Today I’m going to write about something that’s been bugging me for a couple of months now. It’s a topic a little different than the usual topics on SBM, more of a discussion of general skepticism and critical thinking, but it’s useful to discuss, as it’s about COVID-19 stories that are, at best, implausible, unproven, and unlikely, and, at worst, urban legends. I’m referring to the phenomenon known as “COVID parties”. No doubt you’ve seen several news stories about so-called “COVID parties”, in which people allegedly gather in order to intentionally catch SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. There was one such story on TV just yesterday from ABC News, and it followed a familiar template:
From the text of the story:
“I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.”
Those were the final words of a 30-year-old patient who died at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio this week after attending a so-called “COVID party,” according to the hospital.
Dr. Jane Appleby, chief medical officer for Methodist Hospital and Methodist Children’s Hospital, said in a recorded statement that the unidentified patient told nurses about the party, which she said is hosted by someone diagnosed with coronavirus.
“The thought is people get together to see if the virus is real and if anyone gets infected,” Appleby said.
Let’s look at another such story. This one was promoted by a former Florida Health Department geographic data scientist named Rebekah Jones who was fired in May after, according to her account, refusing to “manipulate” COVID-19 data to justify reopening and set up a new data dashboard called Florida COVID Action in order to counter the state’s numbers, which she deemed inaccurate and manipulated in order to make the situation in Florida seem less severe. (Obviously, the state’s response denies this.) In any event, here’s the story:
In response to national reporting on the issue, the original Story about Carsyn Leigh Davis on Florida Covid Victims has been altered. Thankfully, the almighty Wayback Machine at Archive.org still exists, allowing me to go back to the original story. By way of background, Carsyn had multiple severe health issues, including an autoimmune disorder and cancer, which she had survived at the time of contracting COVID-19.
Here’s the story as originally published:
With all the public articles relating to this poor girl’s death on June 23, and all the interviews done with Carsyn’s mother, why did so many fail to ask her why and how Carsyn got sick?
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement detailed the last two weeks of Carsyn’s life in a public Medical Examiner’s report.
On June 10, Carysn’s mom, Carole, took Carsyn, a 16-year-old girl who was immuno-compromised with a history of health issues (including cancer), to a “COVID party” at her church, where more than 100 children without masks were in attendance.
Her mom, who is not a doctor, then prescribed her daughter azithromycin, an anti-bacterial drug with no known benefits for fighting COVID-19, for several days. During that “treatment period,” Carsyn developed headaches, sinus pressure and a cough.
A few days later, without taking her to a doctor, her mother would later report that her daughter “looked gray” on June 19, so she put Carsyn on her grandfather’s oxygen machine.
Carsyn immediately worsened and was finally taken to medical professionals where she admitted to the Pediatric ICU.
When she couldn’t breathe on her own, her mother declined intubation.
The hospital began plasma therapy on June 20-21, but the damage to Carsyn’s cardio-respiratory system was too severe and she was ordered to be intubated on June 22. She died the next day.
Now, don’t get me wrong. What Carsyn’s mother, Carol Brunton Davis, did was incredibly irresponsible. She brought her daughter to a church party with roughly 100 children, where masks were not worn and social distancing was not enforced. But is this evidence that Carsyn had attended a “COVID party”? It turns out that, if you read the actual coroner’s report that was referenced in Jones’ original post, it was not. All the report says about how Carsyn contracted COVID-19 is this:
On June 10, the decedent attended a church function with 100 other children. She did not wear a mask. Social distancing was not followed. The parents prophylactically treated her with azithromycin (6/10-6/15).
