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:
Experts say Viagra isn't a known 'cure' for COVID-19
CLAIM: Viagra can cure COVID-19.
THE FACTS: Medical experts told The Associated Press that the use of Viagra to treat COVID-19 is "entirely unproven," and cautioned against its use among COVID patients without further research.
A spokesperson for Viatris, which markets Viagra, told the AP that the drug "is not indicated for COVID-19 or related symptoms." Claims that the commonly-used erectile dysfunction drug Viagra could be useful in treating — or even "curing" — COVID-19 began circulating online after one woman in the U.K. relayed her experience being prescribed the drug while battling the virus.
In a Jan. 2 interview with a British tabloid, the 37-year-old woman credited Viagra with opening up her airways after she was hospitalized and placed in a medically-induced coma with severe COVID-19. Her story was discussed during a Fox News segment, further amplifying the claims. Viagra functions by expanding blood vessels, helping increase blood flow. While this makes the drug effective in treating erectile dysfunction, the same properties also led the FDA to approve use of its active ingredient, sildenafil, for treatment of pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects the lungs.
With COVID-19, a hypothesis among some people is that because sildenafil helps relax blood vessels in the lungs, it may help improve oxygen levels among patients experiencing respiratory failure. But Dr. Daniel Culver, a pulmonologist and director of the Interstitial Lung Disease Program at Cleveland Clinic, said there has been no strong evidence the drug has been successful in these cases. "There has never been a survival benefit demonstrated from using any of these drugs for patients in the hospital with respiratory failure," Culver said, adding: "Unless there are large studies demonstrating benefits that are important to patients, like survival or getting out of the hospital sooner, I think it's dangerous to advocate use of sildenafil for COVID at this time." Dr. Ashley Winter, a urologist specializing in sexual dysfunction at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon, also warns against jumping to conclusions about the drug's effectiveness against COVID. "Just because it dilates blood vessels doesn't mean that it has any antiviral capabilities," Winter said. "If somebody is early on in a COVID infection and they don't have pulmonary hypertension — if you don't need to treat that specific symptom associated with being severely ill — the Viagra is not going to do anything to your COVID infection."
Some social media users cited a Jan. 3 study out of Chile, which evaluated the use of sildenafil for treating blood flow issues in the lungs of 40 COVID patients who were suffering respiratory complications. The researchers found "no statistically significant differences" in the oxygen status of patients who were given sildenafil and those who weren't. The study did find that sildenafil could "have a potential therapeutic role" in preventing invasive ventilation under certain conditions for some COVID-19 patients, but the paper said the findings needed further research. Culver advised readers to "exercise caution" when reviewing the results. "I don't think we can suggest that it was this particular therapy that made a difference," Culver said. "It's possible but it's entirely unproven. And in fact, it's quite risky to use the active agent in Viagra, sildenafil, in patients with respiratory failure."
— Associated Press Writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.
Vaccines didn't cause increase in deaths and life insurance payouts
CLAIM: An increase in death benefits paid out by life insurance providers in the third quarter of 2021 in the United States provides evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines, which became widely available in 2021, led to a spike in deaths.
THE FACTS: The claim wrongly attempts to tie COVID-19 vaccines to a surge in deaths in the U.S. that insurance companies reported in 2021.
Insurance industry leaders say the delta variant of the coronavirus and deferred medical care during the pandemic, not vaccines, likely contributed to the increase in deaths. Even as millions of people got vaccinated against COVID-19 in 2021, reports of death after vaccination remain extremely rare, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
One blog post circulating widely online this month claims that a rise in deaths in the third quarter of 2021, about six months after COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, "offers further evidence that something is very wrong with these vaccines." Other posts misrepresented comments made by Scott Davison, the CEO of the Indianapolis-based insurance company OneAmerica. Davison said in a press conference in late December that his firm saw a 40% rise in death rates among working-age individuals insured under its group life policy in the third quarter of 2021. Some posts used that statistic to falsely imply vaccines were to blame. But 65% of the excess deaths in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2021 were caused by COVID-19, Davison said in a statement to the AP, citing CDC data. "Based on the data and our analysis, we believe that a significant portion of the remaining excess deaths are driven by deferred medical care and individuals who recover from COVID but later die from the toll COVID has taken on their bodies," Davison said.
