives this week falsely claimed Trump won several states that he lost in the 2020 election. The report, which based its claims on assumptions related to voting and registration trends, provided no proof of fraud. Nevertheless, it amassed thousands of views on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter and conservative websites, with some headlines claiming it affirmed Trump won Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, Georgia and Minnesota. It was also promoted by Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon and Trump himself, who said the report contained “election-changing” numbers that showed the 2020 election was fraudulent and he actually won “by a LOT.” Trump has continued to falsely claim he won the election since his loss nine months ago. Biden defeated Trump in the 2020 presidential election, earning 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. State officials from both parties, election security experts and former Republican Attorney General William Barr said the election went smoothly with no evidence of widespread fraud. Trump’s recent claim that the report’s findings could have changed the election results also have no merit, according to political scientists who reviewed the report. The report appears to use voting trends, population growth data and registration records to create “heat maps” showing how far the 2020 results diverged from the author’s predictions at the county, state and national levels. However, it doesn’t disclose where these numbers originated or the methods by which the analysis was performed. It claims there was likely “Strong/Rampant” fraud in several states and counties nationwide, but appears to base the claim solely on how different the results were from a prediction, not on any actual examples of fraud. The author, Seth Keshel, identifies himself on LinkedIn as a tech company sales manager and former baseball analyst but does not identify any election experience. His report acknowledges that the state-by-state tallies of “excess votes” for Biden are “lenient” estimates that demand further research, but frequently repeats the false claim that the numbers suggest fraud. Harvard University political scientist Gary King reviewed the report and previously reviewed similar election claims from Keshel as part of a lawsuit in Arizona. In both situations, King said, the data showed no evidence of fraud and ignored the reality that voters act in ways that don’t match up with predictive modeling. “There is zero valuable academic information here,” King told the AP. “Voters, they’re allowed to do what they want. They surprise us. It’s incredible hubris to imagine your model is always right. That’s just crazy.” University of Georgia political scientist and pollster Trey Hood reviewed the report and came to the same conclusion. “This is certainly no method for uncovering voter fraud,” Hood said. “It doesn’t show anything.” Contacted for response, Keshel said his analysis was an exhaustive process that took weeks to conduct. He said that given deadlines there was not time to go over the work in detail, but suggested that full forensic audits would help put the matter to rest.
— Ali Swenson
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