False claims from funeral director about facemasks, vaccines and the pandemic

28 October 2021
What was claimed

A facemask is not going to save you from a virus and they can cause pneumonia.

Our verdict

The guidance has changed throughout the pandemic, however current thinking is that face masks can play a useful role in preventing the spread of Covid-19. There is no evidence to suggest that they cause pneumonia.

What was claimed

There is reason to suspect that people who died in care homes were probably euthanized using midazolam.

Our verdict

People have died in care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic. While midazolam is often used in end of life care, there is no evidence to suggest that this has been used with the intention of killing people, or as part of a euthanasia policy. Euthansia remains illegal in the UK.

What was claimed

There was no “pandemic death rate” in 2020.

Our verdict

73,766 deaths were registered as being due to Covid-19 from March to December 2020 in England and Wales.

What was claimed

Covid-19 vaccines have not been tested and there are no medical studies underlying them.

Our verdict

The Covid-19 vaccine trials have been published in peer-reviewed journals. The data collection and analysis are ongoing, in order to allow up to two years of follow up on participants.

What was claimed

The World Health Organisation changed the definition of what a pandemic is and removed conditions such as cases of serious illness or death.

Our verdict

There has been ongoing debate about a change in the text used on a WHO website regarding pandemic influenza in 2009. Covid-19 was declared the world’s first coronavirus pandemic in 2020, based on factors such as “alarming levels of spread and severity”.

A video interview of a funeral director from Milton Keynes has been shared on social media. The video contains a lot of false or misleading information about the Covid-19 pandemic including false claims about facemasks, use of midazolam, death rates and vaccine testing. 

We have also been asked about this video by readers via WhatsApp.

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It is not true that “a facemask is not going to save you from a virus” or can cause pneumonia

As we have written before, there has been changing advice on the use of face masks and coverings during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The current thinking is that the use of facemasks can help to prevent the onward transmission of Covid-19, by reducing the spread of particles which may contain the virus. This means that they can help to protect others. 

Certain types of face masks (including FFP2/3 or N95 masks and others) have been shown to protect the wearer.

According to public health experts from the Meedan Health Desk, an initiative to connect public health experts with fact checkers, and others, there is no evidence that using facemasks can cause pneumonia.

There is no evidence to support the claim that “people who died in care homes were euthanized using midazolam”

We have previously written about the use of midazolam during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Midazolam is a type of benzodiazepine medication, used as a conscious sedative, anaesthetic agent, anticonvulsant and is also licensed to help manage restlessness and agitation in palliative care. 

Midazolam is often prescribed as an ‘anticipatory medication’. These are medications that are prescribed in advance for patients who are nearing the end of life should they experience any common and unpleasant symptoms associated with dying. Midazolam can also be used more generally for patients who are not nearing end of life, and for sedation for certain medical procedures. 

There is no evidence that midazolam was being used with the intention of ending care home residents’ lives, or that this was a formal policy. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has previously told Full Fact: “These claims are deeply misleading. The government’s top priority throughout this pandemic has always been doing everything possible to save lives.”

Euthanasia remains illegal in the UK. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the government did stockpile certain medications, including midazolam. 

DHSC previously told Full Fact: “COVID-19 has brought about an increase in global and UK demand for a number of medicines, including midazolam to support patients in intensive care or at the end of their lives.”

Similar claims have been made in videos by David Icke and Kate Shemirani, which we have written about before. 

It is not true that there was “no pandemic death rate in 2020”

Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show 73,766 deaths were registered as being “due” to Covid-19 from March to December 2020 in England and Wales. Covid-19 was the leading cause of death in 2020, accounting for 12.1% of all deaths in this period. 

All of these deaths had Covid-19 determined as the “underlying cause of death” by a medical practitioner or coroner. This means that they believed Covid-19 to have “initiated the train of morbid events leading directly to death”. 

ONS data shows there were 607,922 deaths registered overall in England and Wales in 2020. This compares with 530,841 in 2019 and 541,589 in 2018.