Catherine Theroux, a spokesperson for the insurance industry-funded research group LIMRA, said the firm doesn't have concrete data through the end of 2021, but CDC data indicates the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus likely contributed to the increase in deaths. The AP reported in December that CDC data indicated 2021 would be the nation's deadliest year on record, with COVID-19 becoming the nation's No. 3 cause of death behind heart disease and cancer. Experts also said U.S. drug overdose deaths, which surpassed 100,000 in a single year from May 2020 to April 2021, would probably affect 2021 death numbers. As deaths increased across the U.S., reports of death after COVID-19 vaccination remained extremely rare. The CDC has identified nine deaths associated with rare blood clots caused by the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, out of more than 17 million doses of that vaccine given. Health officials recommend the Pfizer or Moderna mRNA vaccines for most Americans, since they are highly effective against the virus and do not carry the rare blood clot risk associated with the Johnson & Johnson shot. Whether someone received a COVID-19 vaccine is not a factor in whether a life insurance company will pay their claim. A spokesperson for the CDC did not respond to a request for further comment.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.
Washington state isn't changing its quarantine rules
CLAIM: The Washington State Board of Health at a Jan. 12 public meeting was scheduled to consider a proposed rule change to allow the involuntary detainment of unvaccinated residents in COVID-19 quarantine camps.
THE FACTS: The board was scheduled to discuss changes to the Washington Administrative Code's section on communicable and certain other diseases in accordance with a new law about how the state handles HIV, not COVID-19. The state's quarantine and isolation procedures, which have been in place since 2003 and are similar to rules in several other states, aren't undergoing any changes.
Still, fear-inducing articles, videos and social media posts falsely claimed Washington state health officials were preparing to chase down unvaccinated people and force them into COVID-19 quarantine camps. The posts completely misrepresent the state Board of Health's scheduled Wednesday discussion on changing the Washington Administrative Code to align with a new law about HIV, according to Keith Grellner, who chairs the board. Whenever lawmakers in Washington state pass new bills into law, state agencies codify those laws by creating rules and regulations in the Washington Administrative Code. The code has had a section on communicable and certain other diseases since at least 1988, Grellner said. In June 2020, state lawmakers passed a bill "ending statutory HIV/AIDS exceptionalism, reducing HIV-related stigma, defelonizing HIV exposure, and removing barriers to HIV testing," according to the state Board of Health website. As a result, the board must adjust the code to ensure its rules comply with the new law. The section the board has proposed adjusting, WAC 246-100, governs the state's handling of communicable and certain other infectious diseases. COVID-19, as a communicable disease, falls under that category, but the changes that are currently being proposed do not alter the state's handling of the disease, Grellner said. WAC 246-100-040 is a subsection of the code that deals specifically with quarantine and isolation procedures. Social media users claimed the state Board of Health was proposing a change to that section, but both the board and the code reviser's office confirmed to the AP that this section has no proposed changes and has not been altered since it was first introduced in 2003. Grellner said he believes the state has only used its quarantine and isolation procedures with regard to tuberculosis, and rarely at that. He added that the procedures don't give health officials "unilateral" authority to take someone against their will — individuals affected would have the right to petition a superior court for release. Some social media users falsely claimed that the state Board of Health's meeting Wednesday would also include a vote to require the COVID-19 vaccine for school-aged children. That's not true, according to the state Board of Health. The board clarified on its website that it would receive a briefing from an advisory group on the topic at the meeting, but it wouldn't take any action on the matter on Wednesday. Some of the online posts sharing false information about the board's meeting also revived the months-old misleading claim that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's office is hiring a "strike team" to run camps where unvaccinated residents could be forced to quarantine. That claim stems from a real job posting, but not for positions forcing residents to quarantine. Instead, the job postings dealt with a facility where visitors to the state could safely quarantine if they did not have another safe place to go. A press secretary for Inslee confirmed in an email to the AP that the governor has never considered hunting down unvaccinated people to force them to quarantine.
