Coronavirus rumors and chaos in Alabama point to big problems as U.S. seeks to contain virus
Todd C. Frankel, The Washington Post Published 12:35 pm EST, Sunday, March 1, 2020
ANNISTON, Ala. – Not long before local leaders decided, in the words of one of them, that federal health officials “didn’t know what they were doing” with their plan to quarantine novel coronavirus patients in town, a doctor here set out in a biohazard suit to stage a one-man protest along the highway with a sign. “The virus has arrived. Are you ready?” it asked.
The town didn’t think it was. Residents already were unnerved by strange stories posted on Facebook and shared via text messages about helicopters secretly flying in sick patients, that the virus was grown in a Chinese lab, that someone – either the media or the government – was lying to them about what was really going on.
The quarantine plan hastily hatched by the federal Department of Health and Human Services was soon scrapped by President Donald Trump, who faced intense pushback from Alabama’s congressional delegation, led by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers. Americans evacuated after falling ill aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan would not be coming to Anniston, a town of 22,000 people in north-central Alabama, after all. They would remain in the same Texas and California sites where they were taken after leaving the cruise ship.
What happened here over the past week illustrates how poor planning by federal health officials and a rumor mill fueled by social media, polarized politics and a lack of clear communication can undermine public confidence in the response to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease named covid-19. The rapidly spreading virus has rattled economies worldwide in recent weeks and caused the deaths of more than 2,900 people, mostly in China.
The panic and problems that burned through Anniston also provided a preview of what could unfold in other communities, as the spread of the virus is considered by health experts to be inevitable.
“Their little plan sketched out in D.C. was not thought out,” said Michael Barton, director of the emergency management agency in Calhoun County, where Anniston is located.
As local officials learned more, Barton added, “We knew then -”
“We were in trouble,” said Tim Hodges, chairman of the county commission.