[Pinhead Studio | Adobe Stock]

The COVID-19 ‘Empty Hospital’ Conspiracies

April 29, 2020

This is the fourth in a series of original articles on the COVID-19 pandemic by the Center for Inquiry as part of its Coronavirus Resource Center, created to help the public address the crisis with evidence-based information. Please check back periodically for updates and new information. 

There are countless coronavirus conspiracy claims circulating, ranging from whether it’s an engineered bioweapon (it isn’t) to whether it can be cured by consuming cleansers (it can’t)—so many in fact that the WHO decried “a dangerous epidemic of misinformation.” New conspiracies pop up weekly (in some cases daily and seemingly even hourly, generated by Russian troll farms, political operatives, and others), and it’s impossible to address them all. 

However, some gain more public traction than others, and among the most recent and high-profile conspiracies is that hospitals claimed to be overrun with patients are in fact empty, with the associated assumption that fear and panic are the result of a hoax or staged event of some sort. 

About a week ago, an acquaintance on social media posted the following: “I’ve seen a few claims that hospitals and ICUs are virtually empty, with doctors and nurses having hours cut and being furloughed. How could one verify if this is accurate? I can’t just … go to my local hospitals and take a look around for myself. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t let me in. Not into the ICU anyway. How does one tell what the truth is?” 

It was a curious and superficially legitimate question that hinted at perhaps some unspecified distrust of news media coverage and/or the “official story.” What made this case interesting was that the person, though espousing concerns about the “mainstream media” or “MSM,” is not overtly a conspiracy theorist. His social media profile is, not surprisingly, somewhat less skeptical than mine, but he does not have a wall promoting a deluge of Infowars memes and wild theories either. We’re not close enough to have discussed his beliefs (and there’s no reason it would have come up), but he seems to consider himself reasonably intelligent (and I’m sure he is) and takes some pride in not believing everything he sees in the news and social media.

He is, in other words, probably very much like most people, neither a self-identified skeptic nor a believer but rather an independent mind who has legitimate questions about “the official story.” This is why his comment is worthy of some analysis: He represents the large middle ground of people who may be persuaded one way or another when they hear a superficially plausible conspiracy theory (whether they would identify it as such is another matter). It’s a “soft” conspiracy, somewhere between Big Pharma and Obama is a Reptilian. 

The claim is framed in the classic, seemingly reasonable, “I’m just asking questions” format, allowing the person sharing it to post and discuss the idea without necessarily personally and publicly endorsing it. If the theory finds acceptance and compelling evidence is proffered for it, the person sharing it can feel validated in having been right that something wasn’t quite right about it; if, on the other hand, the theory is ridiculed and handily debunked, he or she can feel validated in not having committed to belief in it but merely raising it as frivolous Facebook fodder.

As Joanne Miller, Kyle Saunders, and Christina Farhart noted in their 2016 article “Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated Reasoning” in the American Journal of Political Science:

Given the nature of conspiracy theories they are just as likely to be generated and spread horizontally as they are to be transmitted from elites to the masses. Any individual can theorize about the causes of an event (or whether the event even happened) and then throw his or her theory against the proverbial Internet wall and see if it sticks … Dispositional or situational factors may induce people to seek a coherent, connective thread between a series of complicated or seemingly random events, which often leads to the positing of a conspiracy. However far-fetched the theory might be, tying up confusing events with a simple, neat conspiratorial bow fulfills the individual’s need for order and reduces concomitant anxiety. 

Few conspiracy theory promoters resemble the stereotypical tinfoil-hatted, wild-eyed loonies. Most people believe in some form of conspiracy theory, usually aligning with their political and social beliefs. Despite common assumptions that they’re brainwashed masses beyond reach, there is evidence that in many cases people can and do change their minds when treated with respect and when their claims are sincerely addressed. For an excellent guide, see Mick West’s book Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect.

