Don’t Believe This Viral Text About How to Deal With Coronavirus

As public officials fumble around and testing remains inconsistent, medical misinformation thrives online.
Hannah Smothers
Brooklyn, US
March 13, 2020, 11:00am
Fake coronavirus self-check spreads online

“The new NCP coronavirus may not show sign of infection for many days,” the message begins, and this part is true. So far, scientists believe the novel coronavirus, aka COVID-19, to have an average incubation period of five days, but have seen cases that don’t show up for more than two weeks.

The viral message containing instructions on what to do if you think you have coronavirus, often sourced to an alleged “friend’s dad’s friend that works for CDC,” [sic] is being shared widely on Facebook, in YouTube videos, and through text messages between friends and family. While it starts off correct, the rest is riddled with misinformation and inaccuracies. But that hasn’t stopped it from continuing to circulate among a panicked country lacking guidance from its authorities.


Versions of the message shared with VICE show slight variations on the same block of text, which is sometimes signed with a random phone number or a doctor’s name (one version shared with VICE was signed “Dr Loretta T Friedman,” who doesn’t appear to be any specific person, but could be a chiropractor in New York). One version reviewed by Mother Jones claims to be from Stanford University, which a spokesperson for Stanford Health said is absolutely not true. Each version of the message makes some reference to the CDC, or a friend of a friend who works there and wants everyone to see this info. Here's one version of the message, shared with VICE:

“This info is from a friends dads friend that works for CDC that passed this along to his family and friends.

The new NCP coronavirus may not show sign of infection for many days, how can one know if he/she is infected. By the time they have fever and/or cough and goes to the hospital, the lungs is usually 50 % Fibrosis and it's too late!

Taiwan experts provide a simple self-check that we can do every morning: Take a deep breath and hold your breath for more than 10 seconds. If you complete it successfully without coughing, without discomfort, stuffiness or tightness, etc.,it proves there is no fibrosis in the lungs, basically indicating no infection. In critical times, please self-check every morning in an environment with clean air.

SERIOUS EXCELLENT ADVICE by Japanese Doctors treating COVID-19 cases: Everyone should ensure your mouth & throat is moist, never DRY. Take a few sips of water every 15 mins at least. WHY? Even if the virus gets into your mouth…drinking water or other liquids will WASH them down through your esophagus into the stomach. Once there in tummy…your stomach ACID will kill all the virus. If you don't drink enough water more regularly….the virus can enter your windpipes and into the LUNGS. That's very dangerous.

Pls send and share with family, friends and everyone.”

A few news publications and fact-checking sites have debunked the most suspect claims within this particular message. There’s no science, for instance, to back up the idea that one can simply wash this coronavirus down their esophagus and into their “tummy,” where stomach acid will kill it. And there are zero studies that prove avoiding drinks with ice is going to keep anyone healthy.

Healthcare professionals have been vocal about how chaotic and difficult their jobs have been lately, as the federal government continues to botch testing and give little to no practical guidance on what the hell anyone should be doing in response to the recently-declared pandemic. In the past few weeks, seemingly everyone has been forwarded a message from a friend’s husband whose cousin is a doctor, containing information about coronavirus. Most of those messages look a lot like this one, some of them are totally valid, and others are completely wrong.

Younger people who are both less likely to be severely affected by coronavirus and are accustomed to wading through bullshit online will probably be able to tell this particular message is bogus. But Connor, a 24 year old in New Jersey, told VICE he received the message from his grandma, who’s in the completely opposite situation: People over 65 (and those with underlying health conditions) are much more likely to experience severe infection from coronavirus, and, not to generalize about grandparents, but it feels like a safe assumption that people who haven’t spent their lifetimes around memes will be less discerning about medical misinformation online. I keep thinking about my grandpa, who lives on a farm in Texas and who refuses to use his new iPhone to text, and what would happen if he came across this message while scrolling through Facebook.

The impulse to grasp onto and share anything masquerading as helpful advice is understandable, if not actually helpful and even ultimately harmful. It’s possible someone crafted this message to be sinister—due to the fact that it’s getting passed around by text as well as Facebook, it’s extremely difficult to definitively identify an original version—but it’s possible whoever originally wrote it was genuinely trying to help. As the state and federal authorities continue to give vague instructions (countless New York City residents spent a few hours this afternoon sharing a rumor that the city was about to be imminently quarantined, for example), and coronavirus testing remains seemingly impossible to access, it’s normal and extremely human that people are looking for small, actionable ways to protect themselves. Sitting in an apartment stocked with cans of beans, waiting for something or nothing to happen, is maddening, and that’s essentially a best case scenario right now.

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.

Follow Hannah Smothers on Twitter.