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CUMBERLAND — A local group wants clear leadership that unites county organizations and elected officials to combat the spread of COVID-19 through consistent enforcement of mask wearing, prevention of gatherings and working to provide personal protective equipment.

The Allegany County Women’s Action Coalition sent a statement to several local leaders including county commissioners and health department officials “to express our extreme concern in regard to the seeming lack of leadership in (Allegany County) in regard to the COVID crisis.”

Allegany and Garrett counties Thursday continued to top Maryland’s daily COVID-19 positivity rate by jurisdiction at 14.98% and 14.17%, respectively, and each roughly doubled the statewide figure of 7.19%.

At 130.65, Allegany County was the only jurisdiction in Maryland to register above 100, and more than quadrupled the statewide’s 31.66 for a seven-day moving average case rate per 100,000 people. Garrett County was second highest in the state at 77.3.

“Other than the report of how many cases have occurred, the (Allegany County Health Department) has been silent,” WAC’s letter stated. “We have the highest rate of cases in the state! We would expect some kind of coordinated effort by all local officials to do something about this!”

The group’s letter asks for immediate collaboration from ACHD, UPMC Western Maryland and county and city governments to address and work to decrease the spread of the virus locally.

“Clearly, more is needed than what we have now as we watch our families and friends hit hard by this virus,” WAC stated.

Additionally, the group wants timely communication of case rates, hospitalizations and actions being taken to slow spread of the disease.

“Without open communication, rumors fly and grow and people become afraid, angry and misinformation becomes the norm,” WAC stated. “Perhaps if people in the community had the facts about how stretched the health system is, they would begin to comply with masking and distancing. Currently it doesn’t seem to hit home since some politicians continue to oppose masks and ignore public health recommendations.”

COVID-19 threatens local lives and the area’s economy, the group stated.

“Where is the leadership to stem the tide of these outbreaks and to help us get back on the road to controlling the virus?” WAC stated.

Joy Kroeger-Mappes of Frostburg is one of 18 WAC members that signed the statement.

“I would like to stress that the clear and repeated refusal to be transparent and let people know the status of the COVID-19 crisis creates concern and increasingly fear,” she said via email. “Not giving people details leaves us vulnerable. We need to know the locations and groups where outbreaks took place and how many people were affected. We need to know in detail the number of COVID-19 patients in our hospital and to the extent hospital staff are affected/infected. Holding comments to the ‘company line’ makes us distrustful and is seriously unsettling.”

WAC member Yvonne Perret of Cumberland also signed the letter.

“I know that people are frustrated with the wearing of masks, social distancing, and other precautions,” she said via email. “But, by doing this, we’re saving others’ and our own lives. This virus is real, is ongoing, and is affecting more and more people in our community, of all ages. Let’s take precautions together. This isn’t political. It’s public health.”

Responses to WAC’s letter

Nina Forsythe, Frostburg’s commissioner of water, parks and recreation, said she welcomes better leadership, coordination and transparency in the community’s response to the COVID-19 emergency.

“A clear, strong, medically informed message from our leaders at the county and regional level would certainly help create a coordinated response,” she said via email. “Better and timely information from the ACHD and (UPMC Western Maryland) would underline the urgency of the situation and help quell the rumors, both alarmist and denialist, that are rampant.”

Better information about testing and contact tracing would also be helpful, Forsythe said.

“This is a public health issue, not a political issue, so I feel that the ACHD should take the lead, and political bodies can then amplify the message and implement the proper measures,” she said. “The sooner we all comply with measures that can slow the spread of the virus, the better the health system can manage it and the safer we will all be.”

Cumberland City Councilwoman Laurie Marchini shares WAC’s concerns, but said the mayor and city council have been vocal from the beginning of the pandemic regarding the importance of wearing face coverings.

“The mayor has recorded weekly (Facebook) updates throughout the pandemic and urged compliance,” Marchini said via email Thursday. “The (Cumberland Police Department has) visited city businesses to remind them of the governor’s executive order and have responded quickly to complaints.”

Additionally, council members have posted messages on their personal social media pages to urge compliance, “and have done our best to model appropriate mask wearing in public places,” she said.

“Most recently, we have reached out to other elected officials to create a joint statement advocating mask wearing and social distancing,” Marchini said.

City Councilman Rock Cioni said the mayor and council have utilized every means available to emphasize the critical nature of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

“Just yesterday, our police officers including the chief himself visited approximately 60 businesses to educate and inform,” he said via email.

COVID-19 is first and foremost a health issue, and municipalities should follow guidance from medical experts and the governor “and stress to our residents the messages these folks deliver,” Cioni said.

“I am satisfied that city officials, elected and staff, have made every attempt to ensure that city residents are well-informed,” he said. “The mayor brings this up every chance he gets and (City Council) discusses this regularly always asking, ’Is there more we can do?’”

Cumberland Mayor Ray Morriss said since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March, he and city council members have urged all citizens and businesses to comply with Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order to fight the spread of the disease.

“We have all urged citizens to stay at home if at all possible, wear masks when required and maintain the social distancing requirements based on the guidelines provided by the state during each stage of the governor’s Roadmap to Recovery,” he said via email.

The mayor and City Council passed a resolution in August to support the governor’s order, and resolved that the Cumberland Police Department would enforce the compliance within the city, Morriss said.

On Aug. 11, Morriss, Allegany County Commissioner Jake Shade and Frostburg Mayor Bob Flanigan sent a letter to Hogan to request a free COVID-19 testing site, and to prepare Allegany County for the anticipated second wave of the disease.

“We continue to urge all citizens and businesses to comply with the requirements of the executive order,” Morriss said. “The CPD has responded to all calls that they have received concerning violations (and) CPD has also visited city businesses systematically to educate and enforce the requirements of the executive order during the varying stages of the state’s Roadmap to Recovery.”