The best that Jones could come up with was that the First Youth Church, the church that hosted the party, called the party a “Release Party”:
Church called their covid party a "Release Party," and hosted hundreds of people, including more than 100 children, often wrote about covid being God's will pic.twitter.com/UrODqAozMX pic.twitter.com/zNvrt9tXOQ
— Rebekah Jones (@GeoRebekah) July 7, 2020
So, there was no evidence that this was a “COVID party”. Was it irresponsible—reckless, even—to hold such a party? Yes, definitely. The church was in essence asking for a COVID outbreak by hosting such a party, and the mother was irresponsible in the extreme to have allowed her immunocompromised daughter to attend such a party. However, say what you will about the extreme recklessness of it all, there is no evidence of intent to intentionally catch COVID-19. Indeed, the fact that the mother “prophylactically” treated her daughter with azithromycin is strongly suggestive that her intent was to prevent her daughter from contracting COVID-19, given that azithromycin has been touted, in combination with hydroxychloroquine, as a very effective treatment for COVID-19 by a group that includes a “brave maverick” French Doctor named Didier Raoult, as well as Donald Trump, his economic advisor Peter Navarro, and even Dr. Oz. (The girl’s parents later treated her with hydroxychloroquine as well after she developed symptoms. Her father is a physician’s assistant and could thus prescribe the drug.) Remember, “COVID party” implies that the idea is similar to measles parties, namely that the attendees contract the disease in order to “get it over with” and become immune. Even if the church did say that whether one caught COVID-19 or not is “God’s will” does not mean that there was intent for kids to catch coronavirus, although it does indicate religious-inspired indifference.
It wasn’t long before Rebekah Jones faced backlash for her characterization of a death that was horrific enough without the misrepresentation:
The case has drawn backlash from critics in the medical field after it was reported over the weekend by Florida data scientist Rebekah Jones on her Florida COVID Victims site, the Post reported. Jones describes the church function as a “COVID Party” and alleges that the teen’s mother, nurse Carole Brunton Davis, brought her to the event to “intentionally expose her immuno-compromised daughter to this virus.”
As you might imagine, I was one of those “critics in the medical field”.
These stories are not new, at least compared to the pandemic. It turns out that there are a lot of these stories, dating back to even March, when Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear announced that at least one person in Kentucky is infected after taking part at a “coronavirus party,” with a group of young adults and partygoers intentionally getting together “thinking they were invincible” and purposely defying state guidance to practice social distancing. Note that this one sounds a bit more plausible in that there have been a fair number of gatherings among people, but, again, there is no evidence presented that this party was hosted with the intent of partygoers to become infected. It’s not just the US, either. In Belgium, Het Laatste Nieuws reported in March that many people celebrated the evening right before new lock-down rules took effect. This was clearly a “one last fling” kind of event, where one last party was held before the lockdown put a stop to parties. In Manchester, England, police had to break up 660 partiesover Easter weekend.
The first example of warnings about “COVID parties” that I could find dates back to early April, when an epidemiology professor named Greta Bauer published a New York Times op-ed, perhaps in response to the story from Kentucky, “Please, Don’t Intentionally Infect Yourself. Signed, an Epidemiologist“.
A month later, in early May, the Washington Department of Health Tweeted this, perhaps the earliest report of “COVID parties” in the US that gained wide attention:
We've been getting reports of “coronavirus parties” where uninfected people are mingling with #COVID19 positive individuals intentionally to try to contract the virus. Bad idea! This is dangerous and puts people at risk for hospitalization or even death. https://t.co/3hZYF7KjQN
— WA Dept. of Health (@WADeptHealth) May 7, 2020
Washington State Department of Health officials are alarmed by reports of “coronavirus parties” in which uninfected people are mingling with COVID-19 positive individuals to try to contract the virus.
“Gathering in groups in the midst of this pandemic can be incredibly dangerous and puts people at increased risk for hospitalization and even death,” John Wiesman, Washington State Secretary of Health said. “Furthermore, it is unknown if people who recover from COVID-19 have long-term protection. There is still a lot we don’t know about this virus, including any long-term health issues which may occur after infection. This kind of unnecessary behavior may create a preventable uptick in cases which further slows our state’s ability to gradually re-open.”
