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:

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Article misrepresents CDC data, falsely links deaths to COVID vaccines

CLAIM: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention quietly confirmed that at least 118,000 children and young adults have “died suddenly” in the U.S. since the COVID-19 vaccines rolled out.

THE FACTS: The CDC has confirmed no such thing. The claim misrepresents CDC data around excess deaths — the difference between the observed number of deaths and the expected number in a specific period. A misleading article spreading widely online attempts to link recent child and young adult deaths in the U.S. to COVID-19 vaccines. “CDC quietly confirms at least 118k Children & Young Adults have ‘Died Suddenly’ in the USA since the roll-out of the COVID Vaccines,” reads its headline. The article originally appeared in November on The Exposé, a website that has repeatedly spread COVID-19 misinformation. A screenshot of the article’s headline was shared in multiple Facebook and Instagram posts. As evidence, the article cites CDC data as published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental organization that promotes sustainable growth. As presented by The Exposé, the data shows that there were about 118,000 excess U.S. deaths in the 0-to-44 age group between December 2020 and October 2022, compared to the 2015-2019 average. The article suggests that these deaths are the result of the COVID-19 vaccines, saying that the “‘mysterious’ sudden rise which has contributed to half a million American children and young adults dying since late 2020, is most likely due to the Covid-19 injections.” But Brian Tsai, a spokesperson for the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told The Associated Press that the claim distorts CDC data. Tsai said that from the start of 2021 to the 43rd week of 2022, there have been about 124,000 excess deaths in the U.S. among 0- to 44-year-olds compared to the 2015-2019 average. Tsai said his number is higher than those published by OECD because the CDC’s data is now more complete. There’s no indication COVID-19 vaccines caused these excess deaths, he said. Confirmed reports of deaths caused by vaccination are extremely rare, even with millions of COVID-19 vaccine doses having been administered in the U.S. Scott Pauley, a spokesperson for the CDC, told the AP that outside of nine deaths confirmed to be associated with rare blood clots following the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the agency has “not detected any unusual or unexpected patterns for deaths following immunization that would indicate that COVID vaccines are causing or contributing to deaths.” Tsai said likely reasons for excess deaths in this age group since 2020 include suicides, homicides, heart diseases, liver disease, diabetes and accidental deaths including drug overdoses. He added that a substantial number of the excess deaths are the result of COVID-19 itself. A surge in excess deaths among children and young adults in the summer of 2021, for example, corresponded with the delta variant of the coronavirus hitting the U.S., which affected younger people more than previous variants of the virus, Tsai said. CDC data from December 2021 indicated that COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the U.S., behind heart disease and cancer. Experts have said drug overdoses also contributed to higher-than-expected death rates in 2021, the AP reported. Tsai also refuted the headline’s claim that the CDC has “quietly” confirmed data about children and young adults dying “suddenly.” The CDC’s excess death data has long been public, he said, and “there is no way to really determine from the data whether people died suddenly or not.” Experts told the AP that there is no evidence to support the claim that the vaccines caused the excess deaths. “Excess deaths so obviously increased dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic that we’re able to, with some level of confidence, say that COVID was causing those excess deaths,” said Spencer Fox, an assistant professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia. OECD and The Exposé did not respond to requests for comment.

— Associated Press writers Karen Phan in Los Angeles and Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.

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COVID-19 and flu cases both rising, despite claims online

CLAIM: In a normal year, there is a lot of flu but no COVID-19, while during the pandemic there has been a lot of COVID-19 and no flu.

