Jul 222020
 

Recent rumors and news reports have circulated claiming that COVID-19 is being spread intentionally in clandestine “covid parties.” In mid-March, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear made national headlines when he stated that part of the rise in coronavirus infections in his state was due to parties in which people tried their best to get sick. 

“We are battling for the health and even the lives of our parents and our grandparents. Don’t be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that,” he said in a news conference. News media widely carried the story, including CNN and NPR. A press release stated that authorities were “receiving reports of Covid-19 parties occurring in our community, where non-infected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus.”

Confirmation that the parties were not only real but spreading came in the form of reports from Washington state, where Walla Walla’s “Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health, told the Union-Bulletin that contact tracing has revealed that some people who have newly tested positive had attended parties with the idea that it might be better to get sick with the virus and get it over with,” DeBolt told The Seattle Times.  

And then just last week came news from Alabama that college students had recently organized covid parties “as a contest to see who would get the virus first, officials said. Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students hosted the parties to intentionally infect each other with the new coronavirus, news outlets reported. McKinstry said party organizers purposely invited guests who tested positive for COVID-19. She said the students put money in a pot and whoever got COVID first would get the cash.”

So what’s going on? Is this a genuine public health threat? 

To answer the question we can look at it from different perspectives, including media literacy, critical thinking, and folklore. There are elements of journalism, rumor, conspiracy, anti-vaccination fears, and medical misinformation. 

A Closer Look

The idea of intentionally being exposed to a disease in order to become immune to it—assuming, of course, you survive it—has been around for centuries and is the premise behind inoculation and vaccination (in which small, inactive doses of a disease trigger the body to produce defenses). 

There’s an important difference, however: Vaccinations are given specifically to prevent diseases; the idea is that hopefully you won’t get the disease at all. But these covid parties are intended to make sure the person contracts the disease (for most adults it’s not clear why actually getting sick from a potentially lethal disease would be any better at one time instead of risking getting sick at another time in the future; there’s hardly a “convenient” time to be bedridden—and possibly hospitalized—for weeks).  

Part of it traces back to anti-vaccination fears, which are closely related to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and other diseases. There was vehement resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed that the vaccination could actually turn people (especially children) into cows! In England, vaccination deniers formed an Anti-Vaccination League in 1853, followed by the Anti-compulsory Vaccination League in 1867. These groups claimed that the smallpox vaccine was dangerous, ineffective, and represented not only a conspiracy but an infringement on personal rights by the government and medical establishment (this may sound familiar).

Such fears over smallpox vaccination have been long since disproven—the vaccination was both safe and effective—but the distrust and fearmongering continue to this day. Before vaccines were available, some parents held “pox parties” in which kids were encouraged to play with others who had chicken pox, measles, and other childhood diseases. They were especially popular in the 1970s and 1980s, though are today often promoted by anti-vaccination groups. 

Events in which people are deliberately exposed to diseases in place of vaccinations are a bad idea for several reasons, including as noted that the whole point of getting a vaccine is that you don’t get sick in the first place.

Of course, vaccination—like any medical intervention, drug, or therapy—isn’t perfect and doesn’t offer absolute protection. Some people who are fully vaccinated will still get the disease (albeit with typically milder symptoms and for a shorter duration), and some people who don’t get vaccinated won’t get the disease anyway (for any number of reasons, ranging from a strong immune system to simply not being exposed to a contagious person). But overall, on a population level, the scientific evidence is clear and convincing that vaccines are safe and effective. In the case of COVID-19, there is as yet no available vaccine, so there’s no safe way to expose someone to the coronavirus that doesn’t endanger their health. 

A Bad Idea…

It’s also important to remember that—unlike common cold or influenza—there seems to be lingering damage to the body long after apparent recovery from COVID-19. In stark contrast to Trump’s recent claim that “99% of infections” are “totally harmless” (a statement universally disputed by medical experts), though it’s true that statistically most people recover after surviving a bout with the disease, many report debilitating aftereffects. 

