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:
COVID vaccines do not kill more people than rifles
CLAIM: Rifles caused 454 deaths in the United States in 2020, while COVID-19 vaccines caused 20,622 deaths in the United States in 2021.
THE FACTS: The claim that 20,000 people have died from COVID-19 vaccines misrepresents data maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration. To date, a total of nine deaths in the U.S. have been linked to the shots. As the country reels from a spate of mass shootings that have sparked calls for gun reform, social media users are distorting data to falsely claim that COVID-19 vaccines kill people more often than rifles do. The post uses a graphic that compares rifle death numbers to purported COVID-19 vaccine death numbers. The text claims that rifles killed 454 people in the U.S. in 2020 while COVID-19 vaccines killed 20,622 people in the U.S. in 2021. The post implies that vaccines cause more deaths than rifles do, but a closer look at the data reveals that’s false. The CDC data it cites comes from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, an early warning system run by the CDC and the FDA that is meant as a portal to share potential adverse events after vaccines, not a verified database of vaccine-related deaths. VAERS uses passive surveillance, meaning people self-report any negative medical event they experienced after getting vaccinated. Anyone can submit a report on any possible reaction after the vaccine and anyone can access the database. Health care providers and manufacturers are required to submit adverse responses reported after vaccines, even if they don’t know whether the vaccine caused them. The VAERS website explains that its data may include “information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.” VAERS states that submissions or the number of reports in the system cannot be interpreted as causal evidence of an association between a vaccine and an adverse event. When serious events are reported in VAERS, officials follow up with the person reporting the event to obtain more information and medical records. To date, the CDC has identified nine deaths associated with rare blood clots that were caused by the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine. Currently, 221.5 million people in the U.S. are fully vaccinated. The rifle death data was taken from the FBI’s annual Crime in the United States report in 2020. According to a table showing murder circumstances by weapon, at least 454 homicides in the U.S. in 2020 involved rifles. However, that dataset also shows that nearly 5,000 additional murders involved guns that were not classified by type. It is possible some of those involved rifles. The table lists 13,620 total 2020 gun deaths, when all types of firearms are counted. The FBI’s Crime in the United States report is also limited because it doesn’t include data from every law enforcement agency in the country. Participation in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, which makes up the report, is voluntary.
— Associated Press writer Ali Swenson in New York contributed this report.
Posts distort data on Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy
CLAIM: A Pfizer document reveals that 82%-97% of pregnant women who received the company’s COVID-19 vaccine “lost their babies.”
THE FACTS: The flawed calculation misrepresents a narrow subset of data from a Pfizer database of adverse events recorded during the first two months of the vaccine rollout. Some social media users shared screenshots of headlines from pro-life blogs that made the false claim. “Shocking Pfizer Document Reveals 82% of Vaccinated Pregnant Women Suffered Miscarriages,” read one. “Court Ordered Release Of Pfizer Document Reveals 82% – 97% Of Vaccinated Pregnant Women Lost Their Babies,” said another. The blog posts, written by the same author and shared on several sites, make the misleading calculation based on an April 2021 document that Pfizer submitted to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and later released as part of an ongoing Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, FDA spokesperson Abby Capobianco confirmed to the AP. The document compiled adverse event reports from Dec. 1, 2020, through Feb. 28, 2021, across 63 countries. Anyone could report to the registry, and it contained reports submitted directly to Pfizer, those reported by federal health authorities, cases published in medical literature and clinical studies. The data described 270 reported vaccinated pregnancies. No outcome was recorded for 238 of those pregnancies. Details on adverse events or other outcomes were recorded for 34 pregnancies. Of this group, 28 women reported either the loss of a fetus or a neonatal death. Five others reported “outcome pending,” and one reported “normal outcome.” To come up with its high percentages, the blog divided the 28 cases of fetal or neonatal loss by the 34 cases that listed outcomes. This yielded the 82% figure. Then, the blog factored in a calculation that assumed without evidence that the five pending cases also resulted in fetal losses, which would bring the total losses to 33. Thirty-three was then divided by 34 to yield 97%. “This takes data from the Pfizer document completely out of context,” said Dr. Laura Morris, co-chair of the University of Missouri health care system’s COVID-19 and influenza vaccine committee. The document does not give the total number of vaccinated pregnant women, so the overall rate of specific adverse events cannot be determined, she said. Experts say the online posts’ interpretations paint a false picture of the vaccine’s effects, and fail to account for important factors, including patient reporting bias, which reflects that women who have experienced an adverse pregnancy event would be more likely to report to the registry, regardless of whether or not the vaccine was linked to the event. “We have no evidence that the vaccine in any way would interrupt a pregnancy or cause this,” said Dr. Elyse Kharbanda, executive director of research at the Minnesota-based HealthPartners Institute. “If we saw a difference in rates following vaccination versus without vaccination, that would be what we call a signal and need more investigation. But bigger studies that have been done more vigorously haven’t shown a signal.” Those studies include one that she authored, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2021 and found that COVID-19 vaccine exposure did not increase the odds of spontaneous abortion — pregnancy loss before 20 weeks. Experts and health officials say there is no medical proof that the adverse events reported to Pfizer are linked to the vaccine, and the vaccine is safe and effective for pregnant women and fetuses. Representatives for Pfizer said the company doesn’t comment on unverified reports.
— Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed this report.
Tweet distorts health care for trans children
CLAIM: Transgender children as young as 5 years old are being given hormones to transition.
THE FACTS: Experts say young transgender children who haven’t reached puberty are offered support, not medical interventions. But a widely shared tweet suggested that 5-year-olds are receiving hormone treatments, likening it to children driving cars or smoking. “‘Can I drive your car.’ No you’re 5 ‘Can I have a beer?’ No you’re 5 ‘Can I have a cigarette?’ No you’re 5,” the tweet reads. “‘Can I take hormones and change my gender?’ Of course! You know what’s best.” Experts say that’s a big distortion of standards of care for transgender youth. Medical interventions for transgender youth, including puberty blockers and hormones, aren’t designed to begin before the onset of puberty, as guidance from groups such as the World Professional Association for Transgender Health and American Academy of Pediatrics shows. “Children age 5 are far away from puberty,” said Kellan Baker, executive director of the Whitman-Walker Institute in Washington, D.C., which specializes in LGBTQ health care and research. “The primary intervention for children of that age is support — being told by parents, families, friends, peers, that it’s OK to be who they are and to not be teased, bullied or subjected to coercive ‘therapy’ to try to change something that’s innate as gender identity.” Similarly, Dr. Elyse Pine, a pediatric endocrinologist at Chase Brexton Health Care in Baltimore, said in an email that a 5-year-old transgender child may see a mental health provider who could support social and emotional needs and provide educational materials or referrals to support groups. “A five-year-old may socially transition, which means wearing clothes, having a hairstyle, and using a name/pronoun that matches the child’s identity,” Pine said. When children do show early signs of puberty, children who meet clinical guidelines are first offered medication that temporarily blocks puberty, the AP has reported. This treatment is designed for youth diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” — or distress caused when gender identity doesn’t match a person’s assigned sex — who have been counseled with their families and are mature enough to understand what the regimen entails. After puberty blockers, kids can either go through puberty while still identifying as the opposite sex or choose whether to begin treatment to make their bodies more closely match their gender identity. For those choosing the second option, guidelines say the next step is taking manufactured versions of estrogen or testosterone — hormones that prompt sexual development in puberty. Guidelines recommend starting these when kids are mature enough to make informed medical decisions. That is typically around age 16, and parents’ consent is typically required, Dr. Gina Sequiera, co-director of Seattle Children’s Hospital’s Gender Clinic, previously told the AP. “Masculinizing or feminizing hormones are not appropriate in a five-year-old, because five-year-old children are not supposed to be in puberty,” Pine said. “If a 16-year-old individual is ready to take gender affirming hormone therapy, such as estrogen or testosterone, they will be concordant with their peers, who are nearly all experiencing pubertal hormones.”
Posts about high gas prices falsely attributed to BP executive
CLAIM: An executive with the energy company BP named Brice Cromwell wrote a post arguing that high gas prices in the U.S are due to excessive imports of foreign oil and insufficient domestic oil production.
THE FACTS: There is no such executive at BP and the statement did not come from the company, a spokesperson for BP confirmed. Posts copying and pasting a statement attributed to a “BP Oil Executive” named “Brice Cromwell,” and claiming that high gas prices are caused by an overreliance on foreign oil, have circulated widely on social media in recent days. “The prices are high because the people who run our country have decided to import oil from another country instead of using our very own American made product,” the supposed statement reads. But nobody named Brice Cromwell works for BP and the post is not from the company, a spokesperson told the AP. “We can confirm we do not currently have an employee with that name and this text did not come from bp,” Megan Baldino, a spokesperson for BP, wrote in an email. It is unclear who wrote the original text. Searches show it appeared in Facebook posts as early as March, but the versions at that time were not attributed to an author. Experts argue that soaring gas prices are due to various factors in the global energy market, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. Jonathan Elkind, a fellow and senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, described the theory that U.S. gas prices are high due to reliance on foreign oil imports as “economically illiterate.” “The notion that we are producing too little, exporting too little, importing too much, et cetera, is just all wrong on its face,” he said. “From one month to the next, the United States in this period is either the number one or number two producer of crude oil and natural gas in the world.” The recent spike in gas prices stems from “resurgent demand” as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic ebbed, which was made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Joshua Busby, an associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in an email to the AP. “European countries are starting to delink from importing Russian oil, which means that the available pool of oil is diminished for them, putting pressure on oil prices in the rest of the world,” Busby wrote. European Union leaders agreed on May 30 to ban most Russian oil imports by the end of the year, the AP reported.
— Associated Press writer Josh Kelety in Phoenix contributed this report
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