In a time of crisis, misinformation can have serious repercussions, and during the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Binghamton area has not been barred from poor communication and rumors.
Misinformation on COVID-19 has been spread both at the governmental level and between students. In Broome County, there was confusion over what constituted the county’s first case.
On March 12, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county during a press — news that came as a surprise to Broome County officials. The individual that Cuomo was referring to is a student at the University at Albany who is from Broome County. Since the patient’s permanent address is in the county, state officials counted the case as being in Broome County, even though the student did not return home at the time. Broome County Executive Jason Garnar took to Twitter to clarify the matter.
“There are NO confirmed COVID-19 cases in Broome County,” Garnar wrote in a tweet on March 12. “The state incorrectly identified a positive case that actually occurred in a DIFFERENT county. The patient is currently living in that other county [and] is quarantined there. Again, there are NO confirmed cases in Broome [County].”
Another instance of uncertainty came during a press conference on March 17, when county officials confirmed a patient with COVID-19 was being treated at United Health Services (UHS) Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City. Fear quickly spread that the patient was Broome County’s first confirmed case, but the patient was not a resident of the county.
As of March 22, there are two current confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Broome County, according to the county’s website. Broome County also experienced its first death related to the virus, announced on March 21.
Misinformation has also spread in the Binghamton University community. Last week, a rumor that at least one student in an unrecognized, off-campus fraternity tested positive for COVID-19 spread quickly after a representative of the fraternity reached out to other Greek life organizations. In messages to other students, the representative discussed the “confirmed” case and urged students to avoid going home in an effort to prevent them from infecting their families.
The rumor came out just after Parade Day weekend, an annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration organized by students which involves many Greek life organizations. Although organizations were encouraged to avoid having parties open to the student body this year, some still hosted gatherings.
Liam Fitch, a junior double-majoring in English and cinema, said he was aware of the rumor and was critical of people who are not social distancing since it was purported the sick student had still gone out to parties.
“I’ve heard that at least one kid has tested positive for [the] coronavirus in [the unrecognized fraternity] and went out as recently as Parade Day,” Fitch said. “And to all people still going out — you’re killing your and other people’s loved ones.”
While the sick student had a fever and some other symptoms on par with the virus, a member of the fraternity said his illness was actually confirmed to be a streptococcal infection, otherwise known as strep throat, days before March 23.
On March 23, BU President Harvey Stenger released a message that confirmed the first positive test for COVID-19 within the BU community. It is currently unclear if the patient is a student, staff or faculty member.
In another letter to the BU community, Stenger also urged people to be wary of misinformation.
“I’ve read that panic can be highly contagious, especially in situations where everything is changing quickly and we often don’t even know the outcome,” Stenger wrote. ” … [K]eep informed about the virus and recent developments from trusted news sources and websites like [BU]’s COVID-19 page and avoid sharing rumors that impede the medical response and build mistrust and fear.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on March 23 at 12 p.m. to reflect new information regarding a coronavirus case within the BU community.