Updated: Jan 12
Governor Larry Hogan issuing a "Stay At Home" order during press conference.
Garrett County was once able to boast the lowest number of COVID-19 infections and related deaths in Maryland. Throughout the summer months, the number of infections remained well below other counties in the state. In just three months, beginning in October, Garrett County's cases started to soar. The number of cases and deaths is now double that of Kent County which reports 767 cases, the lowest in Maryland. Talbot County reports 8 deaths, the fewest in the state.
Many residents would like to cast blame on a busy summer tourist season and outsiders for the rapid climb in coronavirus cases. However, the reported cases only began to escalate at a rapid pace by mid-October, nearly a month after schools resumed and vacationing families returned to their primary places of residence. So, before condemning the tourism industry that sustained local businesses and the hospitality workforce, a review of the case numbers could paint a more accurate picture of when the pandemic placed a firmer grip on Garrett County and where responsibility should be placed. According to the Garrett County Health Department's contact tracing, most transmissions of the virus during the surge through the final months of 2020, were attributed to family gatherings, churches, and bars.
Engage Mountain Maryland started tracking the virus in earnest shortly after it began while informing residents on how to mitigate their risk of becoming infected. Whether CDC guidelines were followed strictly or not, the county managed to keep new infections to a minimum and held the distinction as the lowest reported cases in Maryland for most of 2020. Governor Larry Hogan held frequent press conferences asking Marylanders to be vigilant and patient while he provided updates about climbing numbers of cases and the state's plans to avoid catastrophic outbreaks.
As of March 23, just 3 initial cases were confirmed in Garrett County and attributed to residents returning from a vacation in Colorado. It was evident the virus was not homegrown but infiltrating from outside the area.
On April 1, Governor Larry Hogan issued a "Stay At Home" order and closed all non-essential businesses to suppress the virus. During this initial response, coronavirus relief monies were being made available to businesses and individuals would eventually lose employment from closures. Public schools also turned to virtual learning across the state without a pre-established plan in place. School systems, teachers, and students had to adapt to new technologies quickly while many were without adequate access to wifi in Garrett County.
The first cases in March appeared to be contained. The virus typically is spread within the first 14 days an individual is infected. Most patients recover in about two weeks but the coronavirus is unpredictable with a wide array of symptoms from loss of smell and taste to debilitating respiratory complications that could require hospitalization. Anyone infected or exposed to a confirmed case was advised to quarantine for 14 days to prevent passing the virus to others. Isolation remains the most effective way to break the chain of spreading infections from one person to another.
By April 8, the county reported two additional positive test results bringing the total to 5 cases. Based on other areas, Garrett County was still looking like a safe place to live or escape to during the pandemic.
On May 6, Hogan eases outdoor activity restrictions, allowing people to enjoy public outdoor spaces and parks while still following CDC guidelines. At this point, indoor gatherings are still limited to 10 and non-essential businesses remained closed.
Garrett County added one more positive test result on May 18, bringing the total to 6 cases. The rest of the state was also seeing a leveling off of new cases which prompted Governor Hogan, on June 3 to announce phased-in plans to reopen. The Governor's "Roadmap To Recovery" relied on a 7-day positivity rate of less than 5 percent as a benchmark for opening businesses again.
The Garrett County Commissioners and the Health Department followed the governor's lead and also allowed vacation rental properties to reopen. With just 10 cases on June 7, the risks appeared low.
As the 4th of July weekend kicked in and Deep Creek Lake was seeing record visitors, just 14 cases were reported locally. Some additional cases appeared temporarily on the tally but were removed if the individual's primary residence was not in Garrett County. Because most activities were being held outdoors, the likelihood of transmitting the virus from person to person was less likely. If social gatherings were to impact the number of people infected, this would become evident in roughly 14 days (July 28) based on the usual incubation period of the coronavirus.
The following dates and corresponding cases fall between the 4th of July weekend and the 14-day incubation period.
