McVEYTOWN, Pa. – Connie Houtz did not think covid would be so bad.
She had seen many people in this rural village in central Pennsylvania become infected but recover within a few days. She did not get vaccinated because she was worried about how a new vaccine, developed in record time, could affect her heart condition.
In October last year, her youngest son, 45-year-old Eric Delamarter, contracted a cold. He postponed going to the doctor because he had customers waiting in his shop where he repaired cars, she said. When he finally went to the emergency room at Geisinger Lewistown Hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and covid.
Within days, Houtz’s eldest son, 50-year-old Toby Delamarter, had also been hospitalized with the virus and shortness of breath.
Less than two weeks later, both of her sons were dead. None of them were vaccinated.
“Even if it does not seem fair and does not seem right, we will on the way find a reason why things happen,” said Houtz, 71, as she sat at her kitchen table.
Eric and Toby Delamarter are two of the approximately 300 people who have died of covid in Mifflin County, where cows grazing in pastures and Amish horses and prams are common attractions. The county’s 600 km northwest of Harrisburg is strongly Republican – 77% of the votes cast in 2020 were for Donald Trump – and the former president’s downgrade of covid-19 found fertile ground there.
Mifflin has one of the highest covid death rates among U.S. counties with at least 40,000 people, according to government data compiled by Johns Hopkins University – 591 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in mid-March, compared to 298 deaths nationally.
The United States is approaching 1 million deaths in covid – a number that few thought was possible when the pandemic began.
In March 2020, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that based on modeling the rate of coronavirus spread in the United States at the time, “between 100,000 and 200,000” people could die of covid.
Reaching one million deaths seemed even more unlikely when safe and effective vaccines hit the market in December 2020. More than 60% of the 977,000 deaths have occurred since then.
Mifflin County provides a snapshot of how a hard-hit society went from skepticism to the scientific reality of the covid virus, and then about the vaccine, to dealing with unbearable loss and dealing with trauma. About 8 out of 10 deaths across the country from April to December 2021 were among the unvaccinated, according to the latest analysis of data from 23 states and New York City and Seattle by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mifflin County Coroner Daniel Lynch is not over the stress of covid even though deaths have decreased this year. By mid-March, his office had counted 337 deaths in connection with covid in the county – about 60 more than the official figure kept by the state. This is because the medical examiner counts everyone who dies in the county, including those who lived in other counties. Among the people at the forensic doctor, 311 had not even received a covid shot. Few residents wore masks even when falls were high nationally and locally.
“It was pure hell,” Lynch said. “I have been a forensic pathologist since 1996 and have never received calls from nurses reporting deaths crying on the phone or facilities reporting two or three deaths simultaneously.”
In Lewistown, the county seat, it is easy to find people who knew some of the dead.
At Corner Lunchbox one recent afternoon, the hands of all five employees and customers quickly shot up when asked if they knew anyone killed by covid. Sheila Saurbeck, 65, a boss, said she had lost two friends. And she had covid herself last year and recovered after a couple of weeks.
Behind the counter was the owner Lorrie Sirgey, 56. She said she was hospitalized with covid for four days this spring before she was vaccinated. “It’s been a scary time,” she said.
As elsewhere in the country, Mifflin County has seen cases of covid decrease dramatically since January. It is unusual to see someone wearing masks. Health experts point to several factors behind Mifflin County’s high death rate:
- A large elderly population – 22% of the inhabitants is 65 years or older.
- A low covid vaccination rate (51% of residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 63% nationwide).
- The prominent Amish and Mennonites; The Amish people make up over 8% of the county’s inhabitants. Members of these communities were largely unvaccinated and often gathered for large weddings and funerals over the past two years, according to county officials. Amish, in particular, have low vaccination rates because they are skeptical of government intervention and rely on family traditions for preventive medicine.
Mifflin County Commissioner Kevin Kodish also blames the policy.
“We are very rural here,” he said. “It’s heavily Republican and heavy on Trump’s support, so at first people were skeptical of covid because he toned down the disease. And I think it was carried over with skepticism with vaccines.
Having so many deaths in the county with about 45,000 people is difficult to understand, he added. His 94-year-old mother, who lived in a nursing home, died last year not long after her own attack with covid.
Kodish, the only Democrat in the county commission with three members, said that covid split society, between people who took the disease seriously and vaccinated themselves, trained physical distance and wore masks and others who just wanted to live their normal lives.
Although covid has been devastating to many families, Lewistown Republican Mayor Deborah Bargo acknowledged the death toll but focused on improving her city’s economy.
“It has been difficult for those who have lost loved ones, and that pain never goes away,” said Bargo, who has been mayor for 15 years. “But financially we have bounced back.”
Bargo pointed out that almost every shop window in the town center square is occupied, a hundred-year-old theater is being restored and a young Mennonite entrepreneur has recently opened a café-bakery.
She said she is concerned that many elderly people who stayed in their homes for fear of covid have forever been changed by isolation. In her church, she said, people wearing masks still sit away from everyone else.
Noah Wise, 59, a counselor in Burnham, just north of Lewistown, said he was not doing well. His wife, Lisa, a nurse in Geisinger’s outpatient department, died of covid in December. She was 58 and not vaccinated because she was worried about how the vaccine would affect a chronic health condition – although health experts say people with chronic health problems are more likely to suffer serious consequences and covid deaths.
Wise said Lisa probably got the virus from him after he became infected in October. “She did not regret not being vaccinated,” Wise said. “She thought she would make it.”
His wife’s death has not persuaded him to get vaccinated because he believes his previous infection has given him immunity. Natural immunity provides some resistance to the disease but is very variable in strength, so health experts urge those who have become infected to get vaccinated.
Jenny Barron Landis, executive director of the Juniata River Valley Visitors Bureau, which covers Mifflin County, said many members of the community were not interested in receiving orders from state researchers. “We have many independent farmers and entrepreneurs who did not agree with or respect the mandates, and it has played a big role here in the number of deaths and the number of cases,” she said.
Against this background, Geoff Burke, a local funeral home, recalled weeks when his funeral home in Lewistown would handle up to 17 deaths, many of them from the covid-triple average. “We were overwhelmed,” he said. “Covid just ravaged our city as it went from nursing home to nursing home.”
On March 15, Geisinger Lewistown, a hospital with 133 beds, had only two covid patients, a decrease from 50 earlier this winter, said Dr. Michael Hegstrom, Chief Physician of the Geisinger Region, which includes Mifflin County. Geisinger refused to disclose the proportion of its staff at Lewistown Hospital who have been vaccinated against covid. It would only say that all its employees have either been vaccinated or received an exemption. Geisinger also refused to disclose how many of its employees in Lewistown died of covid.
Nevertheless, the hospital is still infected with the virus. It exceeds capacity due to a large number of patients with medical problems such as heart disease and cancer that postpone care during the pandemic, Hegström said.
Connie Houtz said the deaths of Eric and Toby – two of her three children – had been difficult but that she was grateful for family and friends and strong faith. She remembers Toby – who had some health problems, including small bowel cancer a few years ago – as “easygoing and a big teddy bear.” Eric, who had high blood pressure, loved spending time with his daughter and taking the teenager and fishing, Houtz said.
Both brothers rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles and hung out with friends at a bar near her house. “It still strikes you sometimes that they are really gone,” she said.
This story is produced by KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operational programs KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides information on health issues to the nation.
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