Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Earlier this week, we received a call from an elderly client who was panicked about a phone call she had received from a friend who said that she heard from someone that “80 percent of people over the age of 80 who get the coronavirus will die.” We told her what we knew about the virus, facts we shared from the CDC which indeed indicated that the elderly are overwhelmingly the victims of this virus but the numbers that showed 8 out of 10 who contracted the illness would die seemed quite extreme.
When we checked into this further, we found that this number as reported by a reputable newspaper, which later printed a retraction, changing the 80 percent number to 8 percent, with an apology for the error. Unfortunately, it was the first number that has picked up steam and spread rapidly, adding more panic and stress to already frightened seniors.
Such misinformation, which spreads rapidly thanks to social media and a thriving group of conspiracy theorists on the internet, not only creates fear among groups of people but can have that fear suddenly morph into violent behaviors.
In mid-February, when it became apparent that Covid-19 was becoming a world problem and not just a Chinese one, the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), expressed his concerns about fear-mongering and misinformation. He stated, “We’re not just fighting an epidemic, we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.”
Two weeks after this news conference, a Buzzfeed story reported just what fake news did to a small village in Ukraine. On the 18th of February, a plane from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, arrived in the country and the rumors started. In a short period of time, word spread – falsely – that the 45 Ukrainians and 27 foreign nationals on board were infected with Covid-19. These reports reached the government who quickly put out that this was not true, and in fact, all the passengers had been tested and were not sick but would self-quarantine at a government medical facility “out of an abundance of caution”.
However, in the small town of Novi Sanzhary, where that medical facility was located, the residents went berserk. They erected barricades and then set fires to keep the buses out of their town. Security forces, clad in riot gear, were rushed to the town and armored trucks were used to push back the protestors. As tempers escalated, violent clashes broke out, resulting in injuries and arrests. As the buses arrived, the locals, shouting “get out”, pelted them with rocks, shattering windows and again, causing injuries.
We see this in the frantic rush for toilet paper. Why? It seems they are reacting to their government leaders who make general statements about preparing and keeping things “sanitary”. As a result, people tend to over-prepare and buying mass quantities of toilet paper and cleaning supplies gives them a sense of control and safety. However, when photos and news reports show empty store shelves and panic buying, this adds to the panic as those who initially exercised restraint now feel pressure to get theirs before it’s too late. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The result - those who need sanitary products the most are the elderly and they are unable to get them as a result of panic buying. This not only makes them vulnerable to Covid-19 but the seasonal flu and other infections as well.
But no entity shares more responsibility for this panic than social media and the internet. In Kansas City, someone issued a false memo with an old logo of that city’s St. Luke’s Hospital on it stating that ”consuming alcoholic beverages” could reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19. Whoever wrote this fake memo stated that "vodka” was the drink of choice. This obviously prompted the hospital to go into crisis prevention mode, taking valuable resources away from where it is needed, to address this fake information.
At one point, several ads on Amazon touted Covid protection products including a brimmed hat with an “anti-COVID-19 all-purpose face protecting shield” that was available for $40. A “COVID-19 protective hat for women” could be purchased for $6. And if you happened to search for “COVID-19,” listings for multivitamins and a wide array of e-books on the topic popped up. These have since been removed once Amazon was made aware of the products.
Another fraudulent post, stating it was released from a medical facility in England, states that people can tell whether they have Covid-19. If they are able to hold their breath for 10 seconds their lungs cannot be damaged, and it "basically indicates no infection". Fake news say the doctors.
On March 12, Local law enforcement agencies in Washington State warned their community about a fake website, pretending to give live mapping updates about the novel coronavirus. West Richland and Richland police departments posted photos of the malicious website on their Facebook pages. The website claims it’s run by John Hopkins University. Corona-Virus-Map.com, they say, is a fake website. The police departments said the website could potentially put a trojan on your computer, which can steal sensitive data on your device.
Then came Televangelist Jim Bakker. Anyone watching his show last week saw him touting a liquid which he held in a blue and silver bottle, gazing intently at the label, as he questioned the woman sitting next to him.
