CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
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As Victorians face more weeks, even months, of tough coronavirus restrictions, Premier Daniel Andrews and his government have faced increasing criticism on social media. This week, we’ve taken a look at a claim that testing was deliberately bolstered by Mr Andrews in the lead up to anti-lockdown rallies in an effort to blame protesters for an increase in COVID-19 cases.
We’ve also investigated claims that the Victorian Government removed mortality data from an official website in order to conceal a fall in the number of deaths in the community more generally.
Did Daniel Andrews boost testing in order to blame protesters for increased COVID-19 cases?
A Facebook post shared in a group with nearly 12,000 members, called Free News Network Eureka Rebellion 2, claimed the Victorian premier was boosting COVID-19 testing in a ploy to blame anti-lockdown protesters for an increase in positive cases.
“Andrews did 70,000 extra tests on the Thursday leading up to the protests,” it said.
“So incoming propaganda. There will be high case numbers. He will try to blame protestors. And use high numbers to do extra testing and keep the lockdown going.”
The post, which included a screenshot of the “COVID live” website, also repeated a common myth that the testing cannot distinguish between COVID-19 and the flu.
But Daniel Andrews addressed the increase in testing numbers during his daily news conference last Thursday, explaining that the spike was the result of an update that included previously recorded negative test results and did not represent an increase in the rate of testing.
“This jump in tests is largely attributable to a very large batch of negative tests that have been brought to book and included in the overall total of yesterday’s tests,” he said.
The actual number of tests conducted in the previous 24 hours had been consistent with average levels over the preceding weeks, the Premier added.
“The normal number I would report to you was in fact 17,098 — that’s the results that have been received in that last 24 hours.”
As the 70,000 or so tests were all negative, their inclusion in the official statistics had not resulted in an increase in the number of detected COVID-19 cases.
The flu versus COVID-19
Previously, RMIT ABC Fact Check debunked the myth that getting a flu shot could cause a false positive reading for COVID-19. But could the presence of influenza in the immune system throw off a COVID-19 test, as the Facebook post suggested?
Fact Checkers at Ireland’s Journal.ie investigated the origin of the myth after a series of Facebook posts went viral. They found the claim appeared to have originated from a screenshot taken of the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US.
The CDC reported that positive antibody tests for COVID-19 could be the result of a previous infection from another virus in the coronavirus family, such as the common cold.
But antibody tests, also known as serology tests, differ from the nucleic acid testing used to diagnose cases of COVID-19.
Antibody tests can be conducted almost instantly and typically test blood samples for the presence of protective antibodies produced by the immune system to fight off COVID-19.
Due to the unreliability of these tests, as highlighted in the guidelines of Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, they are not used to confirm a positive case without additional evidence.
Australia’s testing regime primarily relies on viral PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, where a sample is swabbed from the throat and nose and tested in a lab.
These tests are highly specific and described by the Doherty Institute as the “gold standard” for COVID-19 testing.
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The case of the disappearing death data
Elsewhere on Facebook, posts have circulated claiming that Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria removed official death rate data from its website in an attempt to conceal a fall in the overall number of deaths since the pandemic took hold.
In a number of posts, brought to light through First Draft’s collaborative journalism project CrossCheck, users have suggested that there have been fewer deaths in 2020 overall than could have been “expected” normally, based on an extrapolation of historical data.
Meanwhile, in an “open letter” addressed to Premier Daniel Andrews and published by conservative magazine Quadrant, a “dozen Melbourne doctors” referenced a supposed decrease in overall deaths as part of their argument that the Victorian Government response to the virus has been “ill-focused, heavy-handed and unjustifiable”.
“In Victoria we have had 541 LESS deaths this July compared to July last year (3,561 deaths compared to 4,102 deaths in July 2019),” the doctors wrote.
So, have the number of deaths actually fallen during the pandemic? And was the data removed from the web?
Well, the historical data has certainly gone missing from its previous home on the Births, Deaths and Marriages website. As of September 9, the web page for deaths registered per month shows figures dating back only to September 2019.
However, a search of archived snapshots of the web page shows that data dating back to January 2010 was available until at least August 9, but was removed some time before August 17.
A spokesman for Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria told Fact Check that after an issue was identified, the figures were removed from the website on August 14 “to ensure the accuracy of data provided to the public”.
“This change was for all registered event data, not just deaths — and is completely unrelated to COVID-19,” the spokesman said.
“Figures for deaths registered per month prior to the last 12 months, can be provided upon request.”
He added that a count of deaths per year dating back to 2010 remained available online.
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As to the whether deaths had fallen amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Births, Deaths and Marriages data available through the archived web page shows that in raw numbers, the first eight months of 2020 saw were more registered deaths than in the same period for any previous year, barring 2019.
And while the “dozen Melbourne doctors” are correct to say that on those numbers there were fewer deaths in July 2020 than in July 2019, the data shows the number of deaths in 2020 so far is just 11 fewer than for the same period last year.
