FACT FOCUS: Posts mislead on nonprofit vaccine rules
Critics of vaccine requirements are misrepresenting policy changes taken by Make-A-Wish Foundation and a Ronald McDonald House Charities facility to protect the children and families they serve from coronavirus.
Both nonprofits have enforced COVID-19 vaccine rules in recent months, upsetting some families. Thousands of social media users are distorting those actions, falsely suggesting the Make-A-Wish Foundation refused to grant a wish to an unvaccinated cancer patient and that the Ronald McDonald House kicked unvaccinated families out of their facility and left them to fend for themselves.
Claims about sick children are particularly likely to capture attention and spread widely on social media, even if they aren’t true, because they are emotional and contain a moral message, according to Lisa Fazio, a Vanderbilt University psychology professor who studies how false claims spread.
Meanwhile, the nonprofits say their policies are necessary to protect the families they serve from the risk of getting the coronavirus, which could jeopardize health outcomes for kids with critical illness.
Here’s a look at two of the claims that have spread widely.
CLAIM: A Ronald McDonald House Charities facility in Vancouver, Canada, is evicting unvaccinated children and families.
THE FACTS: The facility, which provides housing for families with sick children who are getting medical care, says it’s working with unvaccinated families to find alternative housing as it implements a policy this month requiring vaccines for residents, workers and visitors. The policy allows medical and other case-by-case exemptions.
The claim took off online this week after an unvaccinated resident at the facility, Ronald McDonald House BC & Yukon, posted a video on his Facebook page on Jan. 11 deriding his family’s alleged impending eviction.
In the video, the man, who uses the name Austin Furgason on Facebook, holds up a piece of paper to the camera and says, “Anybody older than 5 who is not vaccinated is getting evicted from Ronald McDonald House.” Furgason, who says in the video that he has a 4-year-old son with leukemia, goes on to say to an on-site staffer, “Because we don’t have the vaccine, you’re going to throw us out in the snow.”
“How absolutely wicked and vile,” Furgason wrote in his Facebook post sharing the video.
Social media users shared Furgason’s video widely, denounced the facility, and spread a #BoycottMcdonalds hashtag on Twitter. The claim also spread to blogs, where one headline read, “Ronald McDonald House to evict families with young children who are unvaccinated.”
But many of the posts omitted the fact that the Ronald McDonald House intends to help unvaccinated residents find alternative housing, according to Shannon Kidd, a spokesperson for the facility. Additionally, since Furgason’s child is under 5, he is not subject to the vaccine mandate.
“Ronald McDonald House will support any family in need of alternate accommodation if needed after the grace period,” Kidd wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “No family will ever be evicted from our House.”
Under the new policy, all residents 5 and older will need to get at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 31. Requests for exemption will be reviewed and approved on a case-by-case basis, while exemptions will be automatically approved for children whose physicians do not advise vaccination because of treatment.
Potential alternative housing placements for unvaccinated residents include hotel rooms and facilities similar to the Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver.
When asked if the Ronald McDonald House would be paying for the cost of hotel rooms, Kidd wrote that the facility will “determine the best alternate accommodation for those families on a case-by-case basis and ensure they would not suffer financial hardship as a result.”
Kidd added that Furgason’s family will be “moving to another facility over the coming days.” She also noted that a specific accommodation was “not requested” by the family prior to Furgason posting his video.
Furgason did not respond to the AP’s request for comment.
CLAIM: The Make-A-Wish Foundation denied a 4-year-old cancer patient a wish because he was unvaccinated.
THE FACTS: The child from Staten Island, New York, was still offered a wish — just not one involving air travel or large crowds.
His story received massive attention across conservative websites and social media platforms after his mother, Gabriella DiMaggio, posted on Facebook in December that Make-A-Wish would not honor her son’s wish to go to Mickey Mouse’s house at Disney World.
She described in her post that her son, who had been undergoing treatment for neuroblastoma, was deemed ineligible for the trip because he was unvaccinated, even though he was not yet able to get a COVID-19 vaccine as a 4 year old. In a later post, she clarified that Make-A-Wish did not entirely deny the child a wish, but instead asked him to “reimagine” it, because the foundation’s vaccine policy does not currently allow unvaccinated participants to travel by air or attend large gatherings.
After being offered alternatives such as a swing set or a virtual meeting with a celebrity, DiMaggio declined these options, she told the AP in a Facebook message.
While some news stories accurately explained that the child’s specific request to go to Disney World could not be met because of Make-A-Wish’s phased pandemic reemergence plan, other stories and posts omitted that key information. Blog articles stirred anger with inflammatory headlines like “Make-a-Wish Denies Wish to 4-Year-Old Cancer Patient Over Vaccination Status.”
During the pandemic, Make-A-Wish paused granting wishes involving air travel or large gatherings. In June 2021, it announced that as part of a phased reemergence plan, it would begin granting these wishes again in September for families who had been vaccinated.
Children who have received “an end-of-life prognosis” are exempt from the rule, Make-A-Wish told the AP in an emailed statement.
“We have an advisory council made up of 19 medical professionals nationwide that we have consulted with throughout the pandemic to ensure that we are keeping wish kids’ safety at the center of any decision we make,” the statement read. “The council unanimously recommended that given the risks of Covid for children with critical illnesses, who are some of the most vulnerable among us, we should have a vaccination policy in place that mitigates the risks for wishes that involve air travel and large gatherings.”
Make-A-Wish in June 2021 clarified its vaccine policy after false claims that it wouldn’t grant wishes to unvaccinated children circulated widely online.
According to the policy on its website, the foundation “has not, does not and will not deny wishes to children who are not vaccinated.”
Make-A-Wish said 88% of the kids it serves are now eligible for the vaccine, and for those who aren’t, there are many other wish ideas that can be granted safely.
A spokesperson for the foundation said the policy is reviewed consistently and Make-A-Wish is “eager to lift these precautions as soon as it is safe to do so.”
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.
By ALI SWENSON and JOSH KELETY