As an article in Forbes noted, “rapid recovery has not been the experience of thousands—perhaps tens of thousands—of patients worldwide who’ve been classified as ‘mild cases.’ Many struggle for months with lingering Covid-19 symptoms that can be debilitating. They exhibit shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, intermittent fevers, cough, concentration issues, chest pressure, headaches, and heart palpitations, among other symptoms.” A study of 1,622 “mildly symptomatic” Covid-19 patients found that “Nearly 88% of patients reported persistent intense fatigue, while almost three out of four had continued shortness of breath. Other enduring symptoms included, among other things, chest pressure (45% of patients), headache and muscle ache (40% and 36%, respectively), elevated pulse (30%), and dizziness (29%). Perhaps the most startling finding was that 85% of the surveyed patients considered themselves healthy prior to getting Covid-19. One or more months after getting the disease, only 6% consider themselves healthy.”

It would be one thing if COVID-19 patients could expect to endure a week or two of bedridden misery and then bounce back to where they were, fully recovered and newly immune. But that’s not the case; though most of those infected eventually survive the disease, the following months of aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath are unlikely to be worth it. Far better to protect yourself than to deliberately infect yourself. 

…That Probably Doesn’t Work Anyway

In any event, “covid parties” are unlikely to be effective anyway, for logistical reasons. Assuming you have a willing and potentially infectious patient (who’s not bedridden or in a hospital), it’s impossible for non-doctors to establish the person’s viral load—that is, the amount of contagious particles in a given volume of an infected person’s fluids (such as saliva or sneeze droplets). 

The basics of transmission are pretty well understood, and universal for upper respiratory infections: coughing, sneezing, and so on. Once droplets are expelled from the patient, they can enter other people by various routes: most easily by inhalation, but also indirectly through a person touching an item (say, a doorknob or elevator button) and then carrying that to their mouth, nose, or eyes. There are other ways as well, such as food contamination (sneezing on a salad bar, for example). 

A viral load varies from person to person, and how far along they are in the disease symptoms. But researchers don’t yet fully understand the mechanisms of COVID-19 infection. Sunlight kills the virus and air currents disperse it, making outdoor contact safer than indoor exposure. The recommended social distance metric of six feet isn’t a magic number, but merely an educated guess about how close people can be and minimize the risk. That doesn’t mean that you can’t catch it from someone twenty feet away (or someone who’s now long gone), and that doesn’t mean that you’re certain to catch it if you’re closer, or even kissing. There are many, many variables involved, including health of the patient, the amount of virus the person is exposed to, for how long, and so on. The point is that even under controlled, laboratory conditions, there’s little certainty about COVD-19’s transmissibility and thus health officials will err on the side of caution. 

Anti-vaccination groups—not known for their respect of medicine, its findings, or the recommendations derived therefrom—typically resort to unproven, ad hoc infection measures, such as merely being in the same room as an infected person, or in some cases sharing lollipops for example. Most people, anti-vaxx or not, aren’t eager to eat food that strangers have coughed or sneezed on. 

Not only does being around a sick person not guarantee you’ll get sick, but of course the person may not even have COVID-19 in the first place. Many respiratory diseases can have similar symptoms; if you or your child has a cold, they’re probably infected by a rhinovirus, not a coronavirus, so you’re not doing anyone any favors by giving them a cold or flu—and not conferring any immunity to COVID-19, which was the whole point. It is a direct violation of the first rule of medicine: “First, do no harm.” 

Whether any “covid parties” were actually held, there were many accidental ones in which people became infected (and in some cases died) from attending a party with an infected person. This fact should not, however, be taken as evidence that covid parties are an effective way to catch the virus; instead, it’s a case of selection bias. The cases in which people came down with the virus after parties are ones which are of course reported in news media; parties in which people gathered during the pandemic and no one became infected (for any number of reasons, including that no one present had the virus or that precautions including wearing masks and social distancing were taken, and so on) are non-events and therefore not newsworthy or notable. There’s simply no way to know with any certainty what the chances are of any given person contracting the disease. When you add in well-documented confounding factors such as asymptomatic carriers and vagaries of testing (including incomplete testing, false positives and false negatives, and so on), the whole premise of such parties is dubious. 

Statistics, Media Literacy, and ‘Bug Chasers’

So are the covid parties “real”? It’s hard to say, and depends on what you mean by “real.” There may be a few rare, isolated cases of people getting together to do that, but in any event it’s not common nor medically sanctioned. 

It’s also important to apply media literacy to the claims: News media routinely exaggerate and sensationalize claims such as these, eager to identify the latest dangerous “hidden trend” among the reckless for their audiences. 

