COVID-19: Rural PA County Not Hit Hard, But Officials and Nonprofits Adjust and Prepare

Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia as many of our student journalists are no longer in the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting the their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

Though the outbreak of COVID-19 has not been as extensive in smaller communities as in larger cities, it still poses a threat making local officials worry.  

Bedford County, a rural county in south central Pennsylvania with a population of about 48,000, has had 21 positive cases and one death as of April 27. Though the numbers seem small, local leaders are preparing for them to worsen. 

The chairman of the Bedford County Board of Commissioners, Josh Lang, said residents in the county must work together and practice the measures outlined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the department of health in order to make it through the crisis. 

“I think people are certainly concerned,” Lang said. “[The] questions that come up are, ‘When’s this going to end? When am I going to be able to get back to my normal life?’ And that’s a legitimate concern. People are out of work.”

The first step is to prepare first responders—health personnel and essential workers, mostly—with personal protective equipment (PPE): face shields, gloves, gowns, and N95 masks. 

“In terms of supplies, people have attempted to get hand sanitizers at the stations and masks and things like that,” Lang said. “And we’ve seen a shortage of those. But we’ve been able to supply our employees with the proper personal protective equipment, mask included.”

For emergency services in Bedford County, the biggest challenge has been dealing with a national shortage of PPE. 

“We’re going to do everything that we can on the county level, as well as the regional level, to try to find more PPE for the responders,” David Cubbison, director of Bedford County’s Emergency Management Agency, said. 

Bedford County emergency management officials and hospitals had stockpiled a certain amount of PPE as part of a pandemic plan designed and adopted just over ten years ago, Cubbison said. However, that stockpiled equipment may not be enough.

“Nobody ever would have imagined that we would have something of this magnitude for the potential time frame that this could actually be,” Cubbison said. 

While health and emergency services work to prevent the spread of coronavirus infections, other agencies in the county are working to deal with the social and economic fallout from the disease. 

“If it goes on too long, you know that’s my ultimate concern, that it’s going to impact businesses,” Lang said. “I don’t want to see businesses shut down.  But we’re going to be committed to supporting those businesses, working with our partners locally, state, and federally, to help make sure that they stay in business and get people back to work.”

Still, a business slow down means declining local tax revenues, money that ultimately supports government services in the region. 

“People not being able to work, money’s not falling into our local economy,” Lang said. “I have definitely concern about how it impacts programs that have been positive in our communities and across the state. You certainly don’t want to see programs deteriorate.”

Local nonprofits have been providing a range of social services despite uncertainty about their economic futures.

While Your Safe Haven’s office is closed to the public, its services are still available.

Your Safe Haven provides services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other crimes for Bedford County residents. Executive director Beth Hickey said the impacts of social distancing and self-isolation on individuals and families will not be fully known until the area returns to some normalcy.

“Possible victims and children often learn to placate the abuser in order to avoid confrontation and abuse,” Hickey said via email. “I am certain that once the stay-at-home order is lifted, we will see an increase in reports of child abuse and domestic violence as alleged perpetrators will return to work, children to school, and victims will have more freedom to report.”

Hickey said the current situation is similar to holidays when people are at home and not in school. In volatile households, prolonged time at home, combined with a general increase in stress, can lead to increased incidents of trauma and abuse, she said. 

Fortunately, Your Safe Haven’s ability to offer services has not been affected. Staff work from home but still provide the same types of programs and level of support offered before social distancing orders took effect.

Human interaction is crucial for many forms of social, emotional, and psychological counseling, as well as various types of social work. But it’s also much more difficult to provide these services given the threat of COVID-19. 

Social service agencies focused on mental health, like Peerstar, which provides peer support for mental health across the state of Pennsylvania, have had to find ways to offer support to their clients without face-to-face interaction. For this type of mental health service, a certified peer specialist provides a service to someone with a serious mental illness on a one-on-one basis.

“The Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, who oversees our license, put out waiver options for face-to-face services, allowing us to use telephone and tele-video options to provide services,” Elissa Nulton, chief operating officer of Peerstar, said. “We were able do a waiver request and an adaptation that now allows our staff to provide the support via phone or video, as well as face-to-face, if it’s necessary, safe, and appropriate.”

While the majority of Peerstar’s staff now works remotely from home, the office is open every day to answer the phone and take new referrals.

“We are still receiving people,” Nulton said.

The organization has also been using social media to offer information on how to take advantage of their services right now, as well as to offer general advice and support.

“We put some things out on our Facebook page regarding how to contact us if you’re struggling,” she said. “We posted some information just to the public about ways to deal with the stress during, or anxiety during, this time as well.”

Despite disruptive changes, officials in Bedford County remain optimistic.

Normally busy, South Juliana Street in downtown Bedford is empty due to the majority of businesses having to close to the public.

“The people are resilient,” Cubbison said. “In the small towns, you have more of that ‘you’re part of my family, you’re part of my community’ mindset. And so people tend to take care of each other and watch out for each other.”

For Lang, Bedford County residents continue giving him reasons to be optimistic.

“I think we’ve got to work together and be unified on this issue and keep a positive outlook,” he said. “It’s a terrible situation, terrible what we’re going through as a country. But I think we’ll come out on top, we’ll prevail, and hopefully stronger than we did before.”

  • Text and images by Emma Goldhaber.

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