Community Revealed through Crisis: COVID-19 in Beaver County

With no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, Governor Tom Wolf issued a “stay at home” order for Beaver County on Saturday, March 28, 2020 to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by enforcing social distancing. Under the order, all “non life-sustaining” businesses closed and residents were asked to only leave their homes for essential services like food and medicine.

Beaver County experienced one of the worst nursing home outbreaks in the state, with more than 332 residents confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19, 80 of whom sadly passed away from the virus. 108 staff members were also infected. The situation was so dire that the Pennsylvania National Guard arrived at the facility on May 11th to assist with cleaning and sanitizing the building to prevent further spread of the virus.

Empty streets and masked faces became the new normal, as we moved through day after day alone together.

Nearly 16,000 Beaver Countians lost their jobs in the month after the county entered quarantine, bringing unemployment to levels not seen since the mills closed.

By June, upwards of 600 county residents contracted the virus, complications of which killed Ambridge Police Chief Mark Romutis.

In the wake of his death on Easter Sunday, the community and law enforcement agencies from across the region paid tribute as he was laid to rest.

The crisis brought out a renewed appreciation for the people who hold our communities together – nurses and nursing home aides, teachers, grocery store workers, bus drivers, and the non-profits who work year-round to make sure our neighbors can take care of themselves and their families.

Born and raised in Aliquippa, Marlana Green works the night shift at Beaver Eldercare, a 67-bed skilled nursing facility in Aliquippa. “I love all my residents, and they love me,” she says, describing the family bond that’s formed between them.

She admits that “it is scary right now with the pandemic going on,” but says the workers “are doing everything we can to keep ourselves and our residents safe.”

Marlana says “it’s a great feeling being at the front line, very rewarding,” because “I love helping people.” Having health issues of her own, she worries about getting sick or bringing the virus into her home, but the thought of not going into work never crossed her mind.

The dedication of workers like Marlana stands in stark contrast to the low pay and demanding conditions they face in the Pennsylvania’s direct care industry. Often, starting salaries are higher at places like gas stations than inside the facilities that families entrust their loved ones to.

Tasked with making recommendations to state lawmakers about how to strengthen Pennsylvania’s long-term care system (which includes both care in nursing homes and in communities, through Medicaid-funded waiver programs that support independent living), Pennsylvania’s Long-Term Care Council put together a report in 2019 that found that:

  • Low pay, high-turnover and changing demographics could lead to serious shortages of workers able to care for older and disabled Pennsylvanians as “approximately 70% of people turning 65 on average will need some type of LTSS (long-term services and supports) during their lives.”
  • Pennsylvania’s median wage for personal care and home health aides are between $9.01 and $12.01 per hour, well below the median wage for all occupations of $18.05.
  • “Over half of direct care workers employed in home care, 40% employed in nursing homes, and 36% employed in residential care homes reside in households earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.”
  • “Almost half of direct care workers in home care and 30% in nursing homes and residential care homes receive some form of public assistance.”

As children, we were comforted by the words and example of Mr. Rogers who recalled his Mother’s words of wisdom in scary and uncertain times: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” As adults, we realize that WE are the helpers. What we do, or fail to do, shapes the world around us. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Beaver Countians of all ages, races, and backgrounds stepped up to serve.

But COVID-19 wasn’t the only virus attacking Americans during this time. The May 25th murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis forced a long-overdue reckoning with how white Americans have tolerated – and benefitted from – racist system that deny black Americans their very humanity.

Marches, demonstrations, and peaceful protests sprang up in communities across Beaver County, with young people leading the way. From Aliquippa to Beaver Falls to Ambridge, RochesterMidland, and Beaver, neighbors – helpers, heroes – from all walks of life joined together to demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Antwon Rose, and every precious black life ended by racism and police brutality.

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say, ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” – Mr. Rogers

Tracia Bratton, who helped organize the peaceful and prayerful demonstrations in Ambridge hopes their visibility “provokes people to think about right and wrong.” Through tears, she says, “My children’s skin is viewed as a weapon, as a threat, and it’s not right.”

“If all lives mattered, we wouldn’t be here today,” Andrea Marsick Smith, says, standing by the Rochester roundabout holding a sign that reads “You can’t love God and hate his creations.” She was joined by nearly two dozen others and Mayor Keith Jackson, who believes that change will come if people continue to stand together against injustice.

At every gathering, speakers urged us all to listen with open minds and open hearts, to demonstrate that Black Lives Matter by supporting black-owned businesses, speaking up whenever and wherever we see racism and hate, and voting – honoring our ancestors who fought and died to give us that right.

“What will you do differently after today?” Victoria Smith asked the crowd of nearly 500 gathered in Beaver Falls on Saturday, June 6th. “If you don’t vote, then you are not in this fight.” Register by October 19th to vote in the next election. If you will be 18 by Election Day, you can vote!

RiverWise stands with 30 other sustainability organizations in western Pennsylvania in calling for a responsible path forward in response to COVID-19, including the structural racism in our society that has put our Black neighbors at greater risk.

We were honored to be part of the coalition who drafted this piece, and we stand behind the spirit and substance of the document. Please take a moment to read the full article and dream with us about what such a stance would require here in Beaver County.

“During the COVID-19 crisis, the people of southwestern Pennsylvania have learned much about who we are, who we want to be, and the need for unity and leadership in the face of loss and uncertainty. The pandemic continues to cause great change, even as we navigate what it means to reopen. Recent events in Minneapolis and across the nation are reinforcing the critical need to intentionally address racism and develop systems that work for everyone.

This turbulent time presents a unique opportunity to rebuild a stronger, more resilient region together. A responsible recovery from COVID-19 and from our legacy of racism begins with addressing the essential challenges before us and planning our best next steps. Now is the time to build a society that is truly founded upon justice for all, and comes from understanding and respecting the interconnectedness of all people, our health, our environment, and our prosperity.”