In this new, hopefully short-lived, era of “social distancing,” the internet has proven to be an invaluable tool for people around the world. Everyone from county officials to financial institutions to public utilities to businesses and factories have been able to use social media networks to dispense information quickly.
Americans are anxious for information. That’s always true, to varying degrees, but it’s especially true when we’re more or less shut-in, some of the social vices we’re quick to fall back on wrested from our control. Locally, the Independent Herald’s website has set all-time traffic records since the coronavirus outbreak began — though it’s really unfair to call it an outbreak on the local level; there has been only one case recorded in Scott County. Thousands of people have followed daily updates across the IH’s various online platforms, including some readers who fall into the high-risk categories for serious illness related to coronavirus and cannot venture out to purchase a newspaper.
But the IH’s platforms are far from the only place to get information. Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals, usually relatively inactive on social media, has been using Facebook to share updates with residents of the county. Law enforcement, the schools, and just about everyone else with a message that needs to be shared has used social media in some capacity to get that message across.
Information flows quickly in the digital era, and that’s never been more true than with the coronavirus outbreak. Especially in the first few days after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic, information changed hourly. In the world of print, it was hard to keep up. Once the March 19 edition of the IH went into production, the front page changed no less than a dozen times before it finally went to print — and, even then, some information became out-dated in the few hours it took for the paper to be electronically delivered to the press in Knoxville and then trucked back to readers in Scott County. Online, though, updates are instantaneous. And, sometimes, incorrect.
As is almost always the case in the digital era, misinformation has flourished online as the coronavirus crisis has deepened. It is almost always unintentional — someone hears a rumor, mistakenly believes it to be true, shares it via their circle of friends, who in turn share it with their friends, and it doesn’t take long for the rumor to take hold.
With that in mind, here are a few rumors that have taken root in recent days that aren’t true:
Are non-essential businesses closed in Tennessee? As of Tuesday morning, non-essential businesses have not been closed. Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order on Sunday, ordering restaurants to close except for delivery, carry-out or drive-thru, along with gyms and related businesses, and any social gatherings of more than 10 people, which would include churches. However, places of work do not fall into the category of social gatherings. A separate order from the governor on Monday put a halt to non-essential dental procedures and many medical procedures and surgeries.
Metro Nashville has ordered all non-essential businesses to close, as has Knox County, Chattanooga and Memphis. Sumner County — which borders Davidson County and has seen a surprising rise in coronavirus cases — has also ordered non-essential businesses to close.
Could Lee eventually order non-essential businesses to close? Yes. A growing number of doctors and county leaders are calling on him to do just that. And he has said “nothing is off the table.” But he’s also said, “It’s about the right time for the right decision in the right place … every city is different, every county is different, every state is different. There’s no one-size-fits-all. There’s no guaranteed solution.” That indicates Lee’s desire to leave non-essential business closures up to local leaders.
A source in Nashville told the IH on Monday that an order for non-essential businesses to close was not imminent.
“The situation is fluid, and the governor is getting tremendous pressure from doctors and county mayors in Middle Tennessee to implement further restrictions,” the source said.
Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals also addressed the issue of forcing businesses to close:
“When this pandemic made its way to Scott County, many citizens became upset that I didn’t force businesses to close to prevent the spread,” the mayor said Saturday. However, he added, “A county mayor does not have that power. I only have the power of persuasion through recommendations. The authority of the Board of Health is quite different in the four metropolitan areas of Tennessee versus the rural areas like Scott County. That more powerful metro authority is how Nashville and Knoxville have achieved the closures as they have.”
Does Tennessee have a shelter-in-place policy? On Monday, a rumor circulated that a “shelter-in-place” policy was going to be implemented in Tennessee by nightfall, and that residents would need a signed statement by their employer in order to leave their home for work. Gov. Lee has not ordered a shelter-in-place policy, which essentially means that residents can leave their homes only if it’s necessary. Several other states have implemented such policies. Even in those states, residents are generally allowed to leave their home for medical appointments, to buy groceries, to work, to walk their dog, or to go for a run.