"This influenza that is now circling the globe," Bakker said, host of The Jim Bakker Show, "you're saying that Silver Solution would be effective." His guest, Sherill Sellman, who says she is a “natural health expert”, implied that the contents of the bottle would battle the bug.
"Well, let's say it hasn't been tested on this strain of the coronavirus, but it has been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours," Sellman said. "Totally eliminate it. Kills it. Deactivates it."
And she went on. According to her, silver solution "has been proven by the government that it has the ability to kill every pathogen it has ever been tested on, including SARS and HIV.” The price? Four 4-ounce bottles could be purchased for just $80, according to the graphic on the screen.
Just who is Jim Bakker? He and his late ex-wife, Tammy Faye Bakker, were among the most famous televangelists in America in the mid-1970s, living a life of luxury with multiple houses, expensive cars and millions of dollars when their empire all came crashing down amid sex and financial scandals. By the 1980s, he faced decades in prison for defrauding his viewers of thousands of dollars through promises of “lifetime partnerships” at a hotel he owned. Problem was, he sold far more rooms than the hotel had.
On Oct. 5, 1989, a jury found Bakker guilty on all 24 counts. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine. In 1991, the appellate court upheld his conviction but granted him a sentence-reduction hearing, during which he was granted a reduced prison sentence from 45 years down to eight years. He ended up serving almost five years of that sentence before being paroled in 1994. Just a decade or so later, he was back on television marketing products from his new ministry.
Who watches The Jim Bakker Show? Seniors and the elderly who are considered “shut-ins” with little access to information other than what they are getting through the programs they watch, basically the same group who watched his earlier show. And it is this demographic that is affected most by Covid-19 and easily exploited.
This week, the State of Missouri filed a lawsuit against Bakker and his production company to stop them from advertising or selling Silver Solution and related products as treatments for the coronavirus.
Just what is this Silver Solution he touted? It’s called Colloidal Silver, a product made of tiny silver particles suspended in a liquid and is misleadingly advertised to have a multitude of health benefits. But according to the Mayo Clinic, colloidal silver isn't considered safe or effective for any of the health claims manufacturers make. Silver has no known purpose in the body nor is it an essential mineral, as some sellers of silver products claim.
And here’s another problem with this product, according to medical experts, excessive doses of colloidal silver can cause possibly irreversible serious health problems, including kidney damage and neurological problems such as seizures. It can also cause skin discoloration in rare cases.
Colloidal silver products may also interact with medications, including penicillamine (Cuprimine, Depen), quinolone antibiotics, tetracycline and thyroxine (Unithroid, Levoxyl, Synthroid) medications often used by the elderly.
There is certainly no shortage of those hucksters using this virus to hawk fake products to the most vulnerable among us. Here are some other fake news reports being spread over social media and online and being copied and sent to others:
Spraying alcohol and chlorine all over your body or swallowing bleach water will kill the new coronavirus - This is dangerous. Spraying alcohol or chlorine all over your body will not help. Spraying such substances can be harmful to clothes or mucous membranes (i.e. eyes, mouth). It is best used to disinfect surfaces, but they need to be used under appropriate recommendations. And make sure there are no foodstuffs that could be contaminated by the spray.
Face masks are 100 percent effective against Covid-19 - Healthcare workers use professional face masks, which fit tightly around the face, to protect them against infection. However, disposable face masks are unlikely to provide such protection.
As these masks do not fit neatly against the face, droplets can still enter the mouth and nose. Also, tiny viral particles can penetrate directly through the material. However, if someone has a respiratory illness, wearing a mask can help protect others from becoming infected. Medical experts say that wearing masks can give a false sense of reassurance and might lead to other infection control practices being ignored, such as hand hygiene. The World Health Organization does recommend that people who are caring for someone with suspected COVID-19 should wear a mask. In these cases, however, wearing a mask is only effective if the individual regularly washes their hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. Also, when using a mask, it is important to use it and dispose of it properly.