For example in February 2003 Rolling Stone magazine published an article about “bug chasers,” men who try to become infected with HIV/AIDS by having unprotected sex with men known to be infected. An article titled “In Search of Death” claimed that trying to become infected with AIDS was a new craze sweeping the country. It featured an interview with an anonymous man, a 32-year-old New York City resident named “Carlos,” who claimed to be one of many thousands of people intentionally spreading the deadly disease. The article not only claimed that the practice was going on, but also that it was a significant contributor to the AIDS epidemic, with a startling 25% of all new HIV infections in gay men caused by bug chasing—that is, people who wanted to get the virus. 

Gay advocacy groups and AIDS activists were outraged at the sensationalistic reporting; GLAAD issued a statement that the piece “sends a dangerous, inaccurate message that is already being exploited by the anti-gay right.” A piece in the British Medical Journal set the record straight: “Rolling Stone says that its data came from an interview with Bob Cabaj, director of behavioral health services at San Francisco’s department of public health. But immediately after the piece was published, Cabaj asserted that he never mentioned any figures on the prevalence of bug chasing. In a letter to Rolling Stone, which was forwarded to the BMJ, Cabaj wrote: ‘I did not have data, as I explained to the [Rolling Stone] author, but was saying it was probably more common than people wanted to think.’ And in an interview with Newsweek Cabaj distanced himself even further from the widely quoted prevalence data: ‘I never said that [it was 25%]. And when the fact checker called me and asked me if I said that, I said no. I said no. This is unbelievable.’” 

2006 study in the journal AIDS Education and Prevention by Christian Grov and Jeffrey Parsons of internet profiles concluded that while there are probably people who actively seek out HIV infection, they are very rare and that “a sizeable portion [of those] were not intent on spreading HIV.” That is, some non-infected gay men may seek partners of a different serostatus (i.e., HIV-infected)—but when they do, the purpose is not to get infected with the virus, nor to spread it to others. 

From a folkloric perspective these rumors can be understood as disease legends. Diane Goldstein, in her book Once Upon a Virus: AIDS Legends and Vernacular Risk Perception, notes that “The construction of the infected individual as morally deficient… occurs with regularity in relation to epidemic diseases. The more virulent diseases become, the more likely it is that certain groups and individuals will be seen as responsible for the threat on community welfare.” Goldstein discusses various false rumors circulating about people who deliberately infected others with AIDS, such as “AIDS Mary” and “AIDS Harry” stories, as well as fears about AIDS-infected needles placed in telephone coin return slots (though such rumors often resurface, this latter version is unlikely to return any time soon).

The Non-Epidemic of Covid Parties

So what about the widely-reported recent covid parties in Kentucky, Washington, and Alabama? 

Well, evidence of the coronavirus parties that Kentucky governor Andy Beshear mentioned never materialized, and Beshear never provided any follow up information or details on what, exactly, he was referring to. 

The reports from Washington state turned out to be a mistake. As The New York Times reported, “officials retracted those comments and said the so-called Covid-19 parties may have been more innocent gatherings. Meghan DeBolt, the director of community health for Walla Walla County, said county officials were learning more about the cases that have emerged from the recent social gatherings. She said they were still hearing reports of parties where infected people were present but do not have evidence that the people who became ill after the gatherings had attended out of a desire to be exposed.” In other words, young people were recklessly gathering at parties—something happening all across the country and having nothing to do with covid parties. 

The Alabama covid party story was soon debunked as well. As a refreshingly skeptical Wired article noted: “Tuscaloosa fire chief Randy Smith told the city council that his department had heard about parties ‘where students or kids would come in with known positives.’ It sounded like just a rumor, Smith said, but ‘not only did the doctors’ offices help confirm it, but the state also confirmed they had the same information.’ You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it ‘has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.’ It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick.”

“Covid parties” made the news again in mid-July, when a doctor at a Texas hospital gave interviews to national news media that seemed to confirm the dire threat of the reckless events. A July 10 WOAI/KABB news story from San Antonio, Texas headlined “‘I thought this was a hoax’: Patient in their 30s dies after attending COVID party,” begins: “A patient in their 30s died from the coronavirus after attending what is known as a ‘COVID party,’ according to health care officials. Chief Medical Officer of Methodist Healthcare Dr. Jane Appleby said the idea of these parties is to see if the virus is real….According to Appleby, the patient became critically ill and had a heartbreaking statement moments before death.”

