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Misleading videos of 'empty' hospitals being shared on social media are putting extra strain on health service, say hospitals

Footage shared online of hospitals that appear “empty” have falsely claimed that hospitals are lying about being under pressure.

Ambulances outside Antrim Area Hospital
Ambulances outside Antrim Area Hospital
Image: PA

STAFF AT A number of hospitals around the country have criticised videos on anti-Covid 19 social media pages which suggest that hospitals are secretly ‘empty’, describing them as wrong and misleading. 

The videos gained traction at the start of 2021 during the current lockdown when hospitalisations of Covid-19 patients were at their highest, with a video of St James’ Hospital viewed 26,000 times on Facebook.

Captions attached to the videos, and speakers recording the videos, use the footage to claim that hospitals are lying about the current pressures they are facing. 

The videos falsely claim that hospitals are “empty”, that healthcare staff are lying about the number of cases, that the pressure staff say they’re under is a hoax or scam, and that they have “easy” workdays because there are no patients to treat.

Hospitals have confirmed that the strain they are currently under is real and that videos shared to social media are misleading.

Spokespeople for a number of hospitals all said that there can be a number of reasons why they can seem quiet, including the restrictions on visitors which have lowered the number of people walking around hospitals; fewer outpatient or elective appointments than usual; and the time of day – these videos are typically taken in the evening or at night.

Additionally, hospitals have pointed out that they treat patients in clinical areas and wards, not on public corridors, which is more important than ever right now because of social distancing requirements.

Using the social media search engine tool CrowdTangle, TheJournal.ie found that the first such videos shared on Facebook started in other countries, including Canada and the UK, in mid and late December.

In Northern Ireland, footage was shared from Antrim Area Hospital and used to wrongly claim that the hospital was empty and lying about being under strain.

After the footage shared in the North in mid-December, similar videos have been taken in hospitals here, including in St. James’ Hospital in Dublin and University Hospital Limerick.

In each case, the videos make false assertions and are not representative of the hospital’s situation – but despite being untrue, they gained traction on social media and have amassed thousands of views.

Hospitals are discomforted by the videos, which have been recorded during a period of visitor restrictions that are in place to protect staff and patients from the spread of infection.

Additionally, videos have been taken without the consent of staff who have been captured in them.

Antrim Area Hospital PA Ambulances outside Antrim Area Hospital Source: PA

The Northern Health and Care Social Trust, which manages the Antrim Area Hospital, said that claims the hospital was lying were “ridiculous”.

The trust issued a statement outlining that reports about pressure the Antrim Area hospital was under were entirely real.

“The Trust is aware of footage circulating where someone has filmed empty corridors and waiting rooms in Antrim Area Hospital in a bid to ‘prove’ that the hospital is not at capacity,” the Trust said.

“When we talk about being over capacity, we are talking hospital beds all being occupied. Those beds are in wards, not corridors.

“We are glad to note that corridor and communal areas are not crowded as we too need to adhere to social distancing regulations and do so with great difficulty.

“The pressures illustrated through the media this week were real and not staged in any way and it is ridiculous to suggest otherwise.”  

The video from Antrim came at a point when Northern Ireland’s health service was facing acute pressure.

Hospital occupancy in the North during the week the video was taken was over 100% for five of the seven days, which means that the total number of beds available was lower than the demand for them.

The same week, the Northern Irish Ambulance Service contacted the HSE to ask for assistance from the Irish National Ambulance Service due to”extraordinary circumstances”, with the two services working together in the North that weekend.

Limerick hospital University Hospital Limerick in October 2019 Source: Google Maps

Footage taken in University Hospital Limerick was shared to Facebook on 7 January with the caption: “University Hospital Limerick is empty, no doctors, no nurses, SCAM.”

In the video, the person recording the footage can be heard saying “there’s no one here”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, the hospital said it rejected the claims circulating on social media and that they were “utterly wrong”.

The hospital said it sees the claims and the “secretly filmed footage” as “extremely irresponsible in the light of the society-wide efforts to combat exponential community transmission of Covid-19″, and of the hospital’s efforts to manage the surge in admissions of patients with the disease.

“The allegations are dismissive of the suffering of patients in UHL with Covid-19, and deeply disrespectful to the efforts of staff who are caring for them,” it said.