But Catherine Bennett, the chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, told Fact Check that comparing the figures using monthly data was problematic, particularly when using figures from 2019.
“If you look at the Victorian data, we had underreporting in February ,” Professor Bennett explained.
“That was a glitch in the way the system worked and the figures didn’t catch up until June and July.
“So, month to month, the data isn’t reliable.”
When it came to comparing actual death numbers to the expected figures, Professor Bennett said there were a number of things to consider, including a drop in population growth due to border closures, changes in the way deaths were reported, and very low rates of influenza (partly in response to lockdown restrictions and people self-isolating).
“It paints quite a complicated picture, especially if they’re using the month-to-month data, which is something to be very wary of.”
Even so, Fact Check compared actual deaths in 2020 to a baseline of expected deaths for 2020, calculated by using a five-year median figure for each month for the years to 2019. This is a method previously used by the ABC, and one Professor Bennet said would suffice as a simple exercise.
Applying that baseline, the data shows that the number of deaths so far in 2020 were higher than expected in the first four months of the year, lower in May, June and July, and slightly higher again in August.
It’s worth noting that while the Facebook users and letter-writing doctors argue that restrictions should be lifted in response to death totals staying within normal range despite deaths from COVID-19, lockdowns and restrictions are designed to contain or slow down the spread of the virus in the community. If successful, it follows that death rates would not increase.
Do aged care operators have to account for how they spend their taxpayer funding?
As COVID-19 exposes serious failings in aged care, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Aged Care, Ged Kearney, has lashed the Federal Government for what she claimed was a lack of transparency in the sector.
“People may not know that, across the whole aged care sector, about $20 billion of federal funding goes into that sector without proper accountability or transparency for it,” she said. “They don’t have to acquit for where that money goes.”
Fact Check this week found that claim to be overreach.
Fact check: Aged care federal funding
Shadow Assistant Minister for Aged Care Ged Kearney says the aged care sector receives $20 billion in federal funding without having to acquit for where that money goes.
Two-thirds of the $20 billion spent on aged care each year goes towards residential care, with these service providers only required to report high-level information about how they spend their taxpayer subsidies.
This reporting is focused on financial outcomes and viability, and providers are not required to show spending on individual facilities, let alone individual residents.
However, that does not mean there is no accountability in the sector.
Residential care providers must report annually to the Government, with non-government operators required to include an additional, independently audited financial statement.
Meanwhile, for complex care at home, providers must submit annual financial reports detailing various categories of expenditure, as well as a monthly statement.
Finally, there is basic support at home, where consumers pay for services as they go. These providers report regularly to the Government on the services they deliver and must return any unspent government grants.
From Washington, D.C.
With President Donald Trump ramping up his “law and order” campaigning ahead of November’s elections, US-based fact checkers PolitiFact turned their attention to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who claimed that COVID-19 posed a bigger threat to police than escalating street violence.
“More cops have died from COVID this year than have been killed on patrol,” he suggested in a speech delivered in Pittsburgh.
PolitiFact found the claim to be “mostly correct”, citing evidence from two sources that showed COVID-19 as the leading cause of work-related deaths for police in the US.
“Tallies of deaths by two national groups show that COVID-19 has killed more law enforcement officers than gunfire and other hazards of the job in 2020,” they concluded.
PolitiFact said it was unclear whether Mr Biden’s claim referenced other law enforcement officers such as corrections and detention officers who work in high-risk COVID-19 environments. But even with these groups excluded, the available data supported the claim.
In other news: Facebook steps up efforts to fight election misinformation
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has unveiled a series of changes to the platform in a bid to reduce misinformation and avoid civil unrest following the US elections.
“Today, we’re announcing additional steps we’re taking at Facebook to encourage voting, connect people with authoritative information, and fight misinformation,” he said in a Facebook post earlier this month.
Mr Zuckerberg flagged a ban on new political advertisements in the last week of the election campaign to allow time for the advertisements to be fact checked.
“In the final days of an election there may not be enough time to contest new claims,” the billionaire wrote. “So in the week before the election, we won’t accept new political or issue ads.”
Other steps include limiting the amount of posts that can be forwarded in messenger at one time, removing information that contains false information about how to vote, and taking down posts that discourage in-person voting due to the risk of COVID-19.
Mr Zuckerberg also expressed concerns about the potential fallout in the event that postal votes delay ballot counting.
“It’s important that we prepare for this possibility in advance and understand that there could be a period of intense claims and counter-claims as the final results are counted,” he said.
Facebook hopes to reduce clashes by strengthening enforcement against conspiracy groups such as QAnon, attaching warnings to content that seeks to delegitimise postal voting, and by extending additional protections to election officials as “high-risk” individuals “in order to help prevent any attempts to pressure or harm them, especially while they’re fulfilling their critical obligations to oversee the vote counting”.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan, with thanks to Sonam Thomas
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