From the late 1890s until the early 1950s, Fayette County, which sits deep in the heart of southwestern Pennsylvania, was at the center of the nation’s coal and coke industries.
Stretching from about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh to the West Virginia border, the county’s population grew from 55,842 people in 1880 to 188,104 by 1920.
Its population peaked at 200,000, but with the coal and coke industries’ demise, people left the county in droves, and its economy never recovered.
The county’s population dropped to an estimated 129,274 last year, declining 40,000 or almost 25 percent since 1960. The last time the county had so few people was somewhere around 1905.
Meanwhile, the number of poor people in the county has risen over the years. According to the 2010 Census Bureau, the county was second to last among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in per capita income, household median income, and family median income.
As of last November, its unemployment rate was the fourth highest in the state at 8.6 percent, almost two percent below the state’s average of 6.9 percent.
And now the county is being slammed by COVID-19.
The Uniontown zip code, with 31,482 people, had 1,588 new COVID-19 cases in the last week of December, the highest number of new cases for any zip code in the state, PennLive recently reported.
A Dec. 27 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explained how Uniontown Hospital, the county’s biggest hospital, struggled to take care of all the patients coming in with COVID-19. It told harrowing stories of doctors and nurses working 15 hours a day waging a fierce but largely futile battle to save the lives of patients infected by COVID-19.
Every person in the hospital’s 15-bed ICU was infected with COVID-19, and about half of the patients in the 145-bed hospital. Hospital officials banned visitors. The public elevator didn’t stop on the second floor, where there was a red zone for 27 people with COVID-19.
A few days earlier, hospital officials opened the shuttered fourth floor to accommodate more patients with the disease. Hospital staff said a sharp uptick in cases began in the past few weeks.
Dr. David Hess, who takes over as the hospital’s CEO next month, told the Post-Gazette that he’s worried about the hospital’s doctors and nurses suffering a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome — emotional problems that are best known in soldiers returning from war.
Uniontown Hospital’s morgue reportedly reached capacity in early December when three ICU patients died in 3.5 hours, said Chris Hair, 44, who has been a registered nurse at the hospital since graduating from nursing school.
Hair, a hospital manager who consoles families when a patient dies. told the Post-Gazette that “This is the worst I’ve seen in my career.”
Since March, the Post-Gazette noted that three pairs of siblings have died from COVID-19 in Uniontown Hospital’s ICU, including a couple from out of town who came in for a funeral.
The state Department of Health reported that as of Jan. 2, Fayette County had 7,321 known cases of COVID-19 and 114 deaths.
However, during the epidemic, several restaurants and bars advertised on Facebook that they would be open for New Year’s Eve parties, exactly the type of social gatherings outlawed by Gov. Tom Wolf in his most recent restrictions.
One business was afraid of word getting out about its plans for New Year’s Eve, posting the following message on its door, “We kindly ask that you absolutely do not post any social media pictures or videos.
“If you fudge this up, you are barred.”
Meanwhile, the county’s four Republican legislators have mostly avoided publicly backing measures such as pushing mask-wearing, social distancing and staying at home, which experts agree are needed to halt the virus.
Instead, they’ve focused their efforts on criticizing Wolf for his restrictions on bars and restaurants.
State Sen. Pat Stefano R-Fayette, who chairs the Senate Law and Justice Committee, criticized the restrictions calling them, “unfair and arbitrary.”
State Rep. Matthew Dowling, R-Fayette, was more concerned about gun owners’ rights during emergency declarations, such as the one initiated by Gov. Tom Wolf because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Pennsylvanians are being left without a way to exercise their constitutional rights, which is exactly the fear I had before I drafted the bill,” said Dowling.
Many people, including the legislators, were also critical of Wolf for allowing stores such as Wal-Mart to remain open while restricting operations for bars and restaurants.
However, it should be clear to everyone that restaurants and bars pose far greater safety threats because people have to remove their masks to eat and drink. And many patrons engage in all types of conversations with people they’re seated with, further spreading the virus. Social distancing in many small bars and restaurants is impossible.
In box stores, everyone wears a mask at all times and there is plenty of room for social distancing. Most customers do their shopping quickly and leave.
So, what’s ahead for the beleaguered Uniontown Hospital?
Well, according to a Post-Gazette story on Jan. 2, there have been some signs of recent improvement with a testing positivity rate of 21.9 percent for the week ending Dec. 30 compared with 24.4 percent the previous week. The average daily number of hospitalizations dipped slightly during the week, to 65.3 from 65.9.
But officials at the hospital know there could be a post-holiday surge in cases in the second week of January thanks to all social events over Christmas and New Year.
“Our numbers are down a bit from their peak in late December, thanks to the tireless work of our doctors and nurses,” hospital spokesman Josh Krysak said. “Jan. 14 to 21 — that’s going to be critical for us.”
Opinion contributor Mark O’Keefe, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., is the former editorial page editor of the Uniontown Herald-Standard. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.