More details on this apparent “covid party death” appear in an accompanying video statement by Dr. Appleby: “I don’t want to be an alarmist, and we’re just trying to share some real-world examples to help our community realize that this virus is very serious and can spread easily. I heard a heartbreaking story this week: We cared for a thirty-year-old patient at Methodist Hospital who told their nurse that they’d attended a ‘covid party.’ This is a party held by somebody diagnosed with the covid virus and the thought is that people get together and to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected. Just before the patient died, they looked at their nurse and said, ‘I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.’ This is just one example of a potentially avoidable death of a member of our community and I can’t imagine the loss of the family.”

This is not breaking news but instead classic folklore (a friend-of-a-friend or FOAF) tale. The news story and headline presents the comment “I thought this was a hoax,” implicitly attributed to Dr. Appleby. But if you read past the headline and watch the video, she’s quoting what she was told that an anonymous patient told his (or her) anonymous nurse—just before the patient’s death. It’s an anonymous third-hand story with nary a verifiable name or claim to be found.

The “deathbed conversion” is a classic legend trope, and the explicitly-worded rebuttal (to those who might doubt that the virus exists) is both convenient and suspicious. It’s also interesting that covid-19 and covid parties are being conflated in the journalism. According to Dr. Appleby’s anonymous informant, the goal of the party is not specifically to intentionally spread the virus—as noted, the explicit goal of alleged covid parties—but instead “to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected.” In other words the topic is less whether the “covid parties” referenced in the headline are a “hoax,” but whether the covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) is itself a hoax.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who genuinely thinks that the virus is fictional and doesn’t exist. Many people believe that the extent of the pandemic has been exaggerated for political purposes by the news media and others, and some think that the virus is less severe than often claimed, perhaps only as bad as the flu. But who in the world would think that the virus itself is a “hoax”? The answer, according to Dr. Appleby, is the patient she refers to and unnamed others who allegedly threw a party thinking that the outcome would somehow settle the question.

Dr. Appleby’s story could, of course, be true, and it’s possible that in the coming days and weeks we will learn the name of the patient who died from attending a covid party (and/or the nurse who heard the patient’s dying regrets). More likely, however, this is a news story reporting a rumor as fact, and if anything it reinforces, not undermines, the idea that covid parties are largely or wholly fictional.

The reports have all the typical ingredients of unfounded moral panic rumors: anonymous sources sharing stories and warnings online, soon legitimized by local officials (teachers, police, school districts, governors, etc.) who publicize the information out of an abundance of caution. Journalists eagerly run with a sensational story, and there’s little if any sober or skeptical follow-up. 

It’s only one of many concerns that cycle through news and social media on a regular basis. The alleged threats include poisoned Halloween candy, suicide-inducing online games, Satanists, caravans of diseased migrantsevil clowns, and many others. 

Covid parties, per se, are largely a media myth, but that doesn’t mean that someone, somewhere, may not be doing it or could do it. The question is not whether it’s possible, as all urban legends and rumors are inherently possible—and at least plausible enough to share. Hours after a hapless expert publicly avers that covid parties “don’t exist,” one could be arranged, thus “proving” the expert wrong. But the essence of the rumor is instead that clandestine covid parties are a Thing, being organized and sure to soon menace public health. In that regard there’s no evidence whatsoever of any covid parties.

In a world of 7.5 billion people—60% of whom are online—some tiny percentage of them will inevitably share common interests in strange, illegal, or destructive behaviors (ranging from murder for hire to sexual fetishes and even cannibalism). Of those, some small percent will get together in real life to enact them. The issue is less “Has this ever happened?” or “Could this happen?” but instead “Even if it has happened, is it a prevalent or significant threat that ordinary people should be concerned about, or take steps to prevent?” 

There are more than enough real threats and dangers associated with COVID-19; we don’t need to create new ones. Hoaxes, misinformation, and rumors can cause real harm during public health emergencies; as always, best inoculations against misinformation are critical thinking, media literacy, and skepticism.

We also devoted an episode of Squaring the Strange to the topic; you can listen HERE. 

 

A longer version of this article appeared on my CFI blog; you can find it HERE.

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