The panic over “COVID parties”

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.

“China imposes security law on Hong Kong, Page A13”

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 CNNNPRThe 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.

The University of Alabama has investigated and found no evidence that “COVID parties are happening. Neither has the state Department of Public Health, according to Birmingham’s WBRC television.

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?

One thought on “The panic over “COVID parties”

  1. M says:

    I’ve always found that when your kids trust you enough to share their online activities with you, this can be very…educational. (For me as a parent.)
    But blaming high infection rates on kids is ridiculous. Kids didn’t bring about the current state of affairs. As a parent, I would look up credible sources such as well-reputed clinic websites on both mild and serious Covid cases with my kid (or get a guest subscription to UpToDate – which is used by physicians). Have them check stats on the probability of serious illness and health consequences, especially when they are highly intelligent and tech-savvy. We did this for vaccinations. Then we saw an infectious disease specialist and my kids made * their * choices…as a result of which I rest easier when they mingle with their (unknown vaccine status) peers. As a beneficial side effect, they are now confident in doing their research and asking for all the information they need for informed healthcare choices. My (autistic) kids especially benefit from this because they naturally assume that others will be honest and reliable, but in reality it pays to inform yourself. Trusting one’s teens to think for themselves also increases the chances that they will come to their parent for advice when they really do need it.

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