— Ali Swenson
Justice Sotomayor didn't attend dinner with Democratic leadership
CLAIM: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dined with Democratic congressional leadership at a restaurant on Jan. 7.
THE FACTS: The claim is based on inaccurate reporting from Politico on Jan. 8, which was eventually corrected. The news outlet erroneously reported that Sotomayor attended the dinner, but later said it had mistakenly identified Iris Weinshall, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s wife, as Sotomayor.
The posts falsely claiming that Sotomayor dined with Democratic politicians on Jan. 7 continued to spread on social media last weekend, despite the source of the claim retracting it. Users pointed out that Sotomayor had attended court remotely earlier in the day, during oral arguments over the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine rules for private employers and health care workers.
“‘Justice Sotomayor, who participated in yesterday’s SCOTUS arguments remotely from her chambers, seen last night at Le Diplomate with Speaker Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Schumer and Sens. Klobuchar and Durban, per Politico,’” said one Jan. 8 Facebook post. Politico made the false claim in its Playbook newsletter the morning of Jan. 8, linking to a photo that appears to show several of the politicians sitting at a table at a restaurant. But it posted a correction later that day, stating it had “erroneously placed Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dining with Democratic leaders at a Washington restaurant Friday night.” The correction goes on to state that its source “mistook Iris Weinshall, wife of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, for the justice.” A spokesperson for Schumer confirmed to The Associated Press that Sotomayor was not in attendance at the dinner. Sotomayor, who is diabetic, chose to stay in her office at the court and participate remotely during the Jan. 7 arguments over the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine rules. During these oral arguments, Sotomayor separately claimed that more than 100,000 children are in “serious condition” with COVID-19 in the U.S, remarks that also generated significant discussion on social media. But her statement was incorrect. Federal data shows that more than 5,000 minors are currently hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. And between August 2020 and last Friday, when Sotomayor made the claim, fewer than 83,000 kids had been hospitalized with the virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. Supreme Court’s public information office did not immediately respond to the AP’s requests for comment on either issue.
— Associated Press writers Josh Kelety in Phoenix and Karena Phan in Sacramento, California, contributed this report.
Video shows Canadian comedian, not New York Times editor
CLAIM: Video shows a New York Times editor, Carlos Tejada, talking about taking the booster shot the same day he died of a heart attack.
THE FACTS: The video shows Stewart Reynolds, a comedian from Canada, not Tejada.
A humorous video of Reynolds announcing he'd just taken his booster shot and encouraging people to do the same, circulated on Twitter with false claims stating it shows Tejada, the deputy Asia editor of The New York Times, who died of a heart attack in late December. "NYT EDITOR MAKES VIDEO ABOUT TAKING HIS 3RD BOOSTER & DIES THE SAME DAY OF A HEART ATTACK," read the erroneous caption on the video of Reynolds. Reynolds posted the video on Twitter on Dec. 17 with the caption: "HOW MANY SHOTS WILL WE NEED TO GET?" He addressed the false claims on Twitter on Monday: "It was brought to my attention today that one of my videos has been edited into an anti-vaccination clip suggesting that I died after my booster shot and that I'm a NYT editor…To clarify, and as is plainly evident: I am not a NYT editor." Tejada died on Dec. 17 at a hospital in Seoul. His wife Nora Tejada said that he died of a heart attack. Danielle Rhoades Ha, a spokesperson for The New York Times, wrote in an email to the AP that Tejada received a COVID-19 booster shot in Seoul on Dec. 17. The hospital in Seoul that Tejada was admitted to declined to comment on his death, citing local medical law.
— The Associated Press
Virus Q&A: Answers to common questions about COVID-19 vaccines, travel and more
Do at-home COVID-19 tests detect the omicron variant?
Yes, but U.S. health officials say early data suggests they may be less sensitive at picking it up.
Government recommendations for using at-home tests haven't changed. People should continue to use them when a quick result is important.
"The bottom line is the tests still detect COVID-19 whether it is delta or alpha or omicron," says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists.
