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BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 22: An RN hands off a coronavirus sample to medical assistant Bettie Cleveland at a COVID-19 testing site set up by Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center at Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Grove Hall in Boston's Dorchester on Oct. 22, 2020. Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center set up mobile testing to help their community members who were disproportionally affected by COVID-19, the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan have seen some of the highest incident rates of the Coronavirus in Boston. In July of 2020 they began to administer tests in the city at various locations. The Grove Hall location is available for walk up testing every Thursday at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge from 10:00am - 3:00 PM. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Video makes misleading claims about COVID case counts

A video circulating on Facebook makes misleading claims about a recent World Health Organization notice regarding COVID-19 testing. The video, created by former Minnesota state senator Dr. Scott Jensen, also falsely suggests an effort is underway to change the way COVID-19 cases are tallied so it will appear cases are falling under President Joe Biden. Jensen, a family physician, told The Associated Press his video repeated key points he had read in a Feb. 6 commentary piece that appeared on the website of the Independent Institute, a libertarian and conservative-leaning think tank.

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CLAIM: The same day that Biden took office, the World Health Organization “came up with a two-fold directive in order to have less false positive tests regarding COVID-19.”

THE FACTS: The WHO’s Jan. 20 notice does not say what the video claims it says, nor is there a meaningful link between the date of the notice and Biden’s inauguration. In fact, WHO said it first issued the advisory on Dec. 14 and then distributed a second version on Jan. 20 “with some language modifications to ensure greater clarity.” The Jan. 20 communication gave laboratory professionals instructions for properly running PCR tests, which are the most sensitive kind of COVID-19 tests available. But the advisory was widely misrepresented on social media, and the WHO has issued a statement saying it had been taken out of context. “WHO did not say that PCR tests for COVID-19 are faulty,” the organization said in the statement. WHO clarified it had received just 10 reports of PCR tests that misdiagnosed SARS-CoV-2 since the beginning of 2020, both with false positives and false negatives. “After thorough investigation, WHO confirmed that tests were not always being used appropriately and in accordance with the instructions provided by the manufacturer,” reads the statement. Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, explained the WHO notice reflects an effort to ensure labs perform PCR tests in a uniform way and do not set their own thresholds. “What WHO did was put out instructions to say, laboratories, you should follow instructions for use,” Justman said.

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CLAIM: Flu cases plummeted in March 2020 because doctors were misdiagnosing patients as having COVID-19.

THE FACTS: Flu cases did decline after COVID-19 became widespread, but not because of widespread misdiagnosis. Justman of Columbia University called the claim “not grounded in reality.” Medical experts say that the precautions people are taking to avoid COVID-19, wearing masks and social distancing, are also driving down flu rates. “People usually transmit flu when they have symptoms. So, of course, now in society, people are really avoiding people if they have symptoms,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and associate dean at University of California San Francisco. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published last fall found that after SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, began spreading in late February 2020, the portion of flu tests that were positive fell from 20% to just 2.3%. The same report also found fewer flu tests were conducted overall. The report attributed the decline to fewer people seeking out routine healthcare during the pandemic, as well as less flu virus circulating due to efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. The report said “initially” declines in flu activity “were attributed to decreased testing, because persons with respiratory symptoms were often preferentially referred for SARS-CoV-2 assessment and testing.” But the report goes on to say, “renewed efforts by public health officials and clinicians to test samples for influenza resulted in adequate numbers tested and detection of little to no influenza virus.”

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CLAIM: On Biden’s Inauguration Day, the World Health Organization said physicians, hospitals and clinics must have a positive test to diagnose COVID-19 — which will “eliminate” a lot of cases.

THE FACTS: The WHO’s notice on Jan. 20 does not say what the video claims. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the WHO has defined a “confirmed” COVID-19 case as one confirmed by at test, and that did not change on Jan. 20. The WHO dashboard showing COVID cases shows the number of cases and deaths confirmed by laboratory tests, “unless stated otherwise.” That definition has appeared since late May 2020, according to a review of an archived version of the website on the Wayback Machine.

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CLAIM: In some studies, possibly 85% of PCR tests for COVID-19 were false positives.

THE FACTS: In a conversation with AP, Jensen clarified the studies he was referencing had found a high proportion of people with positive PCR tests no longer had evidence of active COVID-19 infections. Jensen could not recall the source, but in August, The New York Times reported that a review of testing data from Massachusetts, New York and Nevada indicated that up to 90 percent of people who tested positive for COVID-19 “carried barely any virus.” Jensen’s video suggested such cases were “false positives.” Dr. Dean Winslow, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, says this is wrong. “It doesn’t mean they never had infection, it just means they are probably not very contagious right now,” he said. “We do know that people after about 10 to 14 days after onset of symptoms have lower levels of virus that are still detectable, and also appear to be much, much less contagious.” According to Winslow, the bigger problem with testing is the danger of false negatives if a person who is infected is tested before they are producing a detectable amount of the virus.

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This article was updated to clarify how the WHO defines and reports confirmed COVID-19 cases. Since some entities, such as the CDC, include both confirmed and probable cases in COVID-19 case counts, the article was updated to focus on the WHO, which was the subject of the claim.

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This is part of The Associated Press’ ongoing effort to fact-check misinformation that is shared widely online, including work with Facebook to identify and reduce the circulation of false stories on the platform.

Here’s more information on Facebook’s fact-checking program: https://www.facebook.com/help/1952307158131536

Author: JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, AP
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