In Tennessee, Davidson County (Nashville), Knox County (Knoxville) and even Tullahoma have implemented shelter-in-place policies, though they’re being labeled “safer-at-home” policies in the Volunteer State. In the case of Tullahoma’s order, a 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was put into place, and all non-essential businesses were ordered to close. However, anywhere that such policies are implemented, there are long lists of essential businesses — including certain retail, some manufacturing, news media, and the list goes on. In Tullahoma, even landscaping companies were deemed essential.
Like the closure of non-essential businesses as a stand-alone policy, the governor is being pressured to implement a statewide shelter-in-place policy. So far, there has been no indication that he’s going to issue an order for such a policy.
Has the National Guard been deployed? This is perhaps the most favorite among doomsday hopefuls: martial law will be declared and the National Guard will be deployed. In fact, shelter-in-place rumors are usually accompanied by rumors that the National Guard will be used to enforce curfews and keep residents inside their home.
The answer is, simply, no.
The National Guard is being used in the hardest-hit states. President Donald Trump has activated 8,000 National Guard troops in California, New York and Washington State. It’s a federal provision called “Title 32” — the governors of those states control the troops, but the federal government pays for them.
However, the National Guard’s purpose in those states isn’t to enforce laws; just to help — as the guard often does in the aftermath of natural disasters. “There is just no truth to this rumor that people are considering, that governors are planning, that anybody is conspiring to use the National Guard to do some sort of a military action to enforce shelter-in-place and quarantine,” Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel told reporters Sunday night. “I don’t know how to say that any more clearly than that.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has even set up a “Coronavirus Rumor Control” website to combat, among other things, rumors about the National Guard being deployed.
On Saturday, a rumor quickly took hold that the National Guard was being used to shut down the TN-KY border along Interstate 75 at Jellico, in northern Campbell County. Someone posted on Facebook that the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the National Guard were positioned at the border, and it spread from there.
“It turned out that it was THP and TDOT there for a lane closure,” said Tibbals, who phoned Campbell County Mayor E.L. Morton after learning of the rumor. “It just went crazy because someone posted it on Facebook. The government isn’t going to shut down the state line like that. You can’t close interstate commerce routes.”
With all that said, it is possible that Tennesseans will see the National Guard show up at their local health department. Tibbals said Monday that he and other county mayors had gotten an email from the state advising them that the National Guard would be present at select health department facilities across the state.
However, it’s not going to be armed troops rolling up in tanks and Humvees. The personnel are likely to be uniformed — that’s protocol — but they’re medics who are going to be there to assist health department personnel in an effort to speed up the testing process.
“They are looking at sending a couple of medics to each of the rural health departments needing assistance so they can increase their testing times,” DeKalb County (Smithville, Tenn.) EMA Director Charlie Parker told a Middle Tennessee radio station on Tuesday.
Is coronavirus only making the elderly seriously sick? Most of the rumors that flare up on social media are the dramatic kind, the ones that overstate the crisis. But, sometimes, misinformation can take hold because people want to calm the storm. One popular claim, that hasn’t dissipated as the coronavirus spread across the U.S. has played out, is that it’s “just the elderly” who are getting sick, and for everyone else, coronavirus is little more than “a case of the sniffles.”
But that’s not necessarily true, federal health officials are saying. Anyone can catch coronavirus; in Tennessee, 70 percent of everyone who has been infected is under the age of 50, while only 12 percent are over the age of 70 — the most at-risk age group. In Scott County, the only confirmed case involved a teenager. It is true that the coronavirus usually causes mild symptoms — in every age demographic, to be statistically accurate, but especially in the young — but it’s not true that illness cannot be severe even in those who don’t fall into the risk groups of being old or having chronic, pre-existing medical conditions.
In Atlanta, a 12-year-old girl who was otherwise healthy is on a ventilator after becoming seriously ill. That isn’t an isolated case. A 34-year-old cancer survivor died last week.
While 80 percent of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. — four out of every five — are in people 65 and over, with most of those coming in people over 85, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recently released new information showing that 40 percent of those hospitalized by the virus were in the 20 to 54 age demographic. Additionally, 12 percent of ICU admissions were people in the 20 to 44 age demographic.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday morning that all age groups can be at risk, especially those with underlying health conditions.
“All bets are off no matter how young you are if you have an underlying serious medical condition. You’re going to potentially get into trouble,” Fauci said.