A child wears a face mask during an online class at a learning hub inside the Crenshaw Family YMCA during the Covid-19 pandemic on February 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California ( AFP / Patrick T Fallon)

Texas school board testimony repeats false claims about Covid-19

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In a video shared across social media, a man makes several false statements in testimony to a school board meeting in the US state of Texas, repeating previously debunked claims about Covid-19 tests, face masks, vaccine data and treatments.

"This parent (who is also a PA) speaks at a school board meeting and gives them the FACTS about COVID-19," said an August 5, 2021 Facebook post. In the video, a physician assistant named Miguel Escobar speaks at the Consolidated Independent School District Meeting in Edinburg, Texas, near the Mexican border.

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken August 10, 2021

The video which has more than 300,000 views and 27,000 shares on Facebook can also be found here and here, as well as on both Instagram and Twitter.

It includes several inaccurate claims related to Covid-19, adding to widespread misinformation during the pandemic as cases in the US surged to their highest levels in six months, fuelled by the highly transmissable Delta coronavirus variant and the roughly 30 percent of the eligible population yet to receive a vaccine dose.

AFP breaks down several of the false claims made by Escobar.

Claim: PCR tests unable to differentiate flu and Covid-19

In his testimony, Escobar said: "CDC is now telling all the laboratories to stop using the PCRs that we've been using this whole time because they cannot decipher between the flu and Covid."

This is false.

Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests are used around the world to detect SARS-CoV-2.

Jim McKinney, a spokesman for the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), told AFP on July 27 that "to date, the FDA has authorized more than 300 tests and sample collection kits to diagnose Covid-19, many of which are PCR tests. PCR tests are generally considered to be the 'gold standard' for Covid-19 diagnosis."

Claims that PCR tests cannot differentiate between SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, and influenza are false, AFP reported in a previous fact-check.

Multiple tests for Covid-19 are authorized, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is seeking to discontinue the use of just one of them.

The CDC said it will withdraw a request for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) of an RT-PCR test it developed at the beginning of the pandemic.

CDC spokeswoman Jade Fulce told AFP in July 2021 this decision was not due to performance issues. Instead, demand for the CDC's test declined with the emergence of higher-tech procedures, she said.

Jennifer Piatt, a researcher at the Arizona State University Center for Public Health Law and Policy, said in July 2021 that "nothing in the CDC's statement indicates that its test conflates Covid-19 with influenza, or that PCR tests in general do so. Arguments to the contrary misstate the CDC's language."

AFP Fact Check has debunked other inaccurate claims about PCR tests here.

Claim: Masks ineffective at protecting against Covid-19

Close to the third minute of his testimony Escobar claims that wearing masks is not something that "prevents you from getting infected."

Mask misinformation has persisted throughout the pandemic, driven by those who view face covering requirements as an inconvenience or an impediment to personal freedom.

Dr Benjamin Neuman, an expert in coronaviruses who chairs the Biological Sciences department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana also told AFP in June 2021: "Several scientific papers arrived during the spring and early summer of 2020, showing that masks effectively prevented infection, blocking both release and inhalation of virus particles."

A CDC study found that "mandating masks was associated with a decrease in daily Covid-19 case and death growth rates within 20 days of implementation."

Although US health authorities previously announced that mask-wearing was no longer required for those who have been vaccinated, it is once again recommended in indoor spaces, even for those who are fully immunized. This is due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

Claim: Masks have negative psychological effects on children

"Why would you sniff the bacteria that comes out of your mouth, all day long, and force that on our children? That is wrong,... psychologically affects them" and will bring "more infections on them," Escobar claimed, referring to children wearing masks at school.

AFP has examined false claims about the impact of mask-wearing on children both here and here.

The WHO recommends that children continue to follow local mask guidelines.

"While children are not at high risk of severe Covid-19, they are still at risk, and they can still spread the virus to older family members at home and in their communities. Masks are a key measure to help stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, but must be used along with other measures such as good hand hygiene and physical distancing," the WHO told AFP for a July 2021 Fact Check .

Jennifer Katzenstein, Director of Psychology and Neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, told AFP in February 2021: "Masks are not preventing children from communicating adequately with others, and many, many children have been quite resilient throughout the pandemic and are doing quite well."

Rather than masks leading to anxiety and stress, "misinformation and uncertainty appear to be the primary drivers," Katzenstein said.

Claim: Covid-19 vaccine death toll greater than all other shots

"In six months more people have died from this vaccine, than in 20 years of every single vaccine given in America," said Escobar before referencing the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

However, AFP has debunked multiple claims about VAERS. The reporting system, which is jointly run by the CDC and the FDA, collects reports of deaths following vaccination, not fatalities proven to be caused by a vaccine.

An official description of VAERS also makes clear that the reports it contains are not proof of a vaccine causing harm.

VAERS "contains information on unverified reports of adverse events (illnesses, health problems and/or symptoms) following immunization with US-licensed vaccines" and accepts reports "from anyone," it says.

And while the number of reported deaths following Covid-19 vaccinations is higher than those from other shots administered in previous years, that is at least partly due to a unique rule that accompanied the FDA's emergency use authorizations for the shots. It requires all deaths to be reported, without regard to whether health personnel thought the vaccine played a role.

Claim: Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine are effective Covid-19 treatments

During the meeting, Escobar also claims that "hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin actually work" in treating Covid-19.

However, a previous AFP check has debunked claims that either hydroxychloroquine, which former president Donald Trump endorsed, or ivermectin cure Covid-19.

The WHO does not recommend the use of hydroxychloroquine to prevent Covid-19.

"This recommendation is based on six trials with more than 6000 participants who did not have COVID-19 and received hydroxychloroquine. Using hydroxychloroquine for prevention had little or no effect on preventing illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19," the agency said.

Similarly, the FDA has also not approved ivermectin to treat or prevent Covid-19.

"The FDA has received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses," it said on March 5, 2021. They caution against using ivermectin to treat humans with Covid-19.

The WHO also advised that ivermectin was only to be used to treat Covid-19 in clinical trials, in guidelines published on March 31, 2021.