THE FACTS: While flu cases plummeted as COVID-19 cases soared early in the pandemic, coronavirus and flu cases are both on the rise globally, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports thousands of hospitalizations and deaths from the flu and a significant rise in COVID cases and deaths through the fall and early winter. The flu and the coronavirus are distinct viruses, contrary to claims that they are the same. As the winter cold and flu season takes hold, social media users are misrepresenting the prevalence of flu and COVID cases compared to prior years. One popular Instagram post features a meme containing two screenshots of actor John Krasinski in his role on the television sitcom “The Office.” In the first image, he points to a board with text that says: “Normal Year Flu 2.9 million COVID 0. The second image shows Krasinski next to the same board with text that says “Plandemic Flu 0 COVID 2.9 million.” The term “plandemic” refers to the baseless conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was intentionally developed and set upon the global population. In another popular post, a woman claims in an Instagram reel that the U.S. is dealing with “record high cases of the flu” even though there were no cases of the illness “on the whole planet” last year. The post had been liked more than 16,600 times as of Friday. But the flu never vanished. “Whatever point they’re trying to make is silly,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University’s medical school in Nashville, Tennessee. “It doesn’t comport with reality.” Thomas Russo, chief of the infectious diseases division at the University at Buffalo medical school in New York, agreed, noting that early in the pandemic, flu cases dropped dramatically as countries imposed strict measures to limit transmission of COVID-19. But as nations lifted lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing rules last year, flu cases reemerged and COVID cases surged, he said. Compared with prior flu seasons, last year was a relatively mild wave of the illness, with an estimated 9 million cases, 10,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, according to the CDC. “It seemed that COVID was stopping the flu, really in the first year and mostly the second year,” Russo said, referring to 2020 and 2021. “But the flu has come back with a vengeance this year.” A WHO report released Monday looking at this year’s flu season confirms that cases of influenza and COVID-19 are increasing worldwide. In late October, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the world is “turning a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic,” but warned it is far from over as he also emphasized the potential for a more widespread flu outbreak. In the U.S., health officials have reported the flu season kicked off earlier than usual this year. The season typically ramps up in December or January but by early November, the CDC estimated there were already roughly 1.6 million flu cases. The agency reported earlier this month that 44 states were experiencing high flu activity and that the illness had resulted in at least 78,000 hospitalizations and 4,500 deaths so far. New cases of COVID-19, meanwhile, have risen from an average of roughly 39,300 a day on Nov. 28 to about 62,300 as of Dec. 12, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Deaths from the virus also rose over the same two-week period, from an average of 309 a day to nearly 404 daily. The meme “might have been representative of 2020-2021 and (less so) 2021-2022,” Kate Grusich, a CDC spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday. “But it is not an accurate representation of current COVID and flu activity levels.”

— Associated Press writer Philip Marcelo in New York contributed this report.

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Posts mischaracterize congresswoman’s comments on anti-LGBTQ rhetoric

CLAIM: Rep. Katie Porter said in a hearing before the House Oversight and Reform Committee that pedophilia is an identity, not a crime.

THE FACTS: Porter’s comments from the committee’s Wednesday hearing on the rise of anti-LGBTQ violence were taken out of context. The California Democrat was agreeing with Human Rights Watch President Kelley Robinson, who spoke about online rhetoric painting LGBTQ people as “groomers” and “pedophiles.” Porter said that such rhetoric amounts to falsely “alleging that a person is criminal somehow and engaged in criminal acts merely because of their identity — their sexual orientation, their gender identity.” Misleading posts about Porter’s appearance at the hearing spread widely on social media, distorting comments she made on anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. “Rep Katie Porter (D) says pedophilia isn’t a crime- it’s an identity,” one tweet that shared a truncated version of Porter’s comments claimed. It had received nearly 21,000 likes and nearly 10,000 shares as of Thursday. But a full recording of the hearing, held in response to the recent Club Q shooting in Colorado, shows a longer exchange between Porter and Robinson. Porter first refers to a Human Rights Watch report published in August that analyzed tweets containing “grooming content.” Such content refers to the false narrative that members of the LGBTQ community are pedophiles who groom children in order to abuse them. Other posts advancing this narrative — including images and video taken out of context — have also spread online. “The groomer narrative is an age-old lie to position LGBTQ+ people as a threat to kids,” Porter begins. “And what it does is deny them access to public spaces, it stokes fear and can even stoke violence. In response, Robinson, who describes herself as queer in her professional biography, explains that “when we use phrases and words like groomers and pedophiles to describe people — individuals in our communities that are mothers, that are fathers, that are teachers, that are doctors — it is dangerous.” She added that the purpose of such rhetoric is “to dehumanize us and make us feel like we are not a part of this American society” and that “it has real-life consequences.” Porter then agreed with Robinson’s assessment, stating: “I think you’re absolutely right and it’s not — this allegation of groomer and pedophile — it is alleging that a person is criminal somehow and engaged in criminal acts merely because of their identity — their sexual orientation, their gender identity.” In reference to the posts mischaracterizing Porter’s comments, Jordan Wong, a spokesperson for Porter, told The Associated Press that “it’s clear it’s not true.”

