When the Internet Disseminates Infectious Diseases
Health officials in California are investigating whether a major Internet service provider inadvertently sent out a false health alert about the coronavirus.
The false alert, which was posted to the California Health Connect website on Friday, warned that the virus is “outrageously contagious” and warned that people who have symptoms are “at risk for serious complications” and could die.
The advisory was issued by a company called Acuity Network Inc. It said the virus has “the potential to spread to more people” and that people with weakened immune systems, as well as those who have never been exposed to the virus, may develop serious complications.
The alert also warned that some people may be unable to access the Acuity network, a subsidiary of Acuity Networks, and that there is a “significant risk” that the Acupuncture Network, a sister service, may be affected.
In response, California health officials said they are investigating.
The California Department of Public Health and Environment is investigating the false alert and is reviewing whether any health information was distributed to consumers, said spokeswoman Amy Mazzucato.
The company was founded by former Microsoft executive David A. Cimino, a former member of the California legislature who has since become a philanthropist.
“I think there is an assumption that it’s all benign,” said Mazzucca.
“We’ve seen that this is not always the case, and it’s not necessarily safe.”
But Ciminos son, Jonathan, who has a doctorate in public health, said he didn’t think that the false alarm was a deliberate effort to mislead consumers.
“The only way that this could happen was if they got a virus like this in their system,” he said.
“It’s a different story if it’s a new virus.”
Mazzucci said that Acuity is cooperating with the state’s investigation.
“In response to the false email, we’ve contacted Acuity to find out what they did to alert the public,” she said.
She declined to say whether the company was also aware of the false warning.
The email sent to consumers came on Thursday morning, about 12 hours after the Acute Vector Control and Integrated Public Health alert was sent out.
“Please note that the advisory is only for those who do not have the virus or are at low risk for infection,” the email said.
The warning did not tell consumers about the potential for serious health complications, such as pneumonia, or the possibility of death, although Mazziu said she could not say how many people may have received the alert.
It also did not provide a list of the Acutopian Network’s patients, although a spokesman said that a list is available.
“These are all people who were previously tested for the virus and were given the vaccination,” Ciminos son said.
After the false news was distributed, the Acity Network and Acuity reached out to Acuity’s customers, who were all instructed to contact Acuity directly.
Mazzuci said that “the majority of our customers who were notified of the email were all on the AcuCare network, which means they were on the list of customers that received the email.”
Mitzi Fischbach, a spokesperson for Acuity, said that the company did not know of any instances in which customers received the false information.
“However, we have reached out and are working with the local health department and the California Department on this issue,” she wrote in an email.
Acuity did not respond to requests for comment.
“At this point we are in the process of taking action on this and are looking into the situation,” Fischbeck said.
A spokesman for AcuNet said that it was unaware of the incident and had not seen the alert or any other information regarding it.
AcuNetwork said in a statement that it is “deeply concerned” by the false health information sent out to consumers.
A representative from the state health department told Reuters that the state is “looking into the matter.”
The California department of health said it is also reviewing the incident.
“Our primary concern is to make sure that all consumers are protected from the potentially dangerous spread of the virus,” the health department said in an emailed statement.
The public health department is asking Acuity for “to provide additional information on the circumstances surrounding the false advisory” and is “working with Acuity on the investigation.”