Influenza cases fell dramatically after COVID-19 swept through the United States for the first time in 2020. Now, some social media users are predicting a similar scenario, this time involving shingles and monkeypox.
“You know how with COVID the flu suddenly went away when in reality COVID tests picked up the flu and said it was COVID? They will do the same with monkeypox and shingles,” one woman said in a Facebook video May 21.
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat hoaxes and misinformation in its news feed. (Read more about PolitiFact’s partnership with Facebook.)
The narrator in the Facebook video is wrong on several counts.
First, as PolitiFact previously reported, COVID-19 tests didn’t catch flu cases and counted them as coronavirus cases.
In short, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s original COVID-19 testing protocol was specifically designed to find only SARS-CoV-2, not influenza or other viruses. In July 2021, the CDC notified labs that it was withdrawing its request for emergency use authorization for the protocol because newer diagnostic tests, or PCR tests, had been developed that could detect both COVID-19 and influenza. Authorities preferred these tests because they would save time and resources ahead of flu season.
This led to false claims on social media that the test could not distinguish between the viruses, so the CDC issued clarification shortly after, stating that the test “does not confuse influenza with SARS-CoV-2.”
It seemed like the flu had disappeared during the pandemic, as the post claims. But there’s a good reason for that.
The CDC said COVID-19 prevention measures such as lockdowns, mask-wearing, social distancing and increased handwashing, and a record number of flu vaccines explain the decline.
Influenza cases fell dramatically during the 2020-21 flu season. Only 0.2% of US lab tests were positive; That number was between 26.2% and 30.3% in the three seasons leading up to the pandemic, according to the CDC.
More recently, however, influenza cases have been rising again as efforts to contain COVID-19 waned. According to the CDC’s preliminary estimates for the 2021-22 flu season (October 21 to May 14), there were 6.7 million to 11 million flu cases and between 4,200 and 13,000 deaths. That’s still less than the 2019-20 estimate of 35 million diseases and 20,000 deaths. The CDC provides estimates, not exact numbers, because states are not required to report influenza cases.
The poster’s claim that shingles is now being passed off as a case of monkeypox is Will a common theme on social media, with some falsely saying it is a cover for the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine, but it has no basis in truth.
To support her argument, the woman in the Facebook video shows another social media post indicating that the same photo was used in different articles depicting monkeypox and shingles. However, PolitiFact reported that the photo, which shows a shingles rash, was mistakenly used by an Indian health website in an article about monkeypox and has since been removed.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. This virus remains dormant in your body after you have chickenpox and can become active many years later as shingles. It’s more commonly found in people over 50, but anyone can get shingles.
About a million people get shingles each year, and one in three Americans will get it in their lifetime, the CDC said. Research has shown an increased risk of shingles, particularly in older people who have had COVID-19. Shingles cannot be passed to another person, but patients can spread chickenpox to others through contact with fluid from blisters.
The spread of monkeypox in Europe and North America is unusual because the disease is rare outside of West and Central Africa, where it is endemic. Zoonosis is transmitted through close personal contact with an infected person, through contact with lesions, bodily fluids, respiratory droplets, or contaminated clothing and bedding.
While both shingles and monkeypox result in a rash with fluid-filled blisters, the distribution of the rash varies, said Dr. Esther Freeman, Director of Global Health Dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and member of the American Academy of Dermatology’s Monkeypox Task Force.
“(It’s) usually only on one side of the body, whereas monkeypox would occur on both sides of the body while also generalizing to the skin on different parts of the body,” Freeman said. “Monkeypox generally becomes pustular, meaning the fluid-filled sacs turn white later in the disease process.”
Diagnosis and testing of the two diseases are also different.
For monkeypox, a government lab would test a sample from a suspected case to confirm it was orthopoxvirus, the genus of viruses to which monkeypox belongs. In this case, the sample would be sent to the CDC to confirm if it was monkeypox.
This two-stage process is a result of the US smallpox preparedness plan, said Dr. Jennifer McQuiston, associate director of the Division of Serious Infectious Diseases and Pathology and chief of the US Public Health Service. It wasn’t set up specifically for monkeypox, but is helpful so the CDC can get the sequencing data it needs so it can be shared around the world, she said.
In many cases of shingles, doctors can often diagnose the disease simply with a visual examination.
But there are simple, rapid lab tests for shingles, either a PCR or a direct fluorescent antibody test that involves a swab of a skin lesion, that can be done, Freeman said.
A Facebook video claimed authorities were passing off shingles cases as monkeypox cases, and that’s what they did with the flu and COVID-19.
But that hasn’t happened with the flu and COVID-19. Flu cases fell during the pandemic, but not because cases were falsely passed off as COVID-19. Mitigation measures during the pandemic and a record number of flu vaccines distributed explain the decline, the CDC said.
Shingles and monkeybox both have blistering rashes, but they look different. Testing for each virus is different, with monkeypox testing being a two-part process that requires confirmation from the CDC, which shingles testing does not.
We consider this claim false.