A photo of a hospital’s alternative care site in Reno, Nevada is being misrepresented on social media to fuel the false narrative that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax, even as cases surge in the state.
Renown Regional Medical Center has been the primary target of renewed conspiracy theories online suggesting that hospitals are empty and the virus is not as dangerous as top medical officials say it is. The hospital opened an alternative care site with two floors of supplemental hospital beds inside a parking structure on Nov. 12 to accommodate an overflow in COVID-19 cases if needed.
Here's a look a closer look at the situation.
CLAIM: A photo showing a doctor standing in front of empty hospital beds at a Reno, Nevada, auxiliary care site for COVID-19 patients proves that the coronavirus pandemic is a hoax.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The photo was taken the day the alternative care site was opened, and patients had yet to arrive. Renown Regional Medical Center said the site, which is housed in a parking garage, has treated 198 coronavirus patients since it first opened.
THE FACTS: In recent weeks, social media posts have shared a variety of falsehoods about the hospital's parking garage site, with some posts saying that visitors went there and found no patients, which they then cited as evidence that the virus is a hoax.
President Donald Trump propelled the misinformation Tuesday, retweeting the photo of the doctor amid empty beds to his more than 80 million followers.
“Fake election results in Nevada, also!," he said of the tweet suggesting that the parking garage site and pandemic were both fake.
According to Renown hospital officials, the alternate care site in the parking structure currently has 42 patients and has served 198 patients since opening day in November. The site, which was set up for patients who do not require long-term care, can house more than 1,400 patients.
The Twitter account making the accusations about the Renown facility has repeatedly criticized the state's governor for his coronavirus restrictions. The account @Networkinvegas describes itself as an inside source of information on Las Vegas, including “everything you need to network, hook up, and have a good time in Las Vegas." The site could not be immediately reached for comment.
“Here is the fake Nevada parking garage hospital picture that our moron governor tweeted, proving it’s all a scam," the account tweeted, sharing a photo of Dr. Jacob Keeperman, who works for the medical center. “No patients, folded up beds, wrapped up equipment that’s never been used! They spent millions on this scam and never seen a single patient in this fake hospital!"
Keeperman, medical director for Renown's Transfer and Operations Center, shared the photo of himself inside the parking garage facility on Twitter with the hope of relaying the gravity of the situation at the hospital. But his tweet was quickly picked up and misrepresented online. Keeperman took the photo the day the care site had opened and before the first patient had arrived.
“It is really demoralizing to everybody who is out working so hard to have this politicized and polarized so much," he said. “I am holding patients' hands when they take their very last breath because their loved ones can't be with them."
The surge in cases has put a strain on medical professionals like Keeperman. Nevada’s hospital population has gradually increased during the autumn surge in the state. The Nevada Hospital Association reported that a record-high 1,589 patients were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. Because of competing demands, including the flu, 76% of the state’s nearly 6,900 staffed hospital beds are occupied.
In northern Nevada, hospitals have experienced more than a 250% increase in confirmed hospitalized cases in the past month, the association reported. In Washoe County, where Renown is located, supplemental beds have allowed hospitals to remain at 85% capacity.
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak fired back at the president, saying that the state has had to deal with the Trump's nonstop attempts to politicize the virus that has killed more than 270,000 Americans.
Early on in the pandemic, photos of empty hospital waiting rooms spread online to falsely suggest that coronavirus was a hoax. Hospital officials responded by explaining that lack of people in the public areas was evidence of new procedures meant to protect patients and staff by limiting visitors and minimizing shared waiting spaces, not because the pandemic wasn't real.
Sam Metz contributed to this report. Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.