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Top stories of 2021: COVID, anti-vaxxers contribute to exhausting year in York County

Staff and wire reports

If 2020 was the year COVID-19 upended the world, 2021 could have been the year when science and ingenuity righted it.  

But no. Though the first vaccine to protect against the virus was authorized in December 2020 and immunizations have been widely available since April, fear, ignorance and outright misinformation have hampered the effort.

Who could have foreseen the need to convince a certain segment of our community that, no, vaccines do not alter your DNA? The shots also do not include microchips to track your movements, and they will not magnetize you. (You actually are reading that right.)

More:Federal 'strike team' en route to York amid spiking COVID death toll

More:Three new COVID-19 deaths reported in York County Tuesday

More:'I implore you': WellSpan doctor urges vaccine hesitant to get COVID shots

As a result, only 52% of York County’s residents are vaccinated, lagging even the state’s abysmal 59.3% rate.

The stunning refusal of so many to avail themselves of a life-saving treatment left a large segment of our society vulnerable to variants like delta and omicron.

About 375 Yorkers died because of COVID-19 in 2020, when we were all but at the mercy of the virus. In 2021, a year when vaccines should have made COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths remote possibilities, more than twice that number have died.

As the new year begins, WellSpan York Hospital is one of two in the state that will get help from federal "strike teams" of medical workers to help deal with overwhelming numbers of patients — and more than 90% of those patients are unvaccinated people.

Some other top local stories of 2021:

— Central York’s school board was ridiculed across the country for its outrageous decision to ban teachers from using a list of articles, videos and books from some of today's most acclaimed creators of color.

Though the board unanimously approved the ban in November 2020, many teachers said they were surprised to find an email from Central York High School Principal Ryan Caufman on Aug. 11 that said: "Please see the attached list of resources that are not to be permitted to be utilized in the classroom."

More:Central York's book ban had unintended consequences. Namely, math

The board reversed its decision in September amid community protests, and in November Central voters elected five new board members.

Central High School senior Edha Gupta holds a sign while posing for a photo outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 13, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. Gupta organized student protests at the school the week prior to the meeting. Bill Kalina photo

— In fact, traditionally nonpartisan school board races were among the most intense contests in the November election, after months of parental protests over everything from potential COVID-related mask and vaccine mandates to teachings about racial history, The Associated Press reported.

Political issues, especially mask mandates, dominated multiple local races, in addition to Central York’s book ban.

More:School boards become hotbed for bigotry: 'It's being used as a weapon'

More:Local school boards emerge as hot races in November election

— The November election went off without a hitch, but that was not the case for May's primary, which saw some polling places run out of ballots, among other issues.

The county received heavy criticism in the wake of that election, including renewed calls by the York County GOP for Steve Ulrich to be fired from his position as elections director. The backlash eventually caused a shakeup in the York County elections office, including Ulrich's demotion to deputy director. The top spot is still vacant.

More:York County elections director loses job after botched primary

More:After demotion, embattled York County elections chief says he's sticking around

— Although locals might not hear much from U.S. Rep. Scott Perry — the far-right-wing Republican from Carroll Township rarely talks to local media or holds open public meetings — he allegedly was busy perpetuating the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and plotting to block the peaceful transfer of power.

More:Jan. 6 committee seeks interview with GOP Rep. Scott Perry

More:Rep. Scott Perry denies Jan. 6 panel's request for interview

More:Perry: I 'obliged' Trump with introduction to Justice lawyer

More:'Subverting Justice': Senate report shines light on Scott Perry's role in Trump's failed power grab

The lawmaker was cited more than 50 times in a Senate Judiciary Committee report released in October outlining how Trump’s effort to overturn his loss brought the Justice Department to the brink of chaos and prompted top officials there and at the White House to threaten to resign.

Once again: The Justice Department found no evidence of widespread fraud in Pennsylvania or any other state, and senior Justice officials dismissed Perry’s claims.

In a letter to Perry this month, the chairman of the panel investigating the Capitol insurrection said it had received evidence from multiple witnesses — including then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and then-acting Deputy Attorney General Richard Donoghue — that Perry had “an important role” in efforts to install an acting attorney general more amenable to overturning the election.

Perry rebuffed the committee’s request for an interview, setting up a test of whether the committee is willing to subpoena one of their own.

— The Senate committee report on the insurrection also shined a spotlight on another right-wing lawmaker from central Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, suggesting both he and Perry should be investigated further.

Documents show that, like Perry, Mastriano directly communicated with Donoghue about Trump’s false election fraud claims, according to the report.

A Facebook post showing state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, and former GOP state lawmaker Rick Saccone at Wednesday's pro-Trump rally in Washington.

More:‘This is a war’: Doug Mastriano's ties to election deniers and the Jan. 6 insurrection

More:Mastriano demotion reflects old-fashioned Pa. hardball politics

The Franklin County lawmaker, who represents a portion of York County and is said to be considering a run for governor, tried to launch a “forensic investigation” of Pennsylvania's 2020 presidential election, mimicking a widely criticized partisan effort in Arizona. He lost his committee chairmanship over the effort.

— The Mount Rose Avenue/Interstate 83 project began in 2015 and is wrapping up soon — two presidents later, three years overdue and millions over budget.

While a huge improvement over what was once a notorious local interchange, the process has led to a court fight over more than $23 million in damages claimed by the state, as well as an effort by state lawmakers to change the bidding process for such projects.

Mount Rose Avenue at the I-83 interchange in Springettsbury Township, Saturday, May 15, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

More:Company says PennDOT is holding up Mount Rose Avenue interchange project

— A class action lawsuit filed earlier this month alleges a contractor’s training methods violated the constitutional rights of inmates at York County Prison.

The 65-page lawsuit, filed on behalf of 50 current and former inmates, describes how Corrections Special Applications Unit transformed the prison into a “militarized environment.” It accuses the contractor of terrorizing and brutalizing inmates since its work began a year ago.

More:York County, prison contractor sued over alleged inmate abuses

Despite opposition, the York County Board of Commissioners in November approved a new two-year contract.

— A desperate search in November for two little girls who were abducted by their father in York County ended tragically.

Robert Vicosa, 41, a former Baltimore County cop, abducted 6-year-old Aaminah and 7-year-old Giana about Nov. 14 from a home in Windsor Township, allegedly with the help of Baltimore County Police Sgt. Tia Bynum, 36.

More:Grieving mother releases doves, lays daughters to rest

More:Police Chief Tim Damon faces private criminal complaint in Vicosa murder-suicide

He took the girls on the run with Bynum after assaulting the girls' mother. Police tracked them down in Maryland following a four-day manhunt. All were discovered shot in an apparent murder-suicide Nov. 18 inside a stolen Ford Edge just south of Waynesboro, Franklin County.

The girls’ mother later filed a private criminal complaint against York Area Regional Police Chief Timothy Damon in relation to his agency's handling of a protection-from-abuse order against Vicosa. 

— We needed some good news this year, and Spring Grove athletes rose to the occasion. 

Spring Grove High grad Hali Flickinger made York County history during the Tokyo Summer Games when the swimmer reached her second straight Olympics and became the first local athlete to claim two medals during one Olympic Games.

More:York countians overcome pandemic hurdles to enjoy triumphant sports year in 2021

Spring Grove High’s girls also won the 2021 state volleyball championship, and Laila Campbell, then a freshman at Spring Grove, won a pair of sprint gold medals at last spring’s state track meet.

Very well done.

The Associated Press and Spotlight PA contributed to this report.