DOH encourages every Washingtonian to continue to follow Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order.
Rumblings had developed into rumors by the start of May, when a public health official in Walla Walla, Washington, claimed to have discovered, via careful contact tracing, that at least two patients had indeed attended “Covid parties” so as to “get it over with.” The local police chief told reporters that he wouldn’t rule out criminal charges for any other such events, but assured them that “we’re not going to overreact.” Two days later, the same public health official admitted she’d been wrong: “We have discovered that there were not intentional Covid parties,” she said. “Just innocent endeavors.”
Perhaps the most outrageous “COVID party” story so far made the rounds in the media a couple of weeks ago. It occurred in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and…well, I’ll quote a typical story about the event, with a clickbait headline, “Tuscaloosa students held parties, bet on who got coronavirus first“:
Several college students in an Alabama city organized “COVID-19” parties as a contest to see who would get the virus first, officials said.
Tuscaloosa City Councilor Sonya McKinstry said students hosted the parties to intentionally infect each other with the new coronavirus, news outlets reported.
McKinstry said party organizers purposely invited guests who tested positive for COVID-19. She said the students put money in a pot and whoever got COVID first would get the cash.
“It makes no sense,” McKinstry said. “They’re intentionally doing it.”
Tuscaloosa Fire Chief Randy Smith confirmed the incidents to the City Council Tuesday.
The department thought the parties were rumors but Smith said after some research, the department found out the parties were real.
“We did some research. Not only do the doctors’ offices confirm it but the state confirmed they also had the same information,” Smith said.
I smelled BS immediately, a story that reeked of urban legend. Could such “COVID-catching” parties have happened? Possibly, although the plausibility is rather low. Whether they happened or not, the stories, like the one above and so many other stories filled with slack-jawed coverage of these alleged parties don’t provide anything resembling compelling evidence that they occurred. This particular story’s only source was a single city councilwoman named Sonya McKinstry whose claim was based on secondhand and thirdhand information, with all the “corroboration” coming from—you guessed it!—second and thirdhand reports from people without direct knowledge. No one who had attended such a party was interviewed. There was no epidemiological evidence presented, such as from contact tracers tracing COVID-19 outbreaks to such parties or data showing people attending such parties all contracted the same strain of COVID-19.
Part of what I think is going on is that media outlets have been anxious to attribute intent (specifically, intent to get infected) that is likely not there. What is there, clearly, is either indifference or disbelief that coronavirus is a threat. One might argue that that’s a distinction without a difference. After all, there might be very little practical difference between a party of people not social distancing and not wearing masks because they scoff at the virus and a party of people not social distancing and not wearing masks attending a party where people known to have COVID-19 will attend because they want to contract coronavirus, but there is a difference in the public discourse: An overwhelming desire to blame someone, to shame someone. For that, intent to become infected is much more blameworthy than indifference or denial. It’s also far more clickbaity.
As E. J. Dickson wrote in Rolling Stone about the Walla Walla story after the Washington Department of Health had walked back its claim that there had been “COVID parties”:
In other words, people had contracted COVID-19 from attending parties, but did not attend for the purpose of contracting COVID-19 — a far more believable, if not less headline-grabby, version of events. But at that point, the story of coronavirus parties had already been credulously aggregated by multiple national news outlets, and the Washington State Department of Health, however, has yet to amend its statement or its original tweet.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, the public information for the DOH said: “The state Department of Health is encouraged to hear that reports of COVID-19 parties in the Walla Walla area may not have been accurate. Unfortunately, this was not the first time we had heard that these parties may be happening locally and nationally.” She added that the department wanted to be clear that “we strongly believe COVID-19 parties can be incredibly dangerous.”
Ultimately, the coronavirus-party story went viral for the same reason that all social distancing-shaming content does: it gives people cooped up in their homes a reason to pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for their own sacrifices. There’s also undoubtedly an element of generational animosity at play here: if you believe that young people are all selfish assholes, then you’re more likely to believe that they’re gathering en masse to purposefully infect themselves with a potentially deadly virus.
