As the coronavirus took hold in major American cities last spring, Kit Pepper did the only thing she could think of to help: she started sewing.
Hearing reports of mask shortages, the Frostburg, Md., woman —with members of the local house and garden club — made and shipped thousands of masks to front-line workers across the country. But as she made the rounds with free masks in her own community, a town of roughly 8,000 in Allegany County, Pepper says there weren't initially many takers.
“In the beginning, we didn't need them here,” she said. “And most people were resistant to even wearing them.”
The numbers, as everyone knows, only increased as COVID-19 cases have swelled across the country. But Allegany County, like neighboring Garrett and Washington Counties on Maryland’s Western edge, was spared the worst of it through the spring and summer.
That rapidly changed in late fall, when the county that’s home to a federal prison and Frostburg State University saw its rates explode — straining its local hospital and sending many schools back to virtual learning.
At its worst, state records show its seven day moving average case rate climbed as high as 198.4 positive cases per 100,000 people, compared to a state average of 44. And by early December, Allegany’s positivity rate was towering at 19 percent compared to the state’s 8 percent.
Rates have dramatically dropped in the weeks since as testing has picked up, but the death toll is sinking in. State data show that, of the nearly 5,400 confirmed infections, 153 people there have died from the virus as of this week.
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Meanwhile, Pepper worries too many in her small community still aren’t heeding the warnings.
“I'm afraid these people will only notice when their own loved ones get sick and die,” Pepper said.
The News4 I-Team wanted to better understand why Covid-19 grew so quickly — after months of relatively low cases — in this county with a population of roughly 70,000. And to be sure, Allegany isn’t alone among rural communities who saw late-year surges of the virus in our region. Neighboring Garrett and Washington Counties have also seen increases, as have counties on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, though none as dramatic as Allegany’s recent spike.
In a series of interviews with residents and local officials, many blamed a false sense of security, a resistance to adopting safety protocols, lack of leadership, politics and even a fear of getting tested.
Alice McCullough, who runs her family’s pharmacy in Cumberland, agreed it took a long time for the average citizen to adopt social distancing and mask-wearing. That’s why, with just one pharmacist on staff, Beckman’s Pharmacy moved to curbside, delivery-only in November.
“It's the best way that we know how to protect our employees,” said McCullough, whose father, John, is the pharmacist. “If he would get sick, you know, we would have to go down an avenue I don't want to go down.”
McCullough speculated there was initially a “lack of knowledge” about how the virus was spread that contributed to the fall spike, “as well as persons not wanting to wear a mask and those kinds of things.”
Many families were still holding gatherings, she said in an interview prior to Christmas. And she pointed to Allegany’s proximity to West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which have had looser COVID-19 restrictions, as a complicating factor.
Cumberland City Councilman Seth Bernard said national political divisions played a role in why many in this deeply red county didn’t take the virus seriously from the start. And he said many were afraid to get tested because of “stigma” associated with those who were sick.
“So they may still go out because they don’t want to be seen as someone with COVID,” he said. “Because if you get it, you’re going to know about it in a community like this.”
In November, state health officials set up a free drive-thru testing site in response to the rising case rates. But that came months after county officials asked for one in August, but were told the county had enough testing for its caseload at the time, according to a spokesman from the Maryland Department of Health.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has criticized the county as one that initially “didn’t want any restrictions.” A spokesman for the governor told the I-Team he was referring to a June letter from state delegates asking for looser restrictions in Western Maryland.
But those attitudes appear to have changed as the case rates increased in the fall.
Allegany Board of County Commissioners President Jake Shade said his county has followed state mandates and, in early November, moved to further restrict restaurants and businesses to 50 percent capacity—even before the governor did so. He acknowledged he’s faced criticism for not doing more and sooner.
“The one thing we could have done that we didn't want to do was limit the restaurants,” he said. “I think that the economic impact would have been much, much worse than any benefit to public health, because the vast majority of our cases weren't coming from restaurants.”
Shade blamed much of the spread on family gatherings.
Pepper, the Frostburg gallery owner, started an online petition in recent months calling for local officials to get tougher on enforcement and restrictions.
The I-Team found several local law enforcement agencies say they're helping "educate" non-compliant businesses.
“We could have done that sooner,” Shade acknowledged.
Shade said there are signs of optimism now in his county as rates have fallen more in line with state averages, and the local hospital, UPMC Western Maryland, has received 1,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine for its frontline workers.
A spokesman for the hospital, which is part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, declined to give the I-Team specifics on how often it’s had to send patients to neighboring hospitals for treatment due to capacity problems.
In a statement, the spokesman said that, as of Dec. 28, UPMC is treating 172 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 in its Maryland and Altoona, Pa. facilities and that the hospitals are “prepared to care for all patients.”
But Pepper is worried about the long-term toll of the virus now that it has settled into her once seemingly protected community.
“The momentum of the virus that settled in when people weren't being safe, when they were insisting on having social gatherings and hanging out in bars … I don't know that we can recover from the actions of a couple of months ago,” she said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane and Katie Leslie, produced by Katie Leslie and shot and edited by Steve Jones