South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)
Governor’s spokesman Fred Piccolo Jr. pushes misinformation.
Since taking the top communications post for Florida’s governor in July, Fred Piccolo Jr. has used his personal Twitter account to spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
During the gravest health crisis the state has ever faced, the governor’s spokesman has questioned the efficacy of mask wearing and mask mandates at least 16 times, and has claimed that COVID-19 is less deadly than the flu at least three times.
Only about 3,100 people follow Piccolo on Twitter, and while he identifies himself on the account as the governor’s spokesman, he doesn’t appear to use it as an official messaging channel.
Piccolo, a public employee who government records say makes over $154,000 a year, offered “context” for his tweets. The South Florida Sun Sentinel asked independent experts to fact-check his tweets and the context he offered.
“It makes everyone’s jobs more difficult,’ Leslie M. Beitsch, chairman of behavioral sciences and social medicine at Florida State University College of Medicine, said after reviewing a half-dozen of Piccolo’s tweets. “But worse than that, it politicizes something that we are going to struggle to un-politicize. We need to get on the same page, all of us.”
“I guess from the perspective of someone working within public health, we would have really preferred to have a unified message from the top down, but instead we have a fight in messaging between political sources and the expert in thefield,” said Dr. Jill Roberts, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, after reviewing Piccolo’s tweets.
Since taking office in late July, Piccolo has tweeted about masks at least 16 times. In his tweets, he has shared questionable scientific studies about the effectiveness of masks, mischaracterized other scientific studies that show masks work to stop the spread of the virus, and consistently cast doubt on the efficacy of mask mandates as a policy tool.
He has only told Floridians to wear masks once on his Twitter feed. “Keep distancing, and wearing a mask when you can’t distance,” Piccolo said on Aug. 28.
“What he doesn’t understand is math,” Roberts said after reading a Nov 18. tweet in which Piccolo cited the results of a Danish study on masks published in early November. “This isn’t statistically significant, this Danish study didn’ t have enough power to make any conclusions whatsoever.”
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study on Nov. 27 showing that the virus spread more slowly in counties in Kansas that had mask ordinances than in counties without a mask requirement, Piccolo shared criticism of the study and its media coverage. “Must read. Major bias alert,” he said.
“This is an area where the science is becoming firmly established. Masks are effective. They protect other people, and the newest wrinkle is that the wearer is themselves protected,” said Beitsch.
“The Governor has always advocated wearing am ask, he just does not believe in mandates.” Piccolo said via email. “He believes they are both unenforceable and a dangerous precedent in the exercise of government power. At the same time he knows the data points to the reality that masks, while a tool in the toolbox, is not a panacea.”
“I would disagree with that,” Roberts said. “I think mandates are pretty powerful, and you can find data on the different counties when they put mask policies into place. Interms of being unenforceable, that’s not at all true. Thereality is that just simply supporting themeasure would havemade all the difference.”
‘Less deadly than the flu’
On three separate occasions, Piccolo has replied to people on Twitter with claims that COVID
19 is less deadly than the flu. “In any year we see 25 to 30 thousand people die because of influenza. How many times that are we at deaths for COVID right now?” Roberts said after reviewing Piccolo’s tweet. “We’re talking over
200k. How could you possibly try to sell that message?”
” I should’ve said kids rather than people,” Piccolo said in an email, before saying that the
COVID-19 and the flu are equally deadly in children under 5 years old. In other tweets, Piccolo has said that the COVID-19 is as deadly as the flu for those under 20, and also for those under 60.
All of those claims are inaccurate. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, COVID
19 killed about 100 children in the six months between March and September 2020. If the coronavirus continues its current trend, it will likely be slightly deadlier in children than the flu. Seasonal flu kills between 37 to 188 children a year. COVID-19 is already twice as deadly as the flu for those 20 to 49 years old, and five times as deadly for those 50 to 69 years old.
But experts say that even making the comparison by age group misses a crucial point: COVID-19 is many times more infectious than the flu.
“The issue here isn’t that kids are going to get sick and die,” said Beitsch, “which isn’t trivial — it’s that the kids transmit the disease to a bunch of other people who will get sick and die. The argument isn’t about flu vs COVID-19, it’s about transmission to people who will get sick.”