Fact check: False claim that oldest working nurse in US endorsed humidifier for COVID-19 prevention

·7 min read

The claim: A 93-year-old nurse recommends humidifier to prevent COVID-19

As the U.S. approaches another winter season amidst a global pandemic, health experts warn a COVID-19 wave – potentially milder than the wave last winter – may be in the cards.

To prepare for the viral onslaught, one nonagenarian nurse is supposedly recommending American adults, aged 60 and up, invest in one simple home appliance: a humidifier.

"93-yr-old nurse begs seniors to set their home to this temperature to end the pandemic," reads the opening caption of a Sept. 19 Facebook video advertisement.

The nurse, referred to as "Janis", claims that for older adults, humidity levels are the key to "whether you live or die this winter (2020)," a warning she apparently expressed during "an emergency TV interview" with the video showing footage of her on "The Dr. Oz Show."

The video has no spoken dialogue but asserts over the course of nine minutes that Janis uncovered the connection between COVID-19 and humidifiers after the death of her own husband from the virus.

"I had a $300 humidifier in my room and he didn't," the ad quotes Janis as saying.

The video then credits the nurse for stopping an outbreak and saving "500 lives" in the hospital where she works, simply by using the humidifier advertised, called the Alpha Heater.

Similar video advertisements have also run on Facebook and received thousands of views, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool.

Humidity can have an impact on the spread of airborne viruses, like the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza, some studies have shown. And in the case of human coronaviruses responsible for the common cold, a humidifier may help ease a cough or a sore throat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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But Janis' testimonial for the Alpha Heater, or any humidifier for that matter, as a COVID-19 preventative measure, isn't real. The actual nurse featured in the video – Florence Rigney, the oldest working nurse in the US – made no such recommendation.

USA TODAY has reached out the Facebook users for comment.

Real nurse, fake testimonial

Rigney told USA TODAY she never endorsed the humidifier.

"I haven't endorsed or recommended any product," Rigney said from her home in Tacoma, Washington.

The video's footage uses clips from a 2015 YouTube video commemorating her 90th birthday and status as the oldest working nurse in the US, as well as a 2015 appearance on "The Dr. Oz Show" and a 2017 NBC Nightly News report.

There are other inaccuracies that demonstrate the Facebook video is fabricated.

In August 2020, NPR reported the nursing veteran of more than 70 years was barred from working during the pandemic out of concern for her safety. She officially retired from the MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, on July 16.

Rigney also never lost a husband to COVID-19. The former surgical nurse was married twice and lost both husbands to cancer, NBC Nightly News reported in 2017.

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And at the time of the video's posting to Facebook, Rigney was 96, not 93 years old.

Ad makes array of false claims

The ad is packed with extreme claims about the effectiveness of its product.

"(Alpha Heater harnesses) the power of Advanced Evaporation to virus-proof the home. New trials show it reduces the chances of catching it by 97!" reads the captions at the 4:26 mark.

References to unnamed Harvard scientists are also used to bolster the Alpha Heater's purported effectiveness against COVID-19. The video claims the product is able to do so by keeping "your home's humidity in the safe zone of 40-60%" and that it's the first "2-in-1 humidifying heater."

But a description of the Alpha Heater on the Walmart website and that of other third-party sellers makes no mention of a humidifier function. It's simply a space heater. USA TODAY could not find evidence of any experimental trials involving the space heater or its purported ability to reduce virus transmission.

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And the link in the ad leads to a page selling a different humidifier entirely.

Relative humidity range may protect against COVID-19 during winter

Though the endorsement and references to the heater in the ad are bogus, experts say humidity could play a role in preventing COVID-19.

Whenever a particle, like a virus, becomes airborne through an infected person's respiratory droplets, it typically encounters water vapor. The amount of this water vapor in the air – called relative humidity – may determine how long a viral particle stays afloat and travels, and how humidity itself affects our immune systems.

For instance, when thermostats are cranked up during the wintertime resulting in drier indoor air and lower humidity, viruses have a much easier time traveling person-to-person. They also meet less immune resistance since drier air dehydrates the mucus in our respiratory airways – which acts as a sort of pathogen flypaper – and other cells that defend against foreign invaders.

With humidity at 60% or higher, research shows coronaviruses die much faster. But high relative humidity also has drawbacks, such as mold growth and even aiding viral transmission in high-temperature climates.

Experts say an optimal indoor relative humidity range may be between 40% and 60%, which is also cited in the Facebook video.

"You could invest in a humidifier and set it to keep the humidity above 40% but below 60% in the wintertime," Linsey Marr, an aerosol researcher from Virginia Tech University who studies coronavirus transmission, told Business Insider. "The virus doesn't survive as well under these conditions, and your immune response works better than when the air is dry."

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However, there have been no controlled clinical trials looking at whether humidifiers can be used to reduce the risk and spread of coronavirus. Experts warn improper use of humidifiers can instead lead to mold growth and exacerbation of other respiratory conditions.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim a 93-year-old nurse recommends a humidifier to prevent COVID-19. This claim comes from an ad that stitched together unrelated footage of Rigney while falsely claiming her endorsement. She didn't endorse a humidifier for COVID-19. An array of other claims in the video are also false, including that Rigney's husband died of COVID-19, that the humidifier saved 500 lives and even that an Alpha Heater provides humidification.

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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Nurse didn't recommend humidifiers for preventing COVID-19

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