So could “COVID parties” be a thing? Certainly, it’s not impossible. After all, antivaxxers have long been known to hold measles and chickenpox parties in order to intentionally infect their children to achieve “natural immunity”, although I’ve always thought that such parties are far less common than they are portrayed as being. On the other hand, although it’s possible there have been honest-to-goodness “COVID parties” in which attendees intend to become infected to “get it over with,” there is very good reason to doubt many of the stories so credulously regurgitated by the press.
And, as Gilead Edelman at WIRED put it:
It is, of course, technically impossible to rule out the existence of Covid parties. Maybe somewhere in this vast and complex nation there are some foolish people getting infected on purpose. It’s also possible that the miasma of media coverage will coalesce into a vector of its own, inspiring Covid parties that otherwise would not have happened. But so far there’s no hard evidence that even a single one has taken place—just a recurring cycle of breathless, unsubstantiated media coverage.
It’s also been noted that these “COVID party” stories share similarities with previous moral panics and urban legends. As Edelman notes:
The press just can’t stop pushing the narrative that people are trying to get themselves infected. And they always seem to push it the same way: Local reporters write down what some official said, and then national publications pick up those claims, citing the local reports as evidence. At no point in this chain has anyone bothered to confirm the underlying claim. The whole thing is reminiscent of the supposed scourge, in the mid-2000s, of “pharm parties,” at which America’s wayward teens were said to put their parents’ prescription drugs into a bowl and then consume them at random. This did not really happen.
As Dickson also notes:
There’s good reason for this, says urban folklorist Benjamin Radford: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence.
Indeed, there is an element to these stories that reminds me of the satanic ritual abuse moral panic that originated in the United States in the 1980s and spread throughout many parts of the world by the late 1990s. There’s never hard evidence presented, and the press credulously lapped up lurid stories.
Why do these stories proliferate, though? I think Edelman is on to something here:
Why do these stories keep catching on? In part, it’s thanks to journalists’ long-standing and uncritical reliance on the pronouncements of public officials. These tales also reinforce existing stereotypes—anti-vaxxer hippies in rural Washington, MAGA bros in the Deep South—and may scratch a psychic itch among readers who already tend to pin responsibility for the ongoing pandemic on other people’s bad choices.
The reality is distressing enough, thank you very much. People may not be throwing Covid parties, but they are throwing parties where Covid spreads, which is just as bad.
Unfortunately, right now it’s very hard not to argue that the response of the United States to the COVID-19 pandemic has been anything other than an utter disaster. Contrary to claims that we are entering a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections, in actuality we never left the first wave. Daily case counts had been gradually falling between early April and early June, but case counts are now skyrocketing, leading to Kara Gavin at Michigan Health to say that the “COVID-19 curve has unflattened fast.” Daily case counts are climbing in at least 33 states, leading to overtaxed hospitals and intensive care units in what are currently the most hard-hit states, Arizona, Texas, and Florida.
Edelman sardonically (and quite correctly) notes that, even if COVID-19 parties were a real thing, rather than events that are likely either rare or nonexistent, even “if there really were infected frat boys pounding beers and doing snot-shots, it would hardly matter” and that their “bad behavior would be a mere sideshow” to a massive policy failure that led to coronavirus raging, in essence, out of control throughout huge swaths of the US. In the meantime, whenever you see stories about events like “COVID-19” parties, be skeptical. Look at the evidence presented. Is it just the pronouncement of a government or law enforcement official based on secondhand or thirdhand stories? Is there any other corroborating evidence of a more concrete and objective nature? So far, for every “COVID party story” I’ve seen, the answer is “no” to both questions. I’m not ruling out the possibility that these parties happen, and maybe one day there will be an account with undeniable (or at least compelling) evidence that these parties are a thing. I have not yet seen such a story yet.