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‘COVID parties’ are a pandemic urban legend that won’t go away

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People aren’t intentionally catching the coronavirus

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amid hosts of reasonable fears about the coronavirus pandemic, there’s also one far more dubious threat: “COVID parties.” As Wired explains in a good exploration of the topic, COVID parties (or “corona parties”) are events where people supposedly expose themselves to the coronavirus on purpose. Medical professionals and government officials have periodically warned about these parties, but on closer examination, the reports are usually unverified secondhand reports or outright mistakes.

Despite numerous false alarms, however, the parties keep cropping up in news stories and social media. Last week, The New York Times and other outlets reported on a “COVID party” supposedly held in Texas. A recent Vox story about herd immunity referenced “rare but concerning” instances, citing a CNN article about supposed parties in Alabama.

COVID parties are a product of the particular confusion around the coronavirus. High-level political figures have dismissed or minimized the pandemic’s impact, leaving health officials and medical experts to warn Americans about the dangers posed by the virus. These experts may rightly prioritize condemning risky behavior whether it’s happening or not, but in the process, inadvertently give those rumors more credence than they deserve.

It’s doubly confusing because the term is also applied to innocently intentioned (but nonetheless reckless) pandemic-era gatherings, which flout local or state social distancing rules. Sometimes these cases are ambiguous. On Twitter, one emergency medical services company referenced a “corona party” involving an infected person in Pennsylvania, for example. But in an email to The Verge, a spokesperson confirmed that nobody claimed to be intentionally seeking infection — they just didn’t take the virus seriously.

For now, every story about people holding parties to purposefully spread the coronavirus is either unverified or debunked. Here’s a running list of “COVID party” cases, alongside what we actually know about them.

San Antonio, Texas, July 12th

The claim: A 30-year-old man attended a “COVID party,” where people gathered with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to test whether the virus is “real.” The man believed it was a hoax until he contracted it and died in the hospital.

The reality: The man reportedly spoke to a nurse at San Antonio’s Methodist Hospital before he died, telling her about the party and expressing regret: “I think I made a mistake. I thought this was a hoax, but it’s not.” The nurse told chief medical officer Jane Appleby, who in turn spoke to the media, recording a video in which she warned about COVID parties.

But this is mostly unverifiable. The hospital didn’t identify the man, and contact tracers told the Times that they had no evidence for or against the party’s existence. That doesn’t mean Appleby was lying — but it’s also easy to see the story getting garbled or misunderstood.

Fort Myers, Florida, July 6th

The claim: Carsyn Leigh Davis, a 17-year-old with existing health conditions, attended a “COVID party” organized by her local church. The event intentionally exposed around 100 children to the disease, and Davis contracted it. After her family tried a likely useless hydroxychloroquine treatment, she died two weeks later.

The reality: As Snopes writes, Davis’ death is very real. A medical report confirms that Davis attended a “church function” that broke social distancing rules, and her parents did give her hydroxychloroquine shortly before taking her to a hospital. But there’s no evidence the church was trying to infect children, and screenshots of its Facebook page simply show promotions for a youth “release party.” The church itself has called the allegations “false and defamatory,” and most news reports have removed the “COVID party” reference.

Tuscaloosa, Alabama, July 2nd

The claim: Young people hosted multiple parties where guests tried to catch the novel coronavirus. People paid to attend the parties, which were supposedly hosted in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding areas starting in early June, and the first guest to catch COVID-19 won part of the proceeds.

The reality: Tuscaloosa Fire Chief Randy Smith claimed to know about the parties and tipped off the City Council, which said unnamed doctors and state officials had corroborated the account. University of Alabama paper The Crimson White quoted an urgent care facility doctor who claimed his staff saw videos of “intentional” virus-catching parties involving UA students.

The University of Alabama found no evidence of this, though, and The Crimson White concluded there was “no direct confirmation” of the parties. Wired learned that the clinic tip was a series of secondhand rumors passed between staff like a game of telephone. And it strains credulity that local officials identified several parties involving paid ticket sales and video footage, but no attendees were confirmed or cited for breaking social distancing rules, and none of those videos got posted online.

North Carolina, May 18th

The claim: Unidentified people reported attending “COVID-19 parties” in North Carolina to maximize their chances of catching the disease and hopefully build immunity.

The reality: This story is based partly on a warning from North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who called the parties “completely irresponsible and absolutely unacceptable” in a press conference. But Cooper never actually said these parties existed. A reporter asked about rumors of “COVID-19 gatherings,” and Cooper — alongside state Health and Human Services Director Mandy Cohen — confirmed this would be a terrible idea if it were happening. That’s not incorrect, but it created an impression of certainty that simply wasn’t there.

A more specific report comes from Yolanda Enrich, a nurse practitioner at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center. “People are actually out and about trying to get the virus, so attending gatherings, parties trying to maximize their chances of exposure,” Enrich reported. “They’re just going to gatherings to get purposely infected with the virus.” That said, she didn’t report people holding parties to get infected, nor cite specific incidents. Enrich’s branch of Forsyth Medical Center didn’t return a request for more detail.

Walla Walla County, Washington, May 6th

The claim: At least 25 people told contact tracers that they’d been at a COVID party, attempting to contract COVID-19 and “get it over with.” Some new infections could be traced to these parties.

The reality: It never happened. Walla Walla County Department of Community Health director Meghan DeBolt initially told reporters that “we ask about contacts, and there are 25 people because: ‘We were at a COVID party.’” But health officials retracted the claim a day later. “After receiving further information, we have discovered that there were not intentional COVID parties. Just innocent endeavors,” said DeBolt.

This cuts to the heart of the issue. Right now, any crowded event could spread the virus without any deliberate malice. And parties are far from the only reason COVID-19 is booming in America. “Super-spreading” events can occur in churches, meatpacking plants, and many other places where people don’t fit the stereotype of reckless youngsters. There are lots of reasons to worry about the coronavirus’s spread — but “COVID parties” aren’t one of them.