The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

My red state is already pretending covid is gone. Now here comes omicron.

False information is spreading even faster than the virus

A sign outside a high school in Louisville, where demonstrators were protesting against a coronavirus vaccine clinic last month. (Amira Karaoud/Reuters)
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The Tuesday after Thanksgiving, I arrive too early to a spacious, high-ceilinged, brightly lit conference room connected to our police department to await the arrival of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear. A police lieutenant I know well stands way over by the big windows talking with a fellow officer on the governor’s advance detail, while Bart Powell, another early bird and our county’s director of public safety, sits a good 10 feet from me. We are not masked. We are all vaccinated. I ask Powell how things are going. He raises both brows and says he is worried about what’s coming next.

What’s coming next is omicron, the latest coronavirus variant.

Beshear, a Democrat, is coming to conservative, rural Anderson County — our population of 23,000 voted for Donald Trump by more than 70 percent in 2016 and 2020 — to present approximately $1 million to fund much-needed road, sewer and water district improvements. As the minutes tick by and more people file in, Powell and I, the police officers and everyone else fumble in our pockets and purses for masks. The judge executive, our highest county official, walks by. “It feels like this is never going to end,” I say to him, unsure, like I always am when wearing a mask, if he heard me, but then the judge and I lock eyes above our masks and shrug a little, like teammates trudging back out onto the field, resolved, connected in defeat.

Earlier, while I was still enjoying my first cup of coffee, I read the latest post on our weekly newspaper’s Facebook page. The Anderson News Facebook page — not a local TV station, we’re too small for that — is our primary source for local breaking news, a situation that’s true for most rural folks these days. I had been hoping to find the exact start time for the governor’s arrival and remarks but found no information at all about the visit.

Public health officials took to the airwaves on Dec. 5 to outline the dangers posed by the omicron coronavirus variant as cases were reported across the U.S. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

We're still arguing over masks. But it’s not about covid anymore.

Instead, today’s breaking news is the sudden relocation of a covid vaccination clinic for kids ages 5 to 11 that was to be held at Emma B. Ward Elementary School. The clinic is being moved off-site because school board vice chair Peggy Peach, a rabidly vocal opponent of masks and the vaccine, told the newspaper, in part, “You’re on your own and the numbers are high. A lot of injuries are going unreported,” and, ” … based on the research I’m listening to, children don’t need these vaccines. If they’re less accessible, maybe a parent will change their mind about doing this.”

It is notable that no other school board members were interviewed and that Ben Carlson, the editor, has provided no clarification nor correction to Peach’s disinformation about the vaccine, though I am not surprised. In August, he quoted Peach as saying, “The material that the masks are made out of that your basic person is wearing is the same material as what their underwear is made out of.”

In a small, rural county like mine, our newspaper’s Facebook page is where disinformation on masks and vaccines festers and spreads, never refuted, deleted or taken down by the editor, who himself posted over Thanksgiving weekend about the new variant on his personal Facebook page, “Omicron is an anagram for moronic. That’s odd.”

I scroll down on the newspaper’s page, and in the comments, I see that Patsy Bush, wife of Kentucky 3 Percenters President Terry Bush — the man who hung Beshear in effigy in May 2020 — has chimed in. “Ms. Peach is the only board member with any sense of reality,” she wrote. “I hope not a single parent takes their healthy child down there to have another person’s DNA put in their little bodies …. Wake up Anderson County …. Don’t Do It …”

What it’s like to visit my unvaccinated relatives in Rush Limbaugh’s home town

On Nov. 24, the Anderson County Health Department reported our county was 55.55 percent vaccinated. While I have personally witnessed everyone from the mayor to the fiscal court to our first responders take the pandemic seriously, it is those on the fringe — the Rand Paul libertarians, the covid deniers, the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers — like Peach who are handed a megaphone to spread disinformation. Or, in some cases, no information at all.

How many Anderson County citizens have died from covid? 55. And more than half of our covid deaths have occurred in the last four months.

It is anathema here to talk openly, let alone run a news story, about anyone who has died of covid. Disinformation is killing us. On Oct. 19, Anderson County resident Kerry Branam died. We only learned covid was the cause after a family member posted a GoFundMe to help with expenses. Many of Branam’s public Facebook posts are stamped with the warning “False information,” including his last public post, on Sept. 13, which reads: “This virus hasn’t killed anyone in Congress. Not one. Even though a lot of them are elderly, they have been in crowded rooms while not wearing masks. But they swear it’s highly contagious. Weird.”

For the pandemic’s entirety, we have publicly treated covid deaths here like we used to treat drug addiction before we knew better: First, we pretend it does not exist. What happened: Did they have pneumonia, an underlying condition? Then we pretend the person’s lengthy hospitalization and death, while shocking, was tragic but unpreventable: Gosh almighty, that is so sad, but what could we have done?

And it is not only conservatives who refuse to discuss our community’s covid deaths publicly. I sent an email request to Democratic friends in Anderson County, asking if they would be willing to talk on the record about friends or family members who have died from covid. No one responded.

As state after state confirm that the omicron variant is already here, this is the dangerous, avoidant slurry my state is still wallowing in. Our political leaders are amplifying it — just look at Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who wrote his supporters last week: “Fellow Patriot, Fauci is absolutely out of control. He’s lied about COVID from the very beginning. He lied about masks. He lied about funding gain of function research. Now, he’s lying about ME.” He blathers on, but you get the point — his deadly and disinformative point that continues, unchecked.

The night of Beshear’s visit, before I got to bed, I pull up our newspaper’s Facebook page one last time. There is still no story about the governor coming to town to give us $1 million, but the post about the relocated vaccine clinic for kids now has 126 comments (which is a lot around here), encompassing a cancerous mass of disinformation such as this: “Our children and grandchildren are now Lab Rats for the Democrat/Socialist/Communist/Nazi regime!” one man has written. “Check your history people?!?! This is happening right here in our county!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

The last comment I read before turning off the lights and shutting down is by a woman who now calls herself “Arma Dilla” because she was, I believe, kicked off Facebook under her real name. Her profile photo is overlaid with a profane banner objecting to the vaccines.

There is no check big enough for the governor to deliver to combat this.