The hospital said that the video appeared to have been filmed in the evening or nighttime of 6 or 7 January in the corridors around the Outpatients Department, Critical Care Block and Emergency Department entrance at UHL.

Footfall in the hospital has been “significantly” reduced during the pandemic for a number of reasons.

These include the scaling back of most elective activities and outpatient appointments to allow healthcare staff to focus on the sickest patients, both those with and without Covid-19, and restrictions on visitors.

We treat our patients in clinical areas and wards, not on public corridors.” 

“There are some exceptions to these restrictions, but the exceptions do not include facilitating persons who wish to wander the corridors of our hospitals and film without permission,” the hospital said.

“Videos such as these have been filmed without the knowledge or consent of hospital management, who work at all times to ensure the safe care of our patients, and to protect their right to privacy.”

As of recently, one in five beds in UHL was occupied by a patient suffering with infection from Covid-19, including acutely unwell patients requiring clinical care.

Between 4 January and 11 January, admissions related to Covid-19 more than tripled.

“The World Health Organisation has warned of the hazards of misinformation during a pandemic in which technology and social media have created an overabundance of information related to Covid-19, some of which may be false and potentially harmful,” the hospital said. 

“Sadly, as these misleading videos make all too clear, Ireland is not immune from this ‘infodemic’. We urge anyone seeking advice online to get the most reliable and up-to-date advice from the HSE and official sources.”

2.40358319 St James' Hospital in Dublin Source: PA

In footage of St James’ Hospital shared on social media, a person records staff walking in corridors and says that “they had a pretty easy day”.

“There is nobody in James’ except staff knocking around,” the recorder says.

The two minute video was posted to Facebook on 6 January with the caption “Ireland in Level 5 mockdown”.

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Speaking to TheJournal.ie, St James’ Hospital said it is “aware of the unsolicited video footage recently taken within the hospital”.

“All inpatients are located on ward areas and not on the outpatient corridors seen in the video,” the hospital said. 

Similar to other hospitals, footfall in St James’ has been lower during the pandemic for several reasons.

In order to reduce the spread of Covid-19, patient services within the hospital have been curtailed. The hospital is also currently closed to visitors, with visiting restrictions in place, except in exceptional clinical circumstances. This has led to a reduced footfall within the hospital.”  

“In order to protect the privacy of patients, visitors and staff, unsolicited recording of any kind is not permitted in the hospital,” the hospital said.

“Consent to film the staff members featured in the video was not sought and they were not aware at the time that they were being filmed.” 

Hospitalisations

Hospitals have been facing acute pressure due to the strain put on staff and services by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The number of Covid-19 patients on ICU wards and overall number of hospitalised patients with a confirmed case of Covid-19 rose dramatically at the end of December and start of January.

In 2020, the highest daily new admissions of patients with Covid-19 was 57 on 9 April during the first wave of the virus in Ireland.

In comparison, daily admissions were almost triple that in the middle of January, with a record high of 172 on 20 January 2021.

Confirmed cases in hospitals began to decline in the last week of January, but are still significantly higher than at any point last year.

As of 1 February, there are 1,529 people in hospitals with a confirmed case of Covid-19, with 206 in ICU. 

Confirmed cases hospital as of 1 February The number of hospitalised patients with Covid-19 as of 1 February Source: Covid-19 Hub

Around the time the misleading videos were posted, healthcare workers reported being burnt out and at a breaking point.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan has said that there has been a higher level of hospitalisations across all age groups during the third wave.

“The risk that this disease poses to the individual who is infected has not changed,” he said.

“What has changed is that we are experiencing a much greater level of community transmission and as a result we are seeing higher numbers of people with severe illness who require hospitalisation or admission to intensive care and higher numbers of mortality.”

Dr Holohan said that the January surge in cases placed “unprecedented strain on ICUs, hospitals and other frontline healthcare services”. 

Similarly, Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health Robin Swann warned that the health service was under “unparalleled pressures”.

Swann said that healthcare workers are “exhausted and traumatised”.

“The time lag between people getting Covid and needing hospital treatment means our hospitals are now dealing with the consequences of the spike in infections in previous weeks and sadly we are also seeing this bear out in the number of deaths reported,” Swann said.

“Every one of us can help carry the health service through this. That means staying at home and doing all those things that stop the virus spreading. Keep following the restrictions and the public health advice – our health workers are relying on you.”

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