Government scientists have been checking to make sure the rapid tests still work as each new variant comes along. And this week, the Food and Drug Administration said preliminary research indicates they detect omicron, but may have reduced sensitivity. The agency noted it's still studying how the tests perform with the variant, which was first detected in late November.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said the FDA wanted to be "totally transparent" by noting the sensitivity might come down a bit, but that the tests remain important.
There are many good uses for at-home tests, Volk says. Combined with vaccination, they can make you more comfortable about gathering with family and friends.
If you've been exposed to a person who tested positive but you don't have symptoms, a rapid test five days later can give a good indication of whether you caught the virus. It can also help if you're not sure whether your runny nose or sore throat is COVID-19.
But consider the context when looking at results. If you feel sick after going out to a nightclub in an area with high infection rates, for example, you should look at a negative result from an at-home test with a little more skepticism, Volk says.
Following up with a PCR test is a good idea, she says. Those tests are more accurate and are done at testing sites and hospitals.
Can my pet get COVID-19?
Yes, pets and other animals can get the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but health officials say the risk of them spreading it to people is low.
Dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, otters, hyenas and white-tailed deer are among the animals that have tested positive, in most cases after contracting it from infected people.
While you don't have to worry much about getting COVID-19 from your pets, they should worry about getting it from you. People with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 should avoid contact with pets, farm animals and wildlife, as well as with other people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If you wouldn't go near another person because you're sick or you might be exposed, don't go near another animal," says Dr. Scott Weese at Ontario Veterinary College.
Not all infected pets get sick and serious illness is extremely rare. Pets that show symptoms typically get mildly ill, the CDC says.
Some zoos in the U.S. and elsewhere have vaccinated big cats, primates and other animals that are thought to be at risk of getting the virus through contact with people.
This particular coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans in the first place, sparking a pandemic because the virus spreads so easily between people. But it does not easily spread from animals to people. Minks are the only known animals to have caught the virus from people and spread it back, according to Weese.
Three countries in northern Europe recorded cases of the virus spreading from people to mink on mink farms. The virus circulated among the animals before being passed back to farmworkers.
How easily animals can get and spread the virus might change with different variants, and the best way to prevent the virus from spreading among animals is to control it among people, Weese says.
Is travel safe during the pandemic this holiday season?
It depends. It can be safe if you're fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but officials say people who haven't gotten the shots should delay travel.
Regardless of vaccination status, all travelers should keep taking precautions like avoiding indoor, unmasked crowds, says Dr. Keith Armitage, an infectious disease expert at Case Western Reserve University.
"The delta variant has really brought us back to an earlier time in the pandemic," he says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says not to travel if you're sick, or if you tested positive for COVID-19 and your isolation period isn't over yet — even if you're fully vaccinated. Unvaccinated people who decide to travel should get a COVID-19 test one to three days before travel and three to five days after returning.
All travelers must still wear masks on trains, planes and other indoor public transportation areas, the agency says.
Airlines say plane cabins are low risk since they have good air circulation and filtration. However, there is no requirement for vaccination or testing before domestic flights, and passengers can remove their face masks while eating or drinking.
Hotels aren't risky for the vaccinated as long as they wear masks around strangers, Armitage says. More fraught are family gatherings with unvaccinated individuals, particularly for those who are older or have health problems.
Health experts suggest looking at the case levels and masking rules in the place you are visiting before you travel.
Why can't some COVID-19 vaccinated people travel to the US?
Because they might not be vaccinated with shots recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization.
When lifting overseas travel restrictions in November, the U.S. required adults coming to the country to be fully vaccinated with shots approved or authorized by the FDA or allowed by WHO.
Among the most widely used vaccines that don't meet that criteria are Russia's Sputnik V vaccine and China's CanSino vaccine. Sputnik V is authorized for use in more than 70 countries while CanSino is allowed in at least nine countries. WHO still is awaiting more data about both vaccines before making a decision.
Vaccines recognized by the FDA and WHO undergo rigorous testing and review to determine they're safe and effective. And among the vaccines used internationally, experts say some likely won't be recognized by the agencies.
"They will not all be evaluated in clinical trials with the necessary rigor," said Dr. William Moss, executive director of the Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center.
