Just days before school started in St. Peter, school district Superintendent Bill Gronseth found himself in an unprecedented situation — sending out a recorded message to every parent in the district, reassuring them their children wouldn’t be taken by the state if they tested positive for COVID-19.

“This is a rumor, and is not true,” said Gronseth in his message. “While we are required to report positive cases to the Department of Health, the purpose is to be able to track who has been exposed to COVID-19.”

Gronseth said rumors that children who have the coronavirus will be taken from their parents started percolating in some of the area’s Somali and Latinx communities.

“We wanted to help them feel more comfortable about coming to school, rather than losing sleep over a rumor,” said Gronseth. “None of us have been through a pandemic before. We all have concerns and questions. This is the conversation that everyone is having: What does all this mean for us?”

This sort of disinformation, which is playing out largely on social media, has become a major obstacle in the state’s efforts to quell the coronavirus pandemic, especially as schools reopen and the risk of transmission among teachers and students rise.

Getting control of the pandemic requires that people be unified in their trust of medical and public health advice, said state infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann.

“The challenge is unlike any other situation we’ve ever dealt with, in that this has become very divisive and very politicized,” she said. “I never dreamed that a public health crisis would be able to turn out this way. This was not something we envisioned.”

As kids head back to school, here are the facts around three widely circulating coronavirus myths.

1) If your child tests positive for the coronavirus, they won’t be taken by child protective services.

Ehresmann said it’s difficult to say how this falsehood started circulating. But she reiterated that children who have COVID-19 won’t be taken from their parents.

“I can only imagine that this is part of the rhetoric that is trying to squelch what’s really happening with COVID and confuse people as to what’s really going on in public health,” she said.

Schools will be reporting positive cases to the state — but that information will be used to do case investigation and contact tracing. Those steps are necessary to figure out who a COVID-19 patient has come in contact with.

The state is also encouraging parents to devise a plan if they become too sick with coronavirus to take care of their children and need to rely on family, friends or neighbors to watch their children until they recover.

2) Getting your child tested for the coronavirus doesn’t mean schools will close.

Just days before schools opened in the Mankato area, the state launched a testing clinic aimed largely at college students returning to campus.

Initially, some local officials were worried a surge in new cases would make it difficult to keep schools open for in-person learning. That’s partly because the prevalence of the virus in a given county is one metric a school district takes into account when deciding on its learning model.

Republican Rep. Jeremy Munson of nearby Lake Crystal was among those pushing back on the plan. In an interview, Munson said he was concerned that new cases would lead to a rise in cases and shut down schools. On Facebook, he encouraged his constituents to push back, too.

“Testing is fine, but when results are tied to shutting down our schools, it has major impacts for our community and our economy. Local government should have a voice,” he wrote.

Munson’s post — and other Facebook pages that question the state’s approach to the pandemic — have become fertile ground for comments that spread testing disinformation, from conspiracies that more testing artificially drives up new case numbers to skepticism that people without symptoms can spread the virus.

Some parents say they won’t get their kids tested for fear it will shut down schools.

“Please people stop going to get tested unless you really need to! Our kids need to be in school!!!!!,” wrote one parent on Munson’s post.

Ehresmann said they’re hearing parents all over the state raising this concern. That’s troublesome to public health experts, she said, because kids shouldn’t go to school if they are the least bit sick.

But she said that the decision to close schools is far more complicated than a few cases in a single institution. For instance, if most new cases in a county are consolidated in a long-term care facility, that may drive county numbers up. But “just because the numbers go up in a community, we’re not going to say ‘everyone go home.’”

And she added that not getting kids who are sick tested and sending them to school carries much bigger risks.

“The goal isn’t to suppress reality so that students can attend school and the numbers look better,” she said. “If you don’t get tested, and your case isn’t identified, you’ll go on to spread it and there will be more disease. And ultimately, we will have to shut schools down because it will be at a point where we can’t manage the outbreak.”

3) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention didn’t lower the number of people who have died from COVID-19.

Just days before schools were set to reopen nationally, a new myth about COVID-19 started circulating online: that the CDC had slashed the number of people who had died from the virus, a claim that stokes misgivings about how serious the virus is, especially among children.

The falsehood was perpetuated by QAnon, the same group behind another conspiracy theory that President Donald Trump is poised to take down a high-profile human trafficking ring.

But the claim that the CDC changed the coronavirus death toll is riddled with disinformation and appears to stem from confusion over death certificates for people who have died of COVID-19.

Most people who died of coronavirus — about 94 percent — had another condition that heightened their risk, while the remaining deaths list COVID-19 as the only cause of death. But those people with preexisting conditions still died of the coronavirus.

© 2020 Minnesota Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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