July 8 – 16 cases
July 19 – 34 cases
July 23 – 38 cases
August 14 – 58 cases
Garrett County experienced a small but steady weekly increase following the 4th of July. Considering the robust summer season reported by local businesses, the transmission rate was not yet spinning out of control. Health Officer, Bob Stephens raised concerns that should the 7-day positivity rate climb above 15 percent, his department would not be able to manage contact tracing. It was inching closer by the day.
Bob Stephens, Garrett County Health Officer during Zoom meeting.
Further complicating community compliance with CDC guidelines, wearing a mask became a political flashpoint that some rejected as a violation of their individual rights. This was also fueled by early debates as to the efficacy of wearing masks in the midst of shortages for healthcare providers. The CDC eventually announced that masks reduced the risk of spreading the coronavirus by 70 percent if both individuals are wearing one.
August 20 – 60 cases
August 25 – 63 cases
September 4 – 64 cases
September 8 – 65 cases
From late August through early September, new cases trickled in. Keeping in mind that asymptomatic people carrying the virus may never get tested, adds to the concern a spike could unfold. Unlike the early months of the pandemic in Garrett County, Garrett Regional Medical Center's daily testing site was no longer available and most tests required a doctor's order. In some cases, there were lag times of up to seven days between getting a test and getting the results. Unless a person has been quarantined while they await their test results, they continue to risk spreading the virus if they end up positive.
By this time, Garrett County was fortunate to not have any deaths attributed to the virus. This changed with the September 10th report that shared the first death of a resident along with a total of 66 new positive cases. The first death was an elderly woman housed in a long-term care facility outside of the county but her permanent residence remained in Garrett County.
Garrett County Public Schools were faced with a difficult decision about reopening and what risks may be associated with assembling school children and faculty indoors. Children were shown to be relatively safe from the virus at this time but there was still concern they could transmit the disease to other family members at home. With encouragement from the state school board and funding to purchase protective equipment, the schools opened with modifications to limit class sizes and the number of students on any given day.
Sept. 13 – 68 cases
Sept. 16 – 71 cases
Sept. 19 – 72 cases
Sept. 27 – 74 cases
By Sept. 29 The public schools adopted a "Hybrid" reopening. Using varied days for different age students, allowing in-person learning that educators agreed was critical, especially for special needs children. Online classes were still in place when students were not in the school building.
Oct. 2 – 75 cases
Oct. 4 – 76 cases
The Annual Autumn Glory Festival weekend was kicked off on October 7. This event is a local tradition for area residents and extended family. It's a time for reunions and a celebration of the fall season. Most of the large-scale festivities were canceled but many families still hosted parties and overnight stays for family and friends from outside the county. This event may have caused an opportunity for the coronavirus to take a firm hold and begin the first community spread. If that's the case, by November 2, cases should begin to escalate.
Oct. 10 – 79 cases
Oct. 14 – 87 cases
Oct. 15 – 88 cases (School Opening Incubation Period)
Oct. 18 – 100 cases
Oct. 19 – 105 cases
Oct. 22 – 115 cases
Oct. 25 – 126 cases
Oct. 27 – 156 cases (Autumn Glory Incubation Period)
Oct. 30 – 167 cases
Using the 14-day incubation period from Autumn Glory weekend, November 2 reported 176 cases. That was up 97 cases which was less than some people feared. Just two days later, however, another 22 cases were reported indicating the fallout from social gatherings may not be over. By November 9, an additional 32 cases brought the total to 226 with no slowing in sight.
Nov. 4 – 194 cases
Nov. 9 – 226 cases
On November 10, Governor Hogan warns of a statewide surge and discourages holiday gatherings and unnecessary travel. He avoids new lockdown measures with the absence of Federal funding to prop up businesses that could be further hurt by closing.
The Garrett County Public Schools announced on November 11, that students would be returning to virtual learning.
Nov. 11 – 235 cases
Nov. 15 – 305 case
Nov. 19 – 408 cases
Through the first part of November, cases were steadily increasing with the Thanksgiving Holiday nearing. Families were discouraged from hosting celebrations that traditionally include multiple generations. To guide people on their holiday travel plans, the Garrett County Health Department set up a pre-holiday, drive-up testing site on November 20 allowing test results to arrive before the Thanksgiving holiday. Hundreds participated and waited in long lines for over an hour at times.
