A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document reviews the challenges of using a “shielding” approach to protect high-risk people living in places such as refugee camps from COVID-19. But conservative commentator Candace Owens misinterpreted it to mean the agency was proposing putting high-risk Americans into camps, falsely likening it to “1930’s Germany.”
Last year, the CDC posted a document on its website reviewing the so-called shielding approach for limiting the number of severe COVID-19 cases in “humanitarian settings,” such as camps for displaced people.
In such a strategy, individuals at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19, such as those with underlying medical conditions, would be separated from the general population of the camp in an effort to protect them from becoming infected with the novel coronavirus.
The CDC document, which is titled “Interim Operational Considerations for Implementing the Shielding Approach to Prevent COVID-19 Infections in Humanitarian Settings,” does not endorse the strategy, but instead explains the rationale and raises several potential concerns with it.
But conservatives, including the popular commentator Candace Owens, have misconstrued the text of the document to falsely claim that the agency is considering putting high-risk Americans into camps.
“Holy shit. The CDC actually put together a document to discuss putting high risk people into camps to ‘shield’ low risk people from them,” she wrote in an Aug. 9 tweet, linking to the CDC’s page.
“No— this is not a joke, and yes, every single person who has made a reference to 1930’s Germany is vindicated,” Owens added.
“I hope everyone realizes the CDC has discussed putting people in camps to separate them from the low risk population. Hello Nazi Germany!” one repost on Facebook reads. “It’s like they aren’t even trying to hide this stuff anymore.”
Other groups have also spread the false claim, including the conservative news outlet the Epoch Times.
“The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention detailed in a July 26 report the options for creating camps to isolate Americans amid the COVID-19 outbreak,” the media group incorrectly stated in an Instagram post promoting its Aug. 10 live Q&A. That post is accompanied by a photo of two health care workers wearing masks and American flag head coverings, emblazoned with the question, “CDC Virus Camps?”
There in fact are no “CDC Virus Camps,” nor did the agency ever propose such a thing. The document, moreover, is from July 26 of last year, during the Trump administration.
Jade Fulce, a CDC public affairs specialist, told us the agency document was specific to “humanitarian settings” and was created in response to a March 2020 paper from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which advised using the shielding approach “in camps and camp-like settings for refugees and internally displaced persons” to reduce the burden of COVID-19.
That paper, which notes that “forcibly displaced populations … may be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 epidemics due to overcrowding, poor access to safe water and sanitation and limited access to health services,” describes creating temporary “green zones” for vulnerable individuals to “limit, if not completely eliminate, contacts that may result in transmission … between high-risk and low-risk people.”
The CDC document explains that its purpose is to “highlight potential implementation challenges of the shielding approach from CDC’s perspective and guide thinking around implementation in the absence of empirical data,” since the ideas in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine paper have not been tested.
“In theory, shielding may serve its objective to protect high-risk populations from disease and death,” the CDC document reads. “However, implementation of the approach necessitates strict adherence to protocol. Inadvertent introduction of the virus into a green zone may result in rapid transmission among the most vulnerable populations the approach is trying to protect.”
Far from endorsing the strategy, the agency details multiple logistical and ethical problems with shielding, as proposed in the U.K. paper. The paper, for example, suggests that high-risk people clean their own spaces, but the CDC notes that could be challenging if those individuals have disabilities or can’t move around easily. Similarly, on the recommendation that each green zone have a dedicated bathroom for high-risk people, the agency notes that the paper also advises not initiating any new construction, but that there are unlikely to be enough preexisting facilities.
The CDC also raises the concern that more people than expected in displacement camps might be considered higher risk, further complicating the execution of the approach; that camps might need to continue the strategy for a prolonged time; and that shielding might have negative psychological impacts that could worsen mental health, among others.
Fulce explained that the CDC weighed in on the shielding strategy because the agency sees it as part of its job for its global response to the pandemic. “One way in which we support global partners is through interpretation and analysis of new data and science related to COVID-19,” she said.
“CDC has identified several limitations on the use and impact of shielding on the overall well-being and mental health of communities asked to adopt it. Shielding may involve ethical issues that could be difficult to address,” Fulce added. “CDC advises careful review of these limitations and ethical issues before considering the use of shielding to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This review can help avoid negative consequences that could occur with the use of shielding.”
Claims suggesting that the CDC is planning to isolate high-risk Americans are therefore entirely bogus. Not only does the document only apply to displaced people, but the agency is lukewarm on the strategy at best, primarily highlighting the challenges and risks of the shielding approach for places that are deciding whether to adopt it.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.
Chase, Randall. “Judge tosses suit by Candace Owens over Facebook fact checks.” AP. 22 Jul 2021.
Favas, Caroline. “Guidance for the prevention of COVID-19 infections among high-risk individuals in camps and camp-like settings.” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. 31 Mar 2020.
Fulce, Jade. CDC, public affairs specialist. Email to FactCheck.org. 12 Aug 2021.