A year later, COVID-19 has reshaped lives of York County residents

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
A temporary patient screening and testing area, for the COVID-19 coronavirus, is shown outside the Emergency Department at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Monday marked one year since Pastor Larry Walthour last preached in-person to the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church — when he could see their faces and shake their hands.

To commemorate the occasion, he took to online platforms, as has become commonplace, to hold a moment of silence. But the reflection also was in memory of those who have lost their lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the reason why he and his fellow worshipers can't be together in the first place.

It's been difficult, he said. But despite not knowing what to expect from the pandemic initially, it quickly became clear it wasn't going away any time soon.

“A lot of people don’t have access to online platforms," Walthour said. "They don’t use Facebook and things like that. So I think communication is a challenge. And then of course not being able to engage and see people is equally challenging.”

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Emma Rodgers, 7, of Monkton, Md., receives envelopes from Santa Clause for her group following the Santa Express to Glen Rock on the The Northern Central Railway leaving New Freedom, Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. As a result of COVID-19 guidelines, Santa would not be aboard the train. Instead, following their ride, passengers would find Santa in a nearby building offering socially distanced visits. Further COVID-19 mitigation restrictions announced Thursday by Gov. Tom Wolf would prematurely end the railroad's operating season making Friday the final day that the Santa Express excursions would be offered. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Next week, though, another one-year anniversary will come for York County as a whole. It was on March 18, 2020, when the first two COVID-19 cases in York County were reported.

Nearly one year later, 737 people in York County have died from the coronavirus, according to state reports, and almost 37,000 have tested positive .

One of those individuals was Janet Seitz, the mother of Donna Bortner. Seitz died last year because of COVID-19 complications.

Bortner said she understood the gravity of the pandemic, and others need to as well.

Hospital staff work to sanitize a temporary patient screening and testing area after a patient is screened outside the Emergency Department at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. The tented area will allow patients efficiently tested for the COVID-19 coronavirus in an open air space. Dawn J. Sagert photo

So when she could no longer see her mother in person at ManorCare Health Services-Kingston Court in Springettsbury Township, she made a ritual of doing drive-by visits outside her mother's window.

Soon, though, she was told her mother had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be taken into a quarantine area at the facility. An area that was partially covered by a white fence.

"By dumb luck, she was behind the white fence. I couldn’t see in her room. She didn’t know what hit her," Bortner said. "I figured if she got (COVID-19), she wouldn't last."

Donna Bortner, 68, left, of Springettsbury Township, visits her mother Janet Seitz, 89, at ManorCare Health Services-Kingston Court, Thursday, April 3, 2020. Bortner regularly visits her mother who has lived at the home since March 2019 following an illness. Seitz also suffers from dementia. "She’s just so easy to please because she’s just so grateful that we come and see her," said Bortner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Seitz died on Sept. 16. She was 89 years old.

The past year has ushered in sweeping changes to the lives of Bortner and all of York County's nearly 450,000 residents.

Health systems were pushed to their capacities, teachers and students had to adjust to online learning and masks and social distancing became the new norm when out in public. Lockdowns shuttered businesses, and unemployment rates soared to the highest levels in years. 

In addition, York County saw 198 drug overdose deaths, more than any other year on record, according to the York County Coroner's Office.

For Rachael Curry, a math teacher at Red Lion Area High School, transitioning to online learning was a difficult move. And it wasn't just Curry who found the new reality difficult, but also the children who she strives to educate, she said.

The self-service bulk food section at the Giant at 1255 Carlisle Road was not available during an hour reserved for only those aged 60 and older Thursday, March 19, 2020. The first hour of the store's day allows seniors to shop in less crowded conditions, providing a more sanitary setting for those susceptible to increased COVID-19 risks. Bill Kalina photo

“I feel like there were a few kids that we lost entirely,” she said. “There were students who, once the school shut down for two weeks, never reappeared. They did not participate in the digital platforms. They didn’t check their email. They kind of checked out entirely.”

Private businesses were hit hard as well, particularly restaurants and bars. Lockdowns followed by capacity limits hammered industries focused on filling seats.

"I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars last year," said Jim DeLisio, president of the York County Tavern Association and owner of the Racehorse Tavern in Jackson Township. "And I'll never get that back."

A "Temporarily Closed" sign is posted in Springettsbury Township, Saturday, March 21, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A February study by the American Psychological Association stated that the emotional impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has done psychological damage, too.

The survey of more than 2,000 adults found that the average reported stress level during the prior month was 5.6 on a scale of 1 to10, the highest it's been since the earliest days of the pandemic.

“Without addressing stress as part of a national recovery plan, we will be dealing with the mental health fallout from this pandemic for years to come," said Arthur C. Evans Jr., the association's CEO.

Many have called for Gov. Tom Wolf to ease his mitigation efforts further than he already has. Doing so would bring back businesses and allow for children to return to their normal social environments, they've said.

The Sherwood Inn owner Shawn Miller holds a COVID-commemorative T-shirt the New Salem tavern was selling Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The Pennsylvania Department of Revenue reported that bars and restaurants in the state plummeted nearly 44% in April, May and June compared to the same three months in 2019. Bill Kalina photo

But now's not the time, said Dr. Matt Howie, medical director for York City's Health Bureau.

“We’re at a critical phase," Howie said. "I am always happy to see caseloads go down. Those are really hard-earned improvements. I really appreciate the sacrifices the community had to make. But we are not done.”

In York County, the pandemic at its worst came in January after holiday celebrations. That month, the county saw single-day case increases that at one point surpassed 700 positive patients.

Even before then, the county's hospitals approached capacity. On one day in late July, just five adult intensive car unit beds were available in the entire county.

"Did I think we'd have the spikes we’ve had, especially the December and January spikes? We dreaded that," Howie said. "I think it lived up to our worst fears."

LifePath serves lunch to those in need while following COVID-19 prevention guidelines in York City, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Since then, though, numbers have improved, according to state Health Department data.

York on Tuesday reported 53 new COVID-19 cases and 25 available adult ICU beds. More than 100 other beds were also available, which hospitals have utilized to handle influxes of patients.

Vaccines are now available, although concerns about new variants and what they will mean for the efficacy of vaccines have arisen. In addition, rollout has been relatively slow.

But  despite those concerns, the more than 31,000 York County residents and 1 million Pennsylvanians who are already fully vaccinated are making a difference, health experts said.

Frontline health worker Dr. Hardik Patel wears some of his personal protective equipment outside WellSpan York Hospital Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. He provides care to about 23 COVID-19 patients each day. Bill Kalina photo

That includes those on the front lines of the pandemic, such as nurses who are often the last ones at the side of dying patients sequestered from their families.

Colby Hartlaub, manager of multiple intensive care units at WellSpan, including the COVID-19 ICU, said he didn't anticipate how long and arduous the pandemic would be.

But nurses take on the job because they are passionate about helping people, he said. They just had to transfer their energy toward addressing the pandemic and work together as a team.

“This was hard,” Hartlaub said. “There was intermittent crying throughout the entire year. There was a lot of pain everyone had to work through, and everyone had to work together.”

“A year later, we have this glimmer of hope," he said.

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.