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 Trump, who faced intense pushback from Alabama’s congressional delegation, led by Republican Rep. Mike D. 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.
In Anniston, local leaders were stunned to discover serious problems with the federal government’s plan for dealing with patients infected with the virus — starting with how the patients would get to Alabama, according to interviews with county and city officials, along with business leaders who dealt with the federal response.
“I was shocked,” Anniston Mayor Jack Draper said. “I was shocked by the lack of planning. I was shocked by the manner in which it was presented to us.”
Two HHS officials — Darcie Johnston, director of intergovernmental affairs, and Kevin Yeskey, principal deputy assistant secretary for preparedness and response — said in a Feb. 23 meeting with local officials that the patients would be flown from California to the Fort McClellan Army Airfield in Anniston, according to multiple local officials.
The airfield was closed when the Army base was shuttered in 1999. Local officials said they told the HHS officials during the meeting the runway was in bad shape.
“The more we talked,” Hodges said, “the more holes we found.”
The HHS plan also called for housing coronavirus patients at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, a FEMA facility on the old Army base and one of several redevelopment projects at the sprawling outpost.
The center has several brick dormitory buildings — behind tall black fencing — where federal officials planned for the patients to live. Federal officials even picked out the building they wanted to use for the first arrivals: Dorm No. 28, local officials said. A team of federal health workers would care for the patients and U.S. marshals would keep them from leaving the quarantine, local officials said they were told.
The dorms normally house emergency responders from around the country.
But the center doesn’t have any special capabilities for handling infectious diseases, local officials said. The center is used for training. It has isolation hospital rooms — located in a former Army hospital building — but they are mostly just props, with fake equipment and light switches that exist only as paint on walls.
Meanwhile, federal officials never contacted the town’s hospital, Regional Medical Center, about handling covid-19 patients, said Louis Bass, the hospital’s chief executive.
Yet HHS officials said in a statement released to the public Feb. 22 that patients who become seriously ill would be sent to “pre-identified hospitals for medical care.”
“We were surprised,” Bass said.
The hospital does have eight negative-pressure isolation rooms, but patients with serious complications would need to be sent to a larger institution, such as Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, 90 miles away, Bass said.
Emory University Hospital did not respond to a question about whether it was told about the HHS plan.
A federal contract for a local ambulance service was secured at the last moment, after HHS had already issued a statement about its plan for Anniston. Details on how to handle other tasks — including patients’ laundry and food — seemed unfinished.
The preparations for bringing patients to Anniston were handled partly by Caliburn International, a government contractor that previously provided emergency medical services to federal agencies, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post.
Former Trump chief of staff John F. Kelly joined the firm based in Reston, Va., as a board member last year. Caliburn is the parent company of Comprehensive Health Services, which has come under scrutiny for its operation of medical services at a detention site for migrant children.
A Caliburn spokeswoman referred questions about the Anniston operations to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
HHS, through its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, responded to The Post’s questions about its Anniston operations with a statement noting the office’s staff members “have a long-standing relationship” with the disaster preparedness center and were familiar with its capabilities. The statement also said the federal agency “was considering the facility as a contingency location” and decided during discussions with local officials that “the site would not actually be needed.”
It was Trump who finally canceled the planned quarantine in Anniston on Feb. 23, according to tweets from Rogers and Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) that referred to their conversations with the president.
The news arrived as people attended an emergency meeting of the Calhoun County Commission. Cheers broke out.
“I guess in our culture today a tweet is considered official,” Barton said.
Anniston has plenty of experience dealing with unwelcome threats — and learning to live with them.
It was for years home to the nation’s chemical weapons stockpile, including sarin and mustard gas. Later, it was the location of a chemical weapons incinerator, where those munitions were carefully destroyed.
The town also deals with the toxic legacy of a former Monsanto plant that for decades polluted the soil and water with PCBs, which were banned in the 1970s amid health concerns. The pollution resulted in a $700 million settlement for 20,000 residents in 2003.
But the novel coronavirus posed a different kind of challenge.
Fear that the HHS plan was flawed gave new energy to already circulating rumors and wild theories about the virus.
Residents didn’t know whom to believe. Trump had said without evidence that CNN and MSNBC were exaggerating the threat. Rush Limbaugh was on the radio saying it was no worse than the regular flu. Facebook posts claimed the outbreak had been foreshadowed by a 1981 Dean Koontz book. And the idea the virus could have been created in a Chinese biochemical lab was floated widely, including by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
The whirlwind caught the attention of Michael Kline, a urologist in Anniston.
“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on,” he said.
So on the weekend of Feb. 22-23, Kline dressed up in a blue biohazard suit with his “the virus has arrived” sign. He stood along the highway and waved to passing vehicles. He wanted to drum up opposition to allowing infected patients in Anniston. But even after the plan was abandoned, Kline said he still wasn’t certain patients weren’t being housed at the old Army base.
Rumors of black helicopters ferrying infected patients to the training center at night were rampant. The local Home Depot sold out of painting and sanding face masks. Hodges, the commissioner, said he heard often from worried residents. But helicopters were common in the area because of a nearby Army depot and National Guard training center. Only now they were nefarious. Other people talked about mysterious vans driving along county roads.
Hodges and Draper held emergency news conferences and meetings to try to lessen the panic. But those meetings also allowed for additional rumors to flourish during public comment periods. A commission meeting included one resident tying the coronavirus to a 1992 United Nations document about climate change.
“That’s how long this has been going on,” he said.
“The public is going crazy,” said Bobby Foster, a business owner who spoke at the meeting and asked the commissioners to try harder to distribute accurate information.
Glen Ray, president of the local NAACP, talked about the virus at a Sunday service at Rising Star United Methodist Church on Feb. 23 to try to calm people’s worries. But he was also dismayed that one of the county commissioners wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat to an emergency meeting about the virus.
“It’s not about Donald Trump,” Ray said later. “A virus is not going to just jump on a Democrat. So at times like this, we need to be coming together. No time for politics.”
Anniston’s flirtation with the dreaded virus did have one positive effect, officials said. It made them realize they need to prepare — that the virus could come without warning and they shouldn’t rely on outsiders alone for expertise.
Barton, the emergency management director, helped create a county infectious disease task force. It has already had its first meeting. The focus is not solely on the coronavirus. It will handle the flu and whatever other viruses pop up in the future.
The public’s interest in the virus hasn’t faded, either.
Barton gave a talk Thursday to a lunchtime meeting of a civic organization, the Exchange Club. It had been planned months ago but he decided to talk about the aborted plan to bring infected patients to town.
People peppered Barton with questions about why federal health officials had ever considered the disaster training facility and how much emergency food they should keep at home. They wanted to know how to avoid getting sick.
Barton suggested hand-washing and keeping a safe distance from sick people.
As he talked, a lady reached into her purse, squeezed some alcohol sanitizer on her hands and passed the bottle around the table.
Emma Brown and Beth Reinhard contributed.