Make Your Own Face Masks Are Better Than Medical Masks - The internet is loaded with images of people wearing everything from face masks made from fruit to full-face helmets forged from recycled water bottles. Elsewhere sales of paper masks have gone through the roof. These methods do not work.
"We have seen online face masks that present as a suffocation risk for seniors," said elder law attorney RJ Connelly III. "Imagine seniors who may have a respiratory illness placing a mask over their face further limiting their ability to breathe. It's a disaster waiting to happen. We advise our clients to seek medical advice, not the internet."
Your pet can spread Covid-19 or you can give it to your pet - Currently, there is little evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect cats and dogs. However, in Hong Kong, a Pomeranian whose owner had COVID-19 became infected. The dog did not display any symptoms. In this case, researchers aren't sure if this is even clinically significant citing that an animal that may have levels of the virus in them may not make them infectious or even able to get sick. They still remind us that human to human contact is still responsible for spreading the virus.
You can protect yourself by gargling bleach - There are no circumstances in which gargling bleach might benefit your health. Bleach is corrosive and can cause serious damage.
Parcels from China can spread coronavirus - From previous research into similar coronaviruses, including those that cause SARS and MERS and are similar to SARS-CoV-2, scientists believe that the virus cannot survive on letters or packages for an extended time. Because it takes days or weeks for packages to come from China, chances are that Covid-19 can survive are extremely low.
Coronavirus is the deadliest virus known to man - Although SARS-CoV-2 does appear to be a bit more serious than influenza (however this may change when the real numbers of infected and recovered are known), it is not the deadliest virus that people have faced. Others, such as Ebola, have higher mortality rates.
You can catch coronavirus from urine and feces - It is unlikely that this is true. The major concern with this myth is that caretakers who work with the elderly are handling their body wastes and may shy away from doing this for fear of getting the virus.
According to Prof. John Edmunds from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine in the U.K.: “It isn’t a very pleasant thought, but every time you swallow, you swallow mucus from your upper respiratory tract. In fact, this is an important defensive mechanism. This sweeps viruses and bacteria down into our gut where they are denatured in the acid conditions of our stomachs. With modern, very highly sensitive detection mechanisms, we can detect these viruses in feces. Usually, viruses we can detect in this way are not infectious to others, as they have been destroyed by our guts.”
African-American people don’t get coronavirus - Anyone can get coronavirus. Again, this misinformation can lead to a false sense of security among this group. According to the CDC, any person who comes into close contact with someone who is infected is at risk of contracting the virus. Dr. Jennifer Caudle, an African American family medicine physician said she worries that some people may not take proper precautions to protect themselves against the virus because they may have heard this myth. “Black people can get coronavirus, just like other people,” she told CNN.
Look no further than Africa, where the pandemic is gaining a foothold. So far, the virus hasn’t spread in Africa as quickly as it has on some other continents. But the numbers there are rising fast. Ten African nations have reported nearly 100 coronavirus cases. Egypt has been the worst hit with at least 59 cases — more than half of all confirmed cases on the continent.
Kids can’t get the coronavirus - Anyone of any age can get Covid-19, though older people and those with pre-existing medical conditions appear to be more vulnerable to serious infections. While most confirmed cases of the virus have occurred in adults, children have been infected too, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drinking water every 15 minutes - One post, copied and pasted by multiple Facebook accounts, quotes a "Japanese doctor" who recommends drinking water every 15 minutes to flush out any virus that might have entered the mouth. Drinking water is good for most but could be a problem for some seniors with issues of water retention.
Professor Trudie Lang at the University of Oxford says there is "no biological mechanism" that would support the idea that you can just wash a respiratory virus down into your stomach and kill it. Infections like coronaviruses enter the body via the respiratory tract when you breathe in. Some of them might go into your mouth, but even constantly drinking water isn't going to prevent you from catching the virus.
