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Squirrel-AIDS Hoax Creates Ocean County Panic [AUDIO]

No one is laughing in Lacey Township, or at the Ocean County Health Department, after a recent headline and online news article launched a flurry of concerns.

Squirrels
Sam Greenwood, Getty Images

Was it news or satire? A lapse in editorial judgment or a sick joke? Turns out, the article titled “First Confirmed ‘SQUAIDS’ Case in Lacey” was all baloney.

The post, published Jan. 13 by a would-be local news source called The Lacey Reporter, was not only false but was passed off as a viable, real news story. And now, health officials are urging residents not to believe everything they read on the Internet.

Information allegedly given to the writer by the health department and a local doctor formed the basis of the article, which concerned the growing problem of SQUAIDS — squirrels with AIDS — appearing in Forked River and Lacey Township.

The fabricated article contained inaccuracies like a phony hospital name, Communion Medical Center, and quotes from its Director of Infectious Disease.

Legitimate local health workers, meanwhile, have sprung into action.

“We are now in full damage control after we received several calls with people worried about their kids and the possible implications,” said Leslie Terjesen with the Ocean County Health Department. “The article does talk about the potential risks to humans and pets. Everyone, please know this was a total fabrication; there is no such thing as SQUAIDS.”

The mayor of Lacey Township, Gary Quinn, is also speaking out.

“What is troublesome is that people read these reports, or maybe just scan them, and it causes unnecessary panic,” Quinn said.

According to the Lacey Township Police Department, which issued a written statement to Townsquare Media,

The website from which the satirical report originated appears to be attempting to draw attention to their site. Any effort taken to spread this information will promote that particular site. The site originally had a disclaimer listed at the bottom which explained that the reporting was ‘satire’ and not to be taken seriously. It does not currently appear to have that disclaimer displayed anymore.”

Late Tuesday morning, Lacey Reporter editor Charlie Johnson posted this message to the publication’s Facebook page, labeling it “IMPORTANT” and blaming the phony article on a back end hacker:

The article about ‘squaids’ was not posted by the Lacey Reporter, an enterprising reader exploited our anonymous tip form in order to gain access to our site’s posting and social media profiles. This report is not our official word and we are conducting a full security audit and hiring an investigator. Again, we affirm that we are a legitimate news site, and that a rogue individual accessed the back end of our site in order to spread untrue and unfounded rumors. We are working to fix parts of the site still broken. We apologize for the confusion the article caused, and our readers deserved better.”

To read the original post, click here.

Townsquare Media reached out several times on Monday to speak with the publisher of The Lacey Reporter, but our calls were not returned. If you have any questions regarding this issue, please call the Ocean County Health Department at 732-341-9700, ext. 7224.

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