Look, it’s possible that teenagers are having parties where they try to give each other COVID-19 and then bet money on who contracts it first. My kid has shown me what teenagers do on TikTok, so all bets are off.
Wired magazine is extremely skeptical that this is actually happening – and points out that, ironically, stories like this get the Trump Administration and State governments off the hook for their disastrous mishandling of the pandemic:
This is not the first reporting on the spread of Covid parties, which are, in fact, neither happening nor spreading. Back in March, Kentucky governor Andy Beshear announced during a daily public-health update that one case in the state had been tied to a “coronavirus party.” “We ought to be much better than that,” he said. “We should forgive that person, but no more of these—anywhere, statewide, ever, for any reason.” His one-sentence anecdote, presented without any further detail, was dutifully passed along as news by CNN, NPR, The Washington Post, and other outlets.
Then in April, The New York Times ran an op-ed from epidemiologist Greta Bauer, offering “seven reasons your ‘coronavirus party’ is a bad idea.” She’d heard “rumblings” that these events were going on, the piece explains, because some people think they would be better off with antibodies.
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.”
The latest version of the tale, from Alabama, follows the same pattern as the others. It appears to be the product of a weird game of telephone mixed with loose talk from public officials and disgracefully sloppy journalism. On Tuesday, Tuscaloosa fire chief Randy Smith told the city council that his department had heard about parties “where students or kids would come in with known positives.” It sounded like just a rumor, Smith said, but “not only did the doctors’ offices help confirm it, but the state also confirmed they had the same information.”
You’ll notice immediately that Smith didn’t say anything about people trying to get sick, let alone betting on who could do it first. So why is everyone saying that’s what happened? The notion seems to have originated with McKinstry, who shared it with ABC News after the meeting. It’s not clear whether McKinstry had a source for this idea, and she did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment. The Alabama Department of Health responded with a statement that it “has not been able to verify such parties have taken place.” It’s not even clear that the fire chief had it right about kids going to parties while knowing they were sick. (The Tuscaloosa Fire Department did not reply to a request for comment, either.) But that didn’t stop the dogpile of national media outlets repeating and amplifying the Covid betting-pot story as if it were fact.
But the toothpaste is out of the tube now. Next, news outlets may get their teenager moral panics mixed up and start reporting that the COVID partiers are also performing Satanic rituals and listening to back-masked messages on Judas Priest albums telling them to commit suicide.
Who needs Facebook and Twitter to spread viral misinformation when “mainstream” media outlets are doing the same thing?