The story of a rumor is a cautionary tale for small towns in the time of the coronavirus

County Judge-Executive Kevin Henderson (The Record photo)

By Al Cross
Kentucky Health News

When a rumor becomes a news story, it often has a larger story to tell.

Such is the case in Grayson County, population 27,000, where local officials held a news conference to quash rumors on social media that an identified man who had tested positive for the coronavirus was not isolating himself at home, when in fact he was as soon as he got the test result.

The posts on April 11 and 12 “wrongly claimed the 52-year-old man — whose diagnosis was announced publicly the afternoon of April 11 — had been spotted throughout the county after his diagnosis,” reported Rebecca Morris, editor of The Record, one of the county’s two weekly newspapers.

County Judge-Executive Kevin Henderson said at an April 13 news conference, “The Leitchfield Police Department, the sheriff’s office and health department — just about every law enforcement agency in the county was busy squashing rumors that were brought to our attention.” he said.

Morris reported, “In all, officials received between 200 and 300 complaints over the weekend, he said. Henderson said county officials had been told the man had been spotted inside Walmart and other stores. Yet when law enforcement and County Attorney Jeremy Logsdon reviewed surveillance videos Saturday and Sunday of the complaints ‘all were false,’ Henderson said.”

“We have followed up on every call,” he said. “We’ve had people who said they saw the person out but it’s turned out to be a false report.” He added that several of the informants were asked to sign affidavits, but refused because their complaints turned out to be based on third-person information.

Not only did the man self-isolating since he got his results, he willingly gave his car keys to county officials, Henderson said. “That patient has cooperated with us 100 percent,” he said. “Quite honestly I feel sorry for him, because (he’s) received a lot of threats — just a lot of bad things happening to them right now. . . . If you want to do something for him, pray for him. Reach out to him and make sure he’s doing well. Some of your statements are pretty harsh (and) we’re better than that.”

Logsdon, the county attorney, said reports of people violating self-isolation and other rules are helpful — if they’re not false. “The audacity of some individuals in this time of crisis is mind-blowing,” he said, noting that making false reports or starting false rumors is a crime — especially when it’s done with the intent to bully or harass, The Record reported.

The episode may have been repeated in small towns across the country, and may be even likelier to be repeated as social-distancing rules are relaxed and health departments track down people who may have been exposed, and if they have, order them to self-isolate for 14 days.

Health Department Director Joshua Embry
(Photo by Matt Lasley, Grayson County News-Gazette)

Joshua Embry, the director of the Grayson County Health Department, “said there is no way to make people stay in their homes unless and until they test positive for the virus. Those who undergo covid-19 testing are encouraged to stay home until they get the results, but cannot legally be made to stay there in the absence of an executive order by Gov. Andy Beshear,” Morris wrote.

“If someone tests positive, they are given an isolation order, signed by Embry representing the state, saying he or she cannot leave home. If someone is accused of breaking a self-isolation order, the health department and law enforcement will investigate the truth of the allegations, Embry said. Officials simply can’t act on hearsay, he said.”

Referring to social-media criticism of local officials, Henderson said, “Please don’t beat up on our health department, please don’t beat up on our hospital — these folks are doing all they can possibly do. It’s not their fault. They are following the exact same guidelines that are sent down to us from Frankfort from the governor, and we’re trying to do the best we can.”

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