State Sen. George Edwards also said it’s important for the public to follow Hogan’s health guidelines, including wearing a mask that covers the mouth and nose, social distancing, washing hands and using sanitizer.

“Unless you really have to go somewhere where there’s people, you should probably just stay at home,” he said. “Let’s get these numbers back down.”

Everybody is concerned “about the very quick increase in (COVID-19) cases out here in Mountain Maryland,” he said.

Edwards said he and other local leaders several months ago asked Hogan’s office for a state-run COVID-19 testing facility.

That request didn’t come to fruition until last week.

“It didn’t all come up just now, it was asked before,” he said.

In terms of how much information the public should be given about local COVID-19 numbers and places where outbreaks happen, Edwards said he understands privacy rights, and added that state health department officials direct counties regarding what details should be released.

He also talked of Hogan saying at a press conference Tuesday that Western Maryland hospitals were “already at their capacity limit.”

The governor “maybe didn’t have all his facts right,” Edwards said.

Luke Mayor Edward E. Clemons Jr. said the town has followed health and safety guidelines since March.

The city office is closed to the public except by appointment, and the community center is not open to be rented, he said via email.

“We have installed plexiglass barriers between the service desk and the office,” Clemons said. “Our public works employees have been provided with face masks and gloves. Our public meetings are virtual. Our town election required face masks and social distancing and we provided PPE to our clerks and each voter received a pencil with no eraser to vote with and keep.”

UPMC Western Maryland officials, as well as the Allegany County Health Department, have not answered past questions from the Cumberland Times-News including requests for specific COVID-19 case numbers, patient transfers and infections among staff members.

On Thursday, CTN asked UPMC officials for a response to WAC’s letter.

A spokesperson said via email, “UPMC does not have a response to the letter.”

CTN also asked for the hospital system’s triage procedure, including whether any patients could be turned away if there aren’t enough hospital beds.

“UPMC Western Maryland stands ready and is prepared to care for patients with any and all medical needs, including those with COVID-19,” the spokesman said. “We have robust plans in place across the UPMC system to scale up our capacity and manage the health care needs of our communities, including transferring patients and sharing resources across our 40-hospital academic medical center.”

Recent social media posts indicated some local health care workers Saturday traveled in a bus full of people, that were not wearing masks, to a rally that reportedly included thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.

CTN asked the hospital system for its requirements of employees to quarantine and whether they’re paid while off work.

“If employees are potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19 without wearing the proper personal protective equipment, they are required to quarantine at home and do receive paid time off,” the spokesman said.

Contact tracers face struggle

“Because of the large number of positive cases across the region, if you test positive for COVID-19 it is important to immediately isolate yourself and remain in isolation for 10 days,” Garrett County Health Officer Bob Stephens said via press release. “Contact tracers are having a hard time keeping up with the volume of cases. If you test positive, do your part to reduce the spread by calling your close contacts and asking them to quarantine for 14 days from their last contact with you. We all need to take personal responsibility to help keep others safe.”

People that have been in close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should immediately begin quarantining and can get tested three to five days after exposure.

“If you develop symptoms, get tested at that time,” the release states. “Symptoms can develop anywhere from two to 14 days after exposure.”

The next community drive-through testing event in Garrett County will be held at the health department office in Oakland from 9 a.m. to noon on Nov. 20.

“Please follow the signs and watch for traffic personnel for direction,” the release states. “Be prepared for a possible wait depending on how many persons take advantage of this event.”

Tests could be either a nasal or a throat swab, depending on age of the patient and availability of kits.

There is no out-of-pocket cost to get a test at the site, and appointments and doctors’ orders are not required.

Visit garretthealth.org for the most up-to-date COVID-19 information.

Misinformation on social media

While many local folks turn to Facebook to learn more about the virus, misinformation is reportedly the social media website’s most widespread problem.

“Facebook Inc. said it labeled 167 million user posts this year for including information about Covid-19 that was ‘debunked’ by the social network’s fact-checkers,” Bloomberg reported Thursday.

CARES funds ‘running dry’

U.S. Congressman David Trone this week discussed with elected officials and medical leaders throughout Western Maryland the recent COVID-19 spikes and “how they are dealing with the worst spike in COVID-19 cases that we’ve ever seen since the start of this pandemic,” he said via press release.

“Funds are running dry from the CARES money passed by Congress in March, and there will be serious consequences for first responders, small businesses, COVID testing capabilities, and broadband access, all of which could harm the health and economy of Western Marylanders for a long time to come,” Trone said. “It’s outrageous that Congress and the administration can’t come together to pass another relief package that our communities desperately need.

COVID-19 exposure notifications available

The Maryland Department of Health Thursday reported 2,910 new COVID-19 cases, which marks the highest single-day jump, with 19 additional deaths and 48 more people hospitalized across the state in the past 24 hours.

At that time, Gov. Larry Hogan said more than a million Marylanders have subscribed to MD COVID Alert — a COVID-19 exposure notifications express system MDH launched last week.

MD COVID Alert uses Bluetooth technology to notify a person if they may have been exposed to COVID-19 without compromising the identity or location of users.

“We are encouraging everyone to opt-in, which will help us stop the spread and protect our fellow Marylanders,” Hogan said. “This incredible response is a testament to the perseverance and vigilance of the people of our state during this unprecedented public health crisis.”

Marylanders with an iPhone can opt-in to MD COVID Alert by enabling exposure notifications in their phone’s settings and selecting Maryland as their region.

Android users can opt-in by installing the MD COVID Alert app from the Google Play store. MD COVID Alert is available at no cost and is voluntary. Users can disable exposure notifications at any time.

Learn more at covidlink.maryland.gov/mdcovidalert.

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