The World Health Organization and U.S. National Institutes of Health studied past pandemics and recommend the following guidelines for communications about pandemics: planning, trust, transparency, announcing early and listening.

Our country’s response has long blown past “planning” and “announcing early.” However, it is not too late for “trust,” “transparency” and “listening.”

There is no better place for our elected and appointed officials to use these guidelines than at the local level, since we are all facing very personal decisions about responding to the risk of infection.

Our risks will change as Gov. Larry Hogan implements his plan to reopen Maryland, especially as the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) plans to locate a COVID-19 center at FCI-Hazelton, which employs many local residents.

The lack of transparency by the Allegany County Health Department (ACHD) and our local officials is one of the most frustrating and counterproductive approaches they could take. Transparency and honesty are the basic foundations of trust and gaining cooperation from the public or coworkers.

The state mandates that COVID-19 cases be recorded by county of residence (as opposed to where tested).

Any incarcerated youth or adults testing positive while residing at county jails, forestry camps, WCI and FCI are reported based on last county of residence before incarceration and not here. The same applies in Garrett County for Deep Creek Lake second home owners who become infected there.

Local health departments could report any locally relevant results of COVID-19 tests and positive cases, as long as they do not violate health privacy law.

They could report racial demographics and institutional cases, but choose not to. Comprehensive reporting of the number of COVID-19 positive cases in our region, regardless of county of residence, would increase general public understanding of risk to area residents, especially workers in essential services.

Furthermore, regardless of county of origin, local positive cases will likely seek medical treatment here and include inmates requiring critical care hospitalization.

Prison staff have complained of lack of protective gear and that secrecy prevents them from protecting their families. Those of you living here for any length of time know that secrets in small communities don’t last long.

Why wouldn’t the health department want transparency about risks to local residents? Is the Bureau of Prisons required to report cases to the health department? How many local folks have requested, but been denied, testing?

Some rural legislators and businesses are pushing Gov. Hogan to reopen rural areas of the State. Note that the Western Maryland lawmaker chose to be unnamed. Why? (See reader commentary, “Don’t be in a big hurry to do this,” April 26 Times-News.)

Is he reconsidering his position in light of our rising case numbers, or the decision by the bureau of prisons to locate COVID-19 positive cases in our region, potentially affecting correctional staff, health care workers and their families?

What is the position of our county commissioners?

Allegany County’s preparedness to handle coronavirus is “extremely low” — almost rock bottom — at 2 of 100, according to Stat news with Applied XL and the Center on Rural Innovation.

Not that we didn’t know that, but it is still stunning to see it quantified like this.

It is unconscionable to bring a Bureau of Prisons COVID-19 operation to a region underserved by health care. Allegany and Garrett have an older, more vulnerable population than most areas of the state.

COVID-19 tests miss 30% of people who are infected. At least 40% of people who are infecting others are asymptomatic.

Until there is widespread testing, our local numbers are going down, and we have the ability to do contact tracing, it would be negligent to go back to business as usual. 

Judy Stone, MD


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