Garrett County Health Department holds free testing before Thanksgiving.
By November 20 Garrett County no longer held the distinction of having the fewest coronavirus cases in Maryland. With 511 reported cases, Kent County occupied the lowest case count, and by January 1, 2021, had roughly half the number of reported cases and deaths of Garrett.
The virus had been notoriously quick to ravage nursing homes which prompted Governor Hogan to isolate residents from guests and offer up more resources for more frequent testing and protective equipment. As the elderly and their caregivers became more vigilant, people between ages 30 and 59 claimed roughly 50 percent of new infections. On November 23, 559 cases reflected the shift from the elderly to a more mobile demographic.
Nov. 25 – 684
Despite repeated warnings from Health Officer Bob Stephens at the
Garrett County Health Department, contact tracing showed that most cases were contracted through family gatherings, attending church, and at bars. In response, on November 26, the Garrett County License Commission adopted COVID-19 directives for local restaurants and bars. The agency would begin to enforce CDC non-compliance with business owners, requiring them to police their staff and customers or risk fines or losing their licenses.
Nov. 27 – 702 cases
Dec. 2 – 797 cases
Dec. 3 – 874 cases
Dec. 4 – 969 cases
December 7 was a grim landmark with Garrett County surpassing 1,000 cases. With 1,044 cases and a runaway 7-day positivity rate, contact tracing was no longer possible to alert potentially infected individuals. Stephens again addressed the public about the importance of CDC compliance. He invites comments and suggestions from the public, asking for any ideas to get the virus under control. In addition, he attends the newly scheduled free bi-weekly testing site to answer any questions the public may have. To quell another surge in cases, Stephens advises families to forego holiday gatherings with Christmas just weeks away.
Dec. 9 – 1,130 cases
Dec. 11 – 1,190 cases
Dec. 14 – 1,240 cases
Dec. 16 – 1,292 cases
Dec. 18 – 1,324 cases
Governor Hogan makes another plea, on December 18, asking Marylanders to stay home for the holidays and only to celebrate with persons living within the same household. He fears hospitals could be overrun with new cases if another surge results from holiday festivities.
He also announces plans for the much-anticipated vaccine that will soon be available in limited supply. Garrett County is not on the list for the first distribution cycle of the Pfizer vaccine because of logistics with storage and how it is packaged. By the end of December, frontline workers and medical professions become the first recipients of the Moderna vaccine in Garrett County. The double dose is administered with a 28-day gap between shots and two weeks following the final dose before patients are considered protected. In studies, it was found to have a 95 percent efficacy rate.
Dec. 21 – 1,364 cases
On December 23, Garrett County reports 1,460 cases and soon after, relinquishes daily case reporting to the state. Overwhelmed by contact tracing and managing the influx of new cases, the Health Department restructures its resources for managing the virus. Because locally reported rapid tests are not acknowledged by the state health department, the total cases backslide for a few days before increasing once again.
As 2020 comes to a close, a year many people will want to forget, Garrett County tops off at 1,487 coronavirus cases as of January 1. All but 68 cases were reported within three months. By January 3, 1,496 cases and 52 deaths are a baseline for 2021, following Christmas and New Years' celebrations. By January 14, if Garrett County residents have been lax about following CDC guidelines, a new spike could occur.
As the vaccine is introduced, a variant of the coronavirus called B 1.1.7 has emerged in Africa, Europe, and the U.S. Health professionals feel confident the vaccine will be effective against the variant but the B 1.1.7 is found to be 10 to 60 percent more transmissible. While herd immunity is the goal of the vaccine until that benchmark is met, continuing CDC protocols will be imperative to keep future spikes under control. Immunologists all agree that wearing masks and social distancing are still the strongest preventative measures, placing the responsibility in the hands of the public at large to protect themselves and their communities.