"Many clients of ours who live in the community are on diuretics because their bodies tend to hold onto water, such as those with heart failure, kidney and liver diseases," said Attorney Connelly. "Overhydration can lead to water retention and on rare occasions, water intoxication. This occurs when the amount of salt and other electrolytes in your body becomes too diluted. If their electrolytes drop too low too quickly, it can be fatal. Death by overhydration is rare, but it can happen. Again, we suggest following their medical provider's advice and not unlicensed and untrained facebook physicians."
Heat and avoiding ice cream - There are lots of variations of the advice suggesting heat kills the virus, from recommending drinking hot water to taking a hot bath or using hairdryers. Unfortunately, running a high fever and climbing into a hot tub of water for a senior can actually raise the core temperature of the body and spike the fever, leading to additional problems for an older adult.
"Something that needs to be discussed with our seniors is the increased dangers they face due to tap water burns," stated Attorney Connelly. "Reading stories like this on the internet and filling the tub with hot water and climbing in can be extremely dangerous. We know that fatal tap water burns occur disproportionately in older persons and are associated with falls, syncope, and those living alone. Older adults and caregivers should be counseled that the recommended maximal temperature for residential hot water heaters is 120°F but many are not aware of this."
Using hair dryers for anything other than drying hair can lead to fire risks. A fire in Ohio last month was contributed to the use of a hairdryer. The blaze is believed to have been caused by the device being left on a bed. It heated up the bedding which then caught fire, and quickly spread to the rest of the room. This can be disastrous for seniors who cannot move quickly to avoid the fire.
How eating ice cream or frozen products became a part of this internet fake news is hard to figure, but products like this can lower the core body temperature and be helpful, unless, of course, a condition such as diabetes or other health issues limit the use of products like ice cream.
The Next Wave of Media and Internet Misinformation
The next wave of media madness will come as the testing kits become more widely available and utilized. As we pointed out in our blog weeks ago, there are probably hundreds of thousands of Americans, perhaps even millions, who have been exposed to Covid-19 and have had minor or no symptoms at all and recovered fully. However, when these results come back they will look like a tremendous spike in cases leading to another public panic. Again, numbers will be released without context and perspective, which is almost criminal given the current environment. But, just be prepared for this.
What To Do
The best way to protect yourself right now is to do what you would every cold and flu season. Stay at least three feet away from anyone who may be infected. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze with your elbow or tissue that you throw away immediately after - and do not use handkerchiefs, a favorite for older adults. These are viral factories that allow germs to multiply in the moist and heated environment in which you keep them. And make sure to disinfect the objects and surfaces you touch.
If you have symptoms that feel worse than a common cold, seek treatment early.
What should we do? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend these simple measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19:
avoid close contact with people who seem sick
try not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
stay at home if you are sick
sneeze into a tissue, then throw it in the trash
if there are no tissues to hand, sneeze into the crook of your elbow
use standard cleaning sprays and wipes to disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
wash your hands with soap regularly for 20 seconds
As simple as these tips seem to be, they are currently the most effective against Covid-19 and the seasonal flu. And you don't need the internet to practice these common-sense activities.
The author, Don Drake, oversees Connelly Law's Community Education Programming. He is a retired licensed clinician in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with over three decades of experience working with older adults diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, substance abuse disorders, chronic homeless and mental illness. Prior to his retirement, he was the director of a unique treatment program for older adults with histories of mental illness, cognitive disabilities, and addiction at Shattuck Hospital in Boston. He was also a director at Steppingstone, Inc. in Fall River, Massachusetts where he was the clinical trainer, program and curriculum developer for the agency and oversaw treatment programming for older adults. He has over 40 years of human service and law enforcement experience and has worked as an administrator at programs in Boston, Hartford, Providence, and Philadelphia, helping to structure, hire and train staff in providing behavioral and addictions treatments for adolescents and adult clients. Drake also worked as a trainer for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health presenting training on QPR, a suicide prevention curriculum for the general public, the Massachusetts Council for Problem Gambling and the Crisis Prevention Institute, an international training organization that specializes in the safe management of disruptive and assaultive behaviors. He is also a retired professional wrestler who is in the New England Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. Drake can be reached at Connelly Law Offices, Ltd. at firstname.lastname@example.org