WAYNE COUNTY, PA — For the past several weeks, there has been good reason to feel optimistic about the state of COVID-19 in Wayne County. The PA Department of Health’s coronavirus figures …
WAYNE COUNTY, PA — For the past several weeks, there has been good reason to feel optimistic about the state of COVID-19 in Wayne County. The PA Department of Health’s coronavirus figures for the area have been steadily declining. Wayne County’s positivity rate dropped to 6.7 percent last Friday, the lowest it’s been in a long time, and the number of new cases in a two-week period has finally dropped to double digits after consistently breaking 100 through midwinter.
But a more localized, rawer statistic serves as a reminder of the irreparable toll this virus has had on the community: less than two months in, more people have died from COVID-19 in Wayne County in 2021 than in all of 2020.
That fact comes from the office of the county coroner, Edward Howell. In 2020, Wayne County reported 25 deaths of “individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 and died as result.” As of February 23, 2021, Howell’s office counted 35 COVID-related deaths.
The county coroner has always been a busy department—with a local hospital, several prisons and an elderly population—but Howell said the pandemic has drastically transformed the way his office operates and increased the caseload it handles.
Community-based vs. facility-based transmission
This uptick in fatalities began at the tail-end of 2020. In fact, more than half of the deaths Wayne County saw last year took place between November 30 and December 31. Before November 30, the county’s last COVID death was reported in July.
Howell said that the fatal surge has to do with how the virus spread through Wayne County this winter compared to the spring and summer months.
“The distinction I’m seeing in having 25 total cases in 2020 as opposed to this year is that those initial deaths were more community based: people who got sick at home, made it to the hospital and died at the hospital,” Howell said. “But what happened in December is the folks who were coming down with the virus were coming out of facilities: That’s where the big boom happened.”
The virus made its way into the nursing homes, personal care facilities and the state prison, Howell said.
Since November, the location of 15 COVID-19 deaths is marked as either a nursing home or personal care facility. At least a few more deaths than that originated in congregate care facilities. For example, Howell noted that four nursing home residents lost their lives due to COVID-19 on December 28, though only one’s location is marked as “nursing home,” because the other three were taken to the hospital before passing away.
Ever since the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., nursing homes have been a primary concern for health officials. Not only do the staff and residents have to remain in a building together, but the residents’ age makes them especially vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus.
According to data from Pennsylvania’s Health Department, more than 1,500 facilities across the commonwealth have reported cases, and more than 12,000 deaths among residents and staff have occurred.
Not every nursing home in Wayne County has been so hard hit by the virus. The Wayne Woodlands Manor short-term rehabilitation center and long-term care facility has not reported any deaths from COVID-19, and it’s not only that: Not a single resident has tested positive for the virus since the pandemic’s onset. Manager Mike Freund attributes the success simply to strict adherence to CDC and state guidelines.
“We ended visitation [during December] and thank God our residents and families here have been great through this whole process no matter how tough things got,” Freund said.
Things are continuing to look up for Wayne Woodlands, recently getting its residents fully vaccinated.
“That’s going to help even more,” he said. “But it’s a daily process of protecting our residents. Even though we have them vaccinated, we are continuing to follow the regulations and guidelines.”
It’s important to note that the data from the Wayne County Coroner looks different than that from the health department. That’s because of how they measure things. Pennsylvania reports deaths based on an individual’s county of residence, regardless of where in the world they passed away. So, if someone whose home is in Honesdale, PA died from COVID-19 while in Florida, the department of health counts it as a Wayne County death. In the same way, somebody from New York City who traveled to Wayne County, got sick with COVID-19 and died at Wayne Memorial Hospital would not be counted by the health department as a Wayne County death.
The coroner takes the opposite approach. No matter where somebody is from—another county, another state, another country—if they pass away within the bounds of Wayne County, they’re counted as a Wayne County death. Howell also affirmed the accuracy of the data from his office, despite nationwide conspiracy theories.
“For these deaths to be listed as a COVID death, it has to be listed by the immediate medical provider as one of the immediate causes of death,” Howell said. “I know there’s a lot of conspiracy going on with people killed in motor vehicle accidents [and] they’re putting COVID down as the cause of death. I can’t speak for anywhere outside of Wayne County, but I can tell you with certainty—and I see all the death certificates for Wayne County—the deaths that list COVID as one of the causes of death, or the main cause of death, are based on a positive test and the fact that they have died due to that condition.”