Lynchburg’s public health director Thursday sought to dispel mounting fear the coronavirus pandemic had reached the Hill City, telling the public in a news conference that media reports this week were “based on erroneous information.”
“As it stands, we do not have any confirmed cases here,” said Dr. Kerry Gateley, the director of the Central Virginia Health District, which encompasses Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.
Gateley’s unconventional announcement came one day after a handful of television and radio news outlets in the Lynchburg region circulated reports not confirmed by the health department an employee at a local J. Crew distribution center had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The media reports were based on a company bulletin sent early Wednesday morning in which employees were wrongly notified a distribution center worker had received a “preliminary positive” result and the more than 400,000-square-foot warehouse would close temporarily for a deep cleaning.
The media reports puzzled local health officials, Gateley said, and helped fuel anxiety among residents concerned about the growing health threat.
As of Thursday afternoon’s press conference, no commercial or public testing labs have recorded any preliminary positive COVID-19 results for patients in Lynchburg or in the neighboring counties, according to Gateley.
Private health care providers are mandated by law to report positive test results to the Virginia Department of Health. Even if a test was conducted in a different region or state, the local health district where the patient lives and works would still be notified.
After struggling to get in touch with J. Crew leadership for hours, health officials finally spoke with company representatives Wednesday night. According to Gateley, the company’s incorrect message to staff was the result of a series of “mistakes and misunderstandings.”
The inaccurate media reports prompted alarmed residents to flood health officials and hospital operators with dozens of calls Wednesday and Thursday.
Gateley said the confusion helped tie up employees working to prepare for the anticipated spread of the disease. He noted any announcements regarding a local coronavirus case would come directly from health officials.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for anybody — whether it’s the media or businesses or politicians — to get out in front of the health department,” Gateley said.
WSET, a local ABC affiliate owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, was among the first outlets to share the unconfirmed report. Officials at the station declined to comment on the decision Thursday.
Marcus Messner, the interim director of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at Virginia Commonwealth University, said news outlets have a responsibility to confirm facts with the proper authorities before reporting on the coronavirus outbreak.
“While the anxiety level is really high during this crisis, the same standards should apply,” he said. “Journalists should be the calm in the storm and the information sources that people can rely on.”
In a statement to employees Thursday, J. Crew officials said the distribution center was closed on Wednesday out of an abundance of caution and that it had since reopened.
“We learned today that the Virginia Department of Health’s latest information is that there has not yet been a confirmed positive case in the Lynchburg area,” J. Crew officials wrote in part. “We will continue to be vigilant and supportive of our associates.”
The News & Advance was not invited to participate in the health department’s press conference Thursday. When asked why the newspaper was excluded, Gateley said the conference was hastily arranged with various television stations which had initially scheduled one-on-one interviews. The News & Advance did not publish reports on the unconfirmed COVID-19 case.
At the same time health officials attempted to ease concerns at the press conference, they warned residents to prepare for local COVID-19 cases in the near future. As of Thursday evening, there are more than 90 presumptive and confirmed cases in Virginia, including three in Charlottesville and one in the Roanoke region.
“Positive reports will be reported,” Haley Evans, an epidemiologist for the local health district, said. “We are not keeping results a secret. We don’t have any positive results from this area yet, although we do expect we will see them.”
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.