Framing the Question

Assuming that his query was probably sincere and not merely trolling, I offered the advice he sought, drawing from my experience in investigative journalism and research. I wrote:

Your idea to “go to my local hospitals and take a look around for myself” (to determine whether the hospital or ICU is empty) is interesting, and reminds me of Eddie Welch, the guy who heard the conspiracy about the sex trafficking ring at the D.C. pizza place Comet Ping Pong and went there, armed, to see for himself whether associates of Hillary Clinton were keeping enslaved children in the basement (the restaurant doesn’t have a basement). I’m curious what you’d do if you were allowed to walk in. Interview random doctors and nurses? Photograph or videotape the area? How, specifically, would being there in person help you determine the truth?

He didn’t reply, so I offered additional advice, guiding him toward what’s involved in translating a conspiracy into a falsifiable claim: 

It goes back to what, exactly, the claim is: That some hospitals, somewhere, are empty? I’m sure that there are some hospitals and medical clinics that, for whatever reason, are empty or closed. That specific hospitals in major cities are empty but are being reported as bustling and full? Again, you’d need to specify the claim to make it falsifiable in order to know whether it’s true or not. You asked how to tell what the truth is, and in order to do that you’d need to go beyond a small sample. The best way to do that is narrow down the question: Which hospitals, where? Since you said you ‘don’t have a lot of respect for mainstream news sources’ (of course a news source can be accurate whether you respect it or not), you may need to do some research on your own … Also, of course, you don’t need to enter a hospital and look around to determine whether or not it’s empty. You (or a private detective or volunteer) can park outside the hospital and monitor the entrances, counting the number of staff and patients entering and leaving. It would be imprecise, of course, since there would be no way to know how many patients were already in the building before you began surveillance, but it would tell you whether or not the building is empty. Does that help answer your question?

He never responded to any of my suggestions or replies to his question, so I ended with a post a few days later, “You asked us for advice on how to look into this claim yourself. I and others offered ways to do it. Did you research this? What did you find out?” He never replied, so I stopped trying to answer his question but thought more about the nature of it. He (and we) need not barge into hospitals to find out what’s going on, since there has been significant coverage of what’s going on there, and the answers are already available. The question he asked (which didn’t originate with him but had been circulating for weeks) identified a seeming contradiction, which can be resolved. 

Conspiracy Contradictions

Conspiracies are fueled by real or perceived (and indeed often imagined) contradictions in “the official story.” 

• 9/11 Truthers point out that “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams,” seemingly exposing a simple, irrefutable, science-based contradiction in the explanation that airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers could have by themselves brought the buildings down; instead, there must have been hidden explosives set up in an “inside job.” It sounds plausible to many, but the contradiction vanishes when you understand that no one ever claimed that steel supports were “melted” in the fire; they need only be significantly weakened for the building to collapse. 

• People who believe that the Sandy Hook school shooting was faked and the whole thing was a “false flag” event staged with actors pointed to a supposedly obvious and irrefutable contradiction about one of the victims of the killing. A six-year-old girl named Emilie Parker, who was shot to death in the school massacre, was really alive. The smoking gun photographic proof? A photo of Emilie after the shooting with President Obama during a visit with the families. With the barest of investigation, the “contradiction” vanishes: the girl was actually Emilie’s sister, wearing the same dress that Emilie wore in another photograph. In the topsy-turvy world of conspiracy thinking, any little girl who resembles Emilie and is wearing the same dress as one she owned must be her, and it is obviously proof that the whole shooting was faked. (And speaking of contradictions, the conspiracy itself is self-contradictory: If Sandy Hook was indeed an elaborate staged event with Emilie Parker alive and the president part of the conspiracy, is a photo opportunity with the president of the United States—the most high-profile person on the planet—really the best place to “hide” someone who is supposedly dead?)