According to an ONS analysis, from the end of March to December 2020 deaths from all causes were 20% higher than the average for the same period over the previous five years.

If the claimant was talking about the fatality rate of Covid rather than the death rate, the infection fatality rate (the proportion of all infected people who die) of Covid-19 was estimated by Cambridge University to be 2.5% in over 75s and 0.12% overall in July 2021. In August, a written Department of Health and Social Care answer to Conservative MP Steve Baker stated that the July figure was 0.096%. However this will have changed with the development of vaccination and medical treatments. In August 2020, before the roll out of vaccines, the WHO estimated the IFR of Covid-19 to be 0.5-1%. 

We have written more about this previously. 

It is not true that the Covid-19 vaccines have “not been tested” or that there are “no medical studies underlying” them

As we have written previously, the three coronavirus vaccines that are currently in use in the UK have been through all the normal stages of vaccine testing, including animal and human studies.

Data on key outcomes, such as efficacy and safety, from their trials has been published in peer-reviewed journals, however data on long term protection and safety will continue to be collected over the coming years.

In December 2020, the Pfizer and the Oxford-AstraZeneca research teams released their analyses of phase three safety and efficacy data. Moderna released its analysis in February 2021.

For Pfizer this was a peer-reviewed article in the New England Journal of Medicine including efficacy data from 43,500 participants (including placebo group), with two month safety data from 37,700 participants. 

For Oxford-AstraZeneca, this was a peer-reviewed article in The Lancet, including interim analysis data from around 11,600 participants (although 23,800 participants were included in the wider trial) from April to November 2020. 

Moderna’s data was also peer-reviewed and released in the New England Journal of Medicine and included data from approximately 30,400 participants (15,200 of whom received the vaccine rather than a placebo).

Did the World Health Organisation change the “definition of what a pandemic is”?

The video claims that the World Health Organisation (WHO) changed the definition of a pandemic, by removing two of the three conditions that it had previously set for a disease to be declared a pandemic. 

It claims that the WHO has removed the necessity for a disease to cause “many serious cases of illness” or “many cases of death” to be declared a pandemic. The video claims that the only condition that this leaves is that a disease would “spread worldwide”, and says that this means that “any flu can be made into a pandemic”.

There has been a long running debate about whether, in 2009, the WHO officially changed its definition of a pandemic. This was sparked by a change to the WHO website ​​in that year. 

Since 2003, the top of the WHO Pandemic Preparedness homepage had said: “An influenza pandemic occurs when a new influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, resulting in several simultaneous epidemics worldwide with enormous numbers of deaths and illness”. 

In 2009 (just before the swine flu pandemic), this was changed and the qualification “with enormous number of deaths and illness” was removed. 

At the time, The WHO reportedly told CNN that including this definition had been " a mistake” and it “paints a rather bleak picture and could be very scary". 

In the same article, David Ozonoff, professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health said: "The word pandemic refers to how widely dispersed a disease is, not to how severe the disease is”. 

This is a widely accepted and commonly used definition, although there are different schools of thought about what other factors may also be considered in how a pandemic may be defined.

In a press release in January 2010, the WHO also said that it “did not” change the definition of pandemic, and said a pandemic is declared “when there have been verified community-level outbreaks of a new influenza virus, passing from human-to-human, in two or more countries in more than one WHO region”. 

But the WHO also noted that some confusion “may stem” from a document on its website that said that a pandemic would include "enormous amounts of cases and deaths". The WHO said this information was “never part of the formal definition of a pandemic” and was “never part of documents sent to Member States for their preparedness work”, and the document was removed when it was brought to its attention. It added “regret” at the confusion caused. 

In March 2020, ten years after the controversy, the WHO declared the Covid-19 pandemic—the world’s first pandemic caused by a coronavirus. It highlighted the “alarming levels of spread and severity”, amongst other factors as an important part of it’s assessment. 

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