— Associated Press writer Melissa Goldin in New York contributed this report.

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World Cup reporter’s fatal heart condition unrelated to COVID vaccine

CLAIM: Longtime sports journalist Grant Wahl, who died in Qatar last week, was killed by the COVID-19 vaccine.

THE FACTS: Wahl died of a ruptured blood vessel in his heart — an injury unrelated to any vaccine, his wife, Dr. Céline Gounder, confirmed to The Associated Press. The COVID-19 vaccines have not been associated with the heart condition that killed Wahl, experts told the AP. Wahl, 49, was in Doha to cover the World Cup when he fell ill. He tested negative for COVID-19 and sought treatment for what he described at the time as “pressure and discomfort ” in his chest. But on Dec. 9, he collapsed during a soccer match between Argentina and the Netherlands, and died the following day. Wahl’s sudden decline caught the attention of vaccine skeptics on social media, who shared posts falsely tying his death to COVID-19 vaccination. “Let’s be frank,” wrote one Twitter user, in a post that had gained more than 2,000 likes by Wednesday night. “The Covid 19 vaccine killed Grant Wahl.” Qatari authorities did not immediately announce his cause of death. On Wednesday, Gounder, a physician and infectious disease expert, said an autopsy by the New York City medical examiner’s office found Wahl had died from a slow-growing aneurysm within his aorta, the body’s largest artery. “His death was unrelated to COVID,” Gounder wrote in a newsletter entry on her husband’s site. “His death was unrelated to vaccination status. There was nothing nefarious about his death.” She confirmed that information to the AP. Julie Bolcer, a spokesperson for the New York City medical examiner’s office, referred comment to the Wahl family. Dr. Roland Assi, a professor of cardiac surgery at Yale School of Medicine, told the AP that there is “no evidence or suggestion” of a link with COVID-19 vaccines. “If anything, COVID infection is known to be linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular events, and possibly acute aortic events,” Assi wrote in an email. Similarly, Dr. Shinichi Fukuhara, an aortic surgeon at the University of Michigan’s medical school, wrote in an email that he didn’t know of any data tying the vaccines to the kind of aneurysm that killed Wahl. Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines have caused some cardiac side effects — namely myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. But cases of vaccine-induced myocarditis are exceedingly rare and the condition is often mild.

— Associated Press writer Graph Massara in San Francisco contributed this report.

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Maricopa County displays voter maps for both parties, contrary to claim

CLAIM: Election officials in Arizona’s Maricopa County displayed a map of Republican voters in the county at its central tabulation facility in Phoenix, but did not have a comparable Democrat voter map.

THE FACTS: Heat maps showing past Republican and Democrat voter turnout are both displayed in the Maricopa County Elections Department’s central tabulation facility, according to a spokesperson for the department and a photograph she provided to The Associated Press. A Monday blog post asserted that Maricopa County displayed a heat map of “expected” GOP voters and that the elections department “did not have a similar Democrat heat map hanging on their wall.” Mark Finchem, a Republican who lost his bid for Arizona secretary of state in the midterm election, shared the false information on Twitter stating, “Maricopa’s Heat Map of GOP voters. No Heat Map of Independents. No Heat Map of Democrats. Just Republicans.” But that’s not correct. Maps showing both past Republican and Democrat voter turnout are displayed in a hallway at the county’s central tabulation facility in downtown Phoenix, Megan Gilbertson, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Elections Department, wrote in an email to the AP. They show in-person voter turnout in the 2020 general election. A photo taken Monday that Gilbertson provided to the AP shows three maps in the hallway at the facility: a Republican in-person voter turnout map, a Democrat in-person voter map, and a total in-person voter turnout version. The blue Democrat map is right next to the red Republican one. The maps are used to make “data-driven decisions on the best places to have voting locations in future elections,” she explained. “The Maricopa County Recorder’s Office has a Geographic Information System (GIS) team that makes all of the maps in-house,” Gilbertson added. “We use the turnout data by party for elections such as the Presidential Preference Election, which is a party-only election. We use the all-voter maps for future planning for Primary and General elections.” The maps were made in late 2020 and were hung in the facility hallway in January 2021, according to Gilbertson. One of the blogs that shared the false claim about the county only having a Republican map has since published an additional post acknowledging that a Democrat map was also installed. Finchem did not respond to the AP’s request for comment.

— Associated Press writer Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report.

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