An exception to the U.S. rule is people who received a full series of the Novavax vaccine in a late-stage study. The U.S. is accepting the participants who received the vaccine, not a placebo, because it was a rigorous study with oversight from an independent monitoring board.
The U.S. also allows entry to people who got two doses of any "mix-and-match" combination of vaccines on the FDA and WHO lists.
Are COVID-19 boosters the same as the original vaccines?
Yes, COVID-19 boosters use the same recipe as the original shots, despite the emergence of the more contagious delta variant. The vaccines weren't tweaked to better match delta because they're still working well.
The vaccines work by training your body to recognize and fight the spike protein that coats the coronavirus and helps it invade the body's cells. Delta's mutations fortunately weren't different enough to escape detection.
The increased protection you might get from a booster adjusted to better match the delta or other variants would be marginal, says Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Manufacturing doses with a new formula would have also delayed the rollout of boosters.
Moderna and Pfizer are studying boosters tweaked for the delta and other variants to be ready if one's ever needed. Health authorities would have to decide if and when a vaccine formula swap would be worthwhile.
"What we don't know," Goepfert noted, "is if you have a delta vaccine compared to the regular vaccine, does it actually work better in preventing transmission or asymptomatic infection?"
The U.S. has authorized booster doses of the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for certain people, and a few other countries also are using boosters of those shots or other COVID-19 vaccines.
Can at-home COVID-19 tests make holiday gatherings safer?
Yes, combined with vaccination, home test kits for COVID-19 can add a layer of safety and reassurance by providing on-the-spot results during this second year of pandemic holidays.
"We will be using rapid tests to doublecheck everybody before we gather together," says Dr. Emily Volk, president of the College of American Pathologists, who is planning a holiday meal with six vaccinated family members. "We'll be doing it as they come in the door."
Home kits are not as accurate as the PCR tests done in hospitals and at testing sites, Volk says. But they have the advantage of giving results within minutes instead of days.
Testing kits are available at drugstores without a prescription, and a box with two tests typically costs about $25. Swabs, testing solution and instructions are included.
Adults and teens can test themselves. An adult can test a child as young as 2. How-to videos on product websites can be helpful.
Most tests require swabbing about a half inch inside both nostrils, so it may tickle but doesn't hurt. You will get a positive result if the test detects a viral protein in your sample.
Home tests will miss some infections and in rare cases mistakenly indicate an infection. One popular test misses around 15 out of 100 infections — these are called "false negatives" — and gives a false positive result in about 1 in 100 people who aren't infected.
Test shortages were widely reported during the last COVID-19 surge, but new options have recently hit the market and major manufacturers such as Abbott Laboratories have ramped up production.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers other tips on ways to enjoy the holidays safely. Vaccination remains the best way to protect against the coronavirus.
How will the world decide when the pandemic is over?
There's no clear-cut definition for when a pandemic starts and ends, and how much of a threat a global outbreak is posing can vary by country.
"It's somewhat a subjective judgment because it's not just about the number of cases. It's about severity and it's about impact," says Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization's emergencies chief.
In January 2020, WHO designated the virus a global health crisis "of international concern." A couple months later in March, the United Nations health agency described the outbreak as a "pandemic," reflecting the fact that the virus had spread to nearly every continent and numerous other health officials were saying it could be described as such.
The pandemic may be widely considered over when WHO decides the virus is no longer an emergency of international concern, a designation its expert committee has been reassessing every three months. But when the most acute phases of the crisis ease within countries could vary.
"There is not going to be one day when someone says, 'OK, the pandemic is over,'" says Dr. Chris Woods, an infectious disease expert at Duke University. Although there's no universally agreed-upon criteria, he said countries will likely look for sustained reduction in cases over time.
Scientists expect COVID-19 will eventually settle into becoming a more predictable virus like the flu, meaning it will cause seasonal outbreaks but not the huge surges we're seeing right now. But even then, Woods says some habits, such as wearing masks in public places, might continue.
"Even after the pandemic ends, COVID will still be with us," he says.
The AP is answering your questions about the coronavirus in this series. Submit them at: FactCheck@AP.org.