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Conspiracy theorist spreads false information about the return of COVID

Jul 11, 2023Jul 11, 2023

People wearing protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic walk along the High Line Park, Thursday, July 16, 2020, in New York. Some on social media have falsely claimed that Transportation Security Administration managers were told that mask mandates and other pandemic-era restrictions will start returning this fall. The TSA and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that the rumors are not true. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

CLAIM: Transportation Security Administration managers were told on Aug. 15 that by mid-September they, along with airport employees, will again be required to wear face masks and by mid-October the policy will apply to travelers as well. Further, the managers were told that COVID-19 lockdowns will return by December.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. No such announcement was made to TSA managers, an agency spokesperson told The Associated Press. A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued a now-expired travel mask mandate in 2021, confirmed that such rumors are “utterly false.”

THE FACTS: With COVID-19 hospitalizations steadily inching up in the U.S. since early July, some on social media are falsely claiming that federal employees were told that mask requirements and other pandemic-era restrictions will start returning this fall.

The claim originated on the Aug. 18 episode of “The Alex Jones Show,” where its namesake host said an anonymous “high-level manager in the TSA” and an unnamed “Border Patrol-connected” source told him about the alleged announcement. Jones is known for spreading conspiracy theories.

“BREAKING: Alex Jones says a TSA whistleblower has told him TSA employees were instructed on Tue that masks are coming back by October for travelers & full Covid restrictions/lockdowns by December due to a new ‘dangerous variant’ out of Canada,” read a tweet with the video, which had more than 38,000 likes and 20,000 shares on Thursday.

But TSA Press Secretary Robert Langston told The Associated Press that managers at the agency did not receive any such instructions last week. Benjamin Haynes, a spokesperson for the CDC, confirmed that reports of upcoming lockdowns are “utterly false.”

In addition, the suggestion there could be a timeline in advance of such restrictions is “exceptionally implausible,” said Sherry Glied, dean of New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Glied, who specializes in health policy reform, said it wouldn’t make sense for any agency to “forecast some future mask requirement when we have no idea whether the virus would be spreading at all at that point or how dangerous it would be.”

Neither Jones, nor a representative of his show, had responded to a request for comment before publication.

Two new COVID-19 variants — EG.5 and BA.2.86 — have recently emerged. As of Aug. 23, the latter had only been reported in Denmark, South Africa, Israel, the U.S. and the U.K, according to the CDC. Health Canada confirmed to the AP that as of Aug. 18, no cases had been detected in the country. Canada has seen a steady increase of EG.5 cases, but the World Health Organization reported in early August that its risk to global public health is low.

On Jan. 29, 2021, the CDC issued an order requiring people to wear masks on public transportation, including airplanes, and in transportation hubs, that was implemented and enforced by the TSA. A federal judge in Florida struck down the mandate on April 18, 2022, finding that the CDC failed to justify the order and that it did not follow proper rulemaking procedures.

Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who also specializes in constitutional law, told the AP that the CDC could reissue the order, but he said it would likely be immediately challenged and struck down in a lower court, a decision which would probably then be upheld by the Supreme Court.

The CDC has authorization from Congress to issue certain orders if they are necessary to prevent infectious diseases from spreading between states, he said. It can also make recommendations. But the agency has no enforcement power, leaving implementation and enforcement to the states, which is why pandemic-related restrictions varied across the U.S.

“They don’t even have the power to do the kinds of things that are being suggested,” Gostin explained.

Similar limits apply to the president and to Congress. An executive order issued by President Joe Biden on Jan. 20, 2021, required anyone in federal buildings or on federal lands, including government employees and contractors, to wear masks. But his COVID-19 vaccination mandates were the subject of numerous legal challenges — many of which were successful.

Regardless, Gostin said that if the president or Congress tried to institute a nationwide lockdown, “they’d be slapped down by the courts in a minute” because of restrictions on federal police power.

While COVID-19 hospital admissions are rising — there were at 12,613 for the week ending Aug. 12 — they’re a far cry from past peaks, like the 44,000 weekly hospital admissions in early January, the nearly 45,000 in late July 2022, or the 150,000 admissions during the omicron surge of January 2022.

Still, some schools and businesses are reinstating mask mandates and other restrictions. Officials expect to see updated COVID-19 vaccines this fall that contain one version of the omicron strain, called XBB.1.5.

Leana Wen, a professor of public health at George Washington University, told the AP that the fact that COVID-19 has become an endemic virus is another reason future lockdowns or restrictions at any level of government are highly unlikely. An endemic virus is one that has a constant presence in a geographic area.

“Eliminating it is not possible,” she said. “And so having measures that are aimed at a societal level, containment is not practical and won’t achieve the aim that we initially thought was possible in early 2020.”___This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.