In this case of COVID-19 and hospitals, some have seized on the apparent contradiction between a) reports of hospital ICUs overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients; and b) reports of empty hospital beds and average (or below average) ICU wards. To some, this is like claiming that up is down or day is night. Assuming for the sake of argument that both claims are true, how can we reconcile these starkly different observations? In fact, it’s not difficult with a dose of media literacy and critical thinking. 

We can begin by noting that news and social media, by their nature, highlight the aberrant extremes. Propelled by human nature and algorithms, they selectively show the worst in society—the mass murders, the dangers, the cruelty, the outrages, and the disasters—and rarely profile the good. There are thousands of hospitals in the country, and only a dozen or so are among the hardest hit. On a news story about how hospitals are dealing with coronavirus patients, journalists are far more likely to report what’s going on in high-profile urban area hospitals (say, New York City, for example) than in rural area hospitals (say, Casper, Wyoming, for example). This isn’t some conspiracy by the news media to emphasize the bad or mislead the public; it’s just the nature of journalism, and it happens across the board with every subject from poverty to crime rates. Topics that make the news are rarely if ever representative of the whole (country, population, medical community, etc.), and should never be assumed to be so; instead, they’re the atypical outliers. 

Secondly, of course, both can be true. Since the virus spread is not uniform but instead varies greatly by state and city (because of population density, demographics, transportation connections, and many other factors), some places are hit harder than others. It’s not puzzling but instead entirely expected and predictable that some hospitals would be overwhelmed—and thus be especially newsworthy—while others in different places, with different measures in place and different populations and protocols are comparatively idle. 

What else might account for a drop in patients and doctors during a pandemic? 

CBS News reported:

The financial fallout of the pandemic is affecting some of the most vital health workers in the country. CBS News spoke with ER doctors in at least half a dozen states who said they’re taking pay cuts of up to 40%. The American College of Emergency Physicians said cutting benefits and shifts could force some emergency rooms to shut down. … The Mayo Clinic is among thousands of hospitals across the country losing money fast. According to JP Morgan Chase, most hospitals make half or more of their revenue from elective procedures, which have been put on hold.

And even urgent, elective visits are down. 

A survey of nine major hospitals earlier this month showed the number of severe heart attacks being treated in U.S hospitals had dropped by nearly 40% since the novel coronavirus took hold in March, leaving cardiologists worried about a second wave of deaths caused indirectly by Covid-19: patients so afraid to enter hospitals that they are dying at home or waiting so long to seek care that they’re going to suffer massive damage to their hearts or brains. 

Emergency room visits to one Oregon hospital dropped by nearly a third during the pandemic. Fewer patients means that fewer doctors are needed, which in turn means that ERs are below capacity. It’s simple supply and demand, not a curious coverup.  

Doing real investigation takes time, preparation, and effort. The fact that soon after posting the question he dropped the subject and didn’t return to it was interesting. Many conspiracy theorists—and I offer no opinion on whether he is one or not—adopt a curious indifference to the truth of their claims. The question of whether or not hospitals were overrun with COVID-19 patients (or empty and firing doctors) was important enough to consider and post on social media asking for advice on how to investigate it—but not important enough to take that advice and actually do any research or follow-up. “Just asking questions” is always easier than making an effort to answer those questions. 

Of course, when investigating any claim (including and especially conspiracies), it’s important to keep in mind where the burden of proof lies: with the person making the claim. It’s not my job, or any journalists’ jobs, to prove that a given claim is wrong; instead, it’s the responsibility of the person making the claim to offer evidence proving their claim is accurate. 

News and social media are awash with myths and misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic, and during times of anxiety it’s natural to want certainty and answers. A previous article on Social Media Distancing discussed how though the public loves to blame the news media for misinformation, many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. 

You can’t do anything about whether or not antibody tests, ventilators, and medical masks are being manufactured and shipped quickly enough. But you can do something about bad information online. It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story before checking the facts, especially if that story seems crafted to encourage social outrage or distrust.