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Coronavirus deniers and hoaxers persist despite dire warnings, claiming ‘it’s mass hysteria’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/19/2020 Annie Gowen
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WELLSVILLE, Kan. —Here in northeast Kansas, in a small town set amid tidy farms and ranches, a Walmart worker named Brandon Crist was growing frustrated with the panic terrorizing the American public. He didn't understand the need for lockdowns, closing schools, limiting public gatherings and shuttering bars and restaurants. Altering almost all facets of life.

As he often does, Crist found a meme online that amplified his feelings and posted it to his Facebook page.

The post struck a chord with Crist’s friends here in Wellsville and beyond, many of whom are similarly frustrated with the pandemic-induced havoc in their daily lives. “Amen!” said one commenter. “I’m not changing anything I do. This is BS,” said another. A captain from a nearby fire department, Dustin Donovan, liked the message, then added a hoax meme of his own.

Even as President Trump has asked Americans to stay at home and has called on the nation to come together to fight the “invisible enemy” known as the illness covid-19, virus doubters like Donovan and Crist persist. They call reports of more than 200,000 sickened and 9,000 dead worldwide a sham. Republican legislators have continued to brag about their dinners out, some beaches remain packed with spring breakers and Hollywood starlet Vanessa Hudgens was forced to apologize for complaining on Instagram that “people are going to die, which is terrible, but like, inevitable?”

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a person sitting at a desk in front of a window: George McCrary, a business development officer for Kansas State Bank in Baldwin City, Kan., in his office this week. McCrary thinks much of the hysteria surrounding the coronavirus is overblown. © Christopher Smith/for The Washington Post George McCrary, a business development officer for Kansas State Bank in Baldwin City, Kan., in his office this week. McCrary thinks much of the hysteria surrounding the coronavirus is overblown. Virus deniers vow to continue on with their daily activities with little adjustment, convinced that the unprecedented reaction to the virus is nothing more than a plot by the media or liberals out to get Trump. The Pew Research Center released a poll Wednesday that found that 62 percent of adults say the media is exaggerating the risk of the virus. 

“I don’t feel the need to panic,” said Crist, 47. “If you don’t have a fever, you’re going to be fine. If you’ve got a fever, just get it checked. If you’re not sick, we don’t need everybody to stay at home.”

He was not worried about his family or his older relatives — “we’re all in good health” — and has gone ahead with plans to take a vacation in Arizona, where he plans to visit family and go out to restaurants as usual. The only bummer, he said, is that some parts of the Grand Canyon are closed.

a man standing in a parking lot: Ted and Nancy Buckley of Wellsville, Kan., walking through downtown. “We just need to trust the Lord to solve this,” Ted Buckley said. © Christopher Smith/for The Washington Post Ted and Nancy Buckley of Wellsville, Kan., walking through downtown. “We just need to trust the Lord to solve this,” Ted Buckley said.

Wellsville, pop. 1,809

Sunday unfolded with relative normalcy in tiny Wellsville, pop. 1,809, even as Franklin County officials declared a “state of local disaster” and shut the schools until March 30. Restaurants were open and the hardware parking lot was full. A nearby Dollar General had steady business, with one lone toilet paper roll left on the shelves.

Services went on as scheduled at Wellsville Baptist Church, though Pastor Bill Hendricks is trying to move the gatherings online. Hand sanitizer was placed on tables in the back, and residents jokingly tried to bump elbows rather than greet each other with hugs.

In his sermon, Hendricks said he had but one message for his flock this day — turn off the television.

“What’s being played over and over again,” he said, “is stoking fear.”

Some church members said their health is in God’s hands.

“We just need to trust the Lord to solve this,” said Ted Buckley, 73, a retired salesman. “I don’t know anybody personally with coronavirus. We shouldn’t be thrown into a state of panic because of what we hear, rather than what we see and witness.”

He was passing out little cards that read “C.O.V.I.D. 19” with the acronym “Christ over viruses & infectious disease” and a comforting Bible verse.

a close up of text on a white background: Ted and Nancy Buckley of Wellsville, Kan., believe people should not worry about the coronavirus. Ted Buckley made these cards to distribute, containing a Bible verse. © Christopher Smith/for The Washington Post Ted and Nancy Buckley of Wellsville, Kan., believe people should not worry about the coronavirus. Ted Buckley made these cards to distribute, containing a Bible verse.

Another churchgoer, Robert Cramer, 84, a retired chemistry teacher, said he would like to know how the virus “got out of China,” because from what he saw from a “Chinese expert on YouTube” it originated from a biological warfare laboratory into the meat market. Experts have discounted this rumor as another hoax.

“I think we have overreacted to this thing about the threat,” he said. “I’m an old person and I would be a prime candidate to get this and suffer from it. I just wonder how much of this is being done because they want to besmirch our president. We’ve had three years of constant criticism. If somebody shot a goose in Greenland out of season they’d blame Trump.”

Others with ties to the area felt the same way, including one Wellsville native, a product manager and married mother of one son who now lives in another state. She spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear her family would be targeted for retribution.

“It’s mass hysteria caused by the liberal media,” she said. “They want to take Trump and our economy down.”

She went with her family to the movie “Onward” this weekend and had plans for a date night with her husband Thursday — presuming the tapas restaurant in her community was still open.

“I’m not going to be a shut-in,” she vowed.

A gregarious bank manager from the next town over, George McCrary, 53, said that the media was downplaying any positive news during the crisis because that’s not “what sells,” he said.

McCrary went about his usual business this weekend, with shopping stops at Aldi and Target and Big Biscuit, where he got a big plate of bacon and eggs. He said he has a degree in exercise science and would not be doing anything differently from health precautions such has handwashing — which he had embraced for years living with an immune-compromised daughter and a mother with multiple sclerosis.

He said that covid-19 was “just a virus” and wondered why there is not more panic around seasonal flu, which killed 34,200 people in the United States during last year’s flu season, and more than 60,000 during the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We don’t go this crazy over the normal flu,” he said.

His daughter, Kaylin, 27, a cancer survivor who suffers from four autoimmune diseases, went on a planned excursion to shop for a wedding dress on Saturday but since then has hunkered down, not going out for anything but work. She said her father is just being “stubborn in his ways.”

“The anxiety of it has been the worst for me,” she said. “It’s hard not to be afraid. But I’m just having faith I’m going to get through this.”

a person standing posing for the camera: Ted and Nancy Buckley at their home outside Wellsville, Kan. © Christopher Smith/for The Washington Post Ted and Nancy Buckley at their home outside Wellsville, Kan.

Presumptive positive case

Last week, a man in his 60s who hails from surrounding Franklin County became ill with flu-like symptoms and his case was reported to county health officials.

At that same time, Dustin Donovan, a captain in one of the local fire departments, was playing around on Facebook and saw Crist’s coronavirus media hoax post. He pushed the “like” button and added another hoax meme in the comments — a widely disseminated (and debunked) photo of a scribbled list on a whiteboard that attempts to link pandemic outbreaks with election-year politics.

Donovan, a resident of Wellsville whose Facebook page says he is studying for a master’s degree in “organizational leadership,” did not return text messages, calls or emails requesting comment. His boss, Ottawa Fire Department Chief Tim Matthias, said that he had reviewed Donovan’s posts and that the matter was being handled internally.

Friday, Franklin County health officials said they made their determination: the man with flu-like symptoms was a presumptive positive for coronavirus, their first case in a state that now has at least 21, including one elderly resident of a nursing home in the Kansas City area who died last week.

annie.gowen@washpost.com

Alice Crites, Shane Harris, Andrew Ba Tran, and Hannah Jewell contributed to this report from Washington.

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