In local journalism, the news that gets covered is supposed to be of the man-bites-dog variety, not dog-bites-man.
Except for The Onion, nobody really cares when an area man loses the lottery again. If it’s sunny in Los Angeles, the weather doesn’t lead off the 11 p.m. news. When the panda at the zoo isn’t having a baby, no one bothers to cover its pregnancy status.
All of which is to say that one hopes the case of Sandra Whittington is indeed of the man-bites-dog variety. However, the reason she’s in the news is because it’s not necessarily clear just how man-bites-dog it is.
Whittington is — or rather, was — a resident of Shelby County, Tennessee, which includes Memphis. The local health department reportedly said she tested positive for COVID-19 after taking the test June 20.
“It’s been six months, almost seven, since she passed away,” said her son, Troy Whittington.
“There was no testing that was done at that time. On her death certificate it was stated she died, what the cause of death was, and it was not COVID-19. It was COPD.”
Whittington said the letter arrived recently (the letter is dated Aug, 20), even though the purported test was conducted in June, making it useless in more than one respect.
“I’m just having a hard time understanding how they can say someone has COVID-19 when they are not even alive,” he told the station last week.
After receiving the letter, he contacted the Shelby County Health Department, which, he said, confirmed they had her on record as having taken the test June 20.
Imagine your mother has been dead for 6 months but she gets a letter saying she has been diagnosed with COVID 19 from a test that was supposedly taken in June ? Hear from her son tonight at 6! pic.twitter.com/GdxVgGMkFO
— Jeni DiPrizio (@local24jeni) September 3, 2020
The health department didn’t have a ready answer as to how exactly this happened, neither when Troy Whittington contacted them nor when KTHV asked for comment.
“It’s impossible for someone to be tested on June 20, who passed away on Feb. 16,” Whittington said.
“I tried to call the health department this morning, ask them why this was going on. She said she would have to get a supervisor. She was sorry for the mistake or she couldn’t tell me any information till she got a supervisor, and I haven’t heard back from them.”
The Shelby County Health Department had this response for KTHV, meanwhile: “Dr. Haushalter is reaching out to Mr. Whittington to apologize on behalf of the Health Department about the mistake and the additional pain it might have caused the family. She also states that new protocols will be put in place to make sure a mistake like this doesn’t happen again in the future.”
According to the government of the city of Memphis, there have been 27,975 positive tests taken in Shelby County as of Friday, meaning one dead person who tested positive doesn’t move the needle in any appreciable fashion.
The problem is that little bureaucratic mistakes can add up.
In July, the state of Tennessee confirmed it had incorrectly tracked more than 300 people as being COVID-19-positive after a man who was never tested, Brock Ballou, was told he had the virus. The individuals were instead part of a group being tracked as having come in contact with people who had COVID-19.
“Everyone makes mistakes, but this is a big error when it comes to a pandemic like this and told that they are positive I know I’m not the only one. And that’s irritating,” Ballou told WMC-TV.
“The error was discovered and corrected within 24 hours,” said a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Health, who called it a coding error.
“People should have been notified they were a contact but were being called as if they were a case. No one was given incorrect test results.”
In Florida, Mindy Clark made the news after she was informed in July that she tested positive for COVID-19 despite the fact she’d never taken a test, as well. According to WWSB-TV, this likely happened because she had been in line for drive-thru testing but pulled out after realizing it was only for people displaying symptoms.
“I got a call asking for me, and they told me that I had tested positive. I was like, ‘Positive for what?’ Then, the lady said for COVID, and I said, ‘That’s impossible. I never got tested, ma’am,’” Clark said.
Patients were reportedly identified by their number in line at the drive-thru testing site, which could get thrown off when someone like Clark decides to leave before being tested, meaning that someone who had tested positive likely wasn’t notified.
This isn’t necessarily about a total breakdown of the COVID-19 testing system, but it is about a matter of trust.
“I would just like for the health department to be more accurate,” Troy Whittington said, adding that his situation made him question testing numbers across the nation.
“They have a record of her death there. That is where I got the death certificate from and it’s in the same building they’re sending out saying she is positive, which is not possible.”
Not only does it breed distrust on that level, but consider the lateness of the notification.
“We’re talking two months later. She needs to be quarantined for 10, well we’ve got 60 days from the time of the test to get the letter out to her which is unacceptable,” Whittington said.
It’s easy to bang the table and say we’ve got to be better in situations like this, but when a man receives a letter saying his mother tested positive for COVID-19 more than six months after she was cremated, receives it more than two months after she “tested positive” and the county can’t provide answers on either count, something’s amiss.
One hopes it’s amiss in a manner that’s man-bites-dog. One fears that it isn’t.
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