COVID-19 pandemic is top story of 2021 | Garrett News | wvnews.com – WV News

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Overcast with rain showers at times. High 57F. Winds SW at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 50%..
Rain likely. Low 48F. Winds SW at 10 to 20 mph. Chance of rain 100%. Rainfall around a half an inch.
Updated: December 31, 2021 @ 1:21 pm
Dr. Todd Feathers receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Garrett Regional Medical Center. While the vaccine is readily available in Garrett County, less than half the population has opted to get an injection.
Protesters gather in front of the Garrett County Board of Education office in September to oppose the school mask requirement.
State Sen. George Edwards talk about education funding issues during a pre-legislative meeting in 2019 at Garrett College. Both announced this year that they would not seek re-election in 2022.

Dr. Todd Feathers receives the COVID-19 vaccine at Garrett Regional Medical Center. While the vaccine is readily available in Garrett County, less than half the population has opted to get an injection.
Protesters gather in front of the Garrett County Board of Education office in September to oppose the school mask requirement.
State Sen. George Edwards talk about education funding issues during a pre-legislative meeting in 2019 at Garrett College. Both announced this year that they would not seek re-election in 2022.
OAKLAND — The continued spread of COVID-19 in Garrett County leads the Garrett County Republican’s list of the top local stories of 2021.
In a year of murder, drugs, kidnapping and political issues, the virus continued to dominate everyone’s lives from January to December, with little chance of relief as the COVID variants continue to emerge into the new year.
1. COVID-19 grows worse
It was supposed to be a year of “getting back to normal” after the shutdowns and aggravation of 2020, the year of COVID-19. For Garrett County, however, 2021 was a worse year in dealing with the virus.
Garrett County began 2021 with the top vaccination rate in the state, but ended the year with months of having the worst rate of any of Maryland’s counties.
As the COVID-19 vaccines in January were being distributed sparingly in Garrett County due to the state allocating them in proportion to county populations, local health department officials were careful with administering the vaccine, often getting an extra shot out of the five-dose vials.
In early January, 6.75 percent of Garrett County had received at least a first dose, compared to the state rate of 3.65 percent.
As of Wednesday, though, 85.5 percent of Marylanders over the age of 5 have received at least one dose, and the number rises to 91.7 percent for those ages 18 and up. Garrett County has remained at the bottom of the list since the vaccines were made available to the general public. Only 47 percent of the local population has received a COVID-19 injection.
In a year in which the coronavirus was expected to subside and bring life back to normal, Garrett County instead saw more than 2,600 new cases, and 44 COVID-related deaths.
Garrett County Health Officer Bob Stephens presented updates to the county commissioners throughout the year, keeping them apprised of the local surge from the end of 2020 through the winter, followed by a downward trend through the summer, and the current upswing.
While the county had some of the lowest case rates in the state at the end of the summer, it remained near the top of the list during the fall — with 100-plus new cases being reported weekly.
The local surge can be attributed to three factors, according to Stephens: the emergence of the Delta variant, having the lowest vaccination rate in the state, and the lower average number of people with COVID antibodies. That’s because Garrett County didn’t have a lot of the disease present until August, he said. Combined with half of the county being unvaccinated, that has created a large pool of people susceptible to contracting the virus.
2. Back to school in masks
After spending most of 2020 and to the end of the school year in 2021 learning via computer, Garrett County students returned to the classrooms in the fall — but under a requirement to keep their masks on.
While many parents agreed that an in-person education was preferable to remote instruction, some said the mask requirement was an affront to their personal freedom to have their children attend school with their faces fully exposed.
A protest was held Sept. 3 in front of the Garrett County Board of Education office in Oakland, with more than 100 people expressing opposition to the board’s decision to start the school year with a mask requirement.
Organizer Kevin Mason said the school board is “not giving the parents the choice and them not having informed consent for our children to wear a medical respiratory device for eight hours a day in a classroom, and not being able to breathe clean air.”
The Garrett County Board of Education had voted to implement a mask plan that would have been based on the county’s COVID-19 numbers. Masks could have been taken off in schools after two weeks of case rates and positivity percentages falling within minimal levels.
However, the Maryland State Department of Education shortly afterward received approval of a statewide masking requirement for all public schools for 180 days.
“Masking inside schools helps protect our students, teachers and school staff as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” state schools Superintendent Mohammed Choudhury said. “It is critical that all school systems follow this emergency law, and immediately implement face covering requirements as one of several layered public health strategies to keep schools open and safe.”
3. Bringing legislative careers to an end
In July, state Sen. George Edwards, R-Garrett, announced he would not seek re-election in 2022, bringing an end to 40 years of trips to Annapolis as both a senator and a delegate.
Less than a month later, Delegate Wendell Beitzel, R-Garrett, also said he would not run again next year. Beitzel replaced Edwards in the House in 2006 after the latter won his Senate seat.
“Looks like we will go out together,” Beitzel told Edwards in his retirement announcement.
Beginning with the State of the County held in July at the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce’s Business Before Hours event, county officials have predicted an economic impact on the county following the lawmakers’ departure.
“In two years, there’s going to be a new state senator, probably not going to be from Garrett County, going to be a junior person starting at the bottom, probably going to be a Republican in a Democrat administration,” Commissioner Jim Hinebaugh said.
4. Multi-state murder and kidnapping
Several local people stand accused in the kidnapping and murder of an Oakland man who was found dead in Preston County.
The Garrett County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division has charged two Eglon residents in connection with the alleged kidnapping and murder of Jimmy Lee Barkley.
According to criminal complaints, Barkley, 41, was kidnapped from Oakland on Oct. 13 and taken to a residence near Eglon, where he was shot.
Damon Lamont Hudgens, 21, of Detroit has been charged with first-degree murder of Barkley in Preston County in what police have called a “retribution” killing.
According to press releases from the Garrett County and Preston County sheriff’s departments, late Oct. 12 through early Oct. 13, Dashawn Nichelle Scott, 25, and Roy Tyson Cheshire, 20, helped a “Morgantown/Detroit group” locate Barkley at an Oakland residence.
The releases said that Scott, Cheshire and Andrew William Wassick, 24, of Morgantown, W.Va., “located Barkley inside the residence, stripped him down, tied him up and forced him into the vehicle that took him to a cabin in Preston County. Upon arrival, Barkley was relinquished to an unknown man who had directed the subjects to find him for retribution,” according to the releases. Shortly thereafter, witnesses reported they heard multiple gunshots in the wooded area near the cabin.
Wassick, Scott and Cheshire were each charged with kidnapping and first- and second-degree assault. Adam Matthew Shaffer, 35, and Alexandra Gabrielle Abbott, 30, both of Eglon, were charged with kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit first-degree assault.
5. Hospital changing hands
On July 6, the Board of Garrett County Commissioners was presented with a letter of intent for hospital officials to pursue a course of action leading toward Garrett Regional Medical Center becoming fully a part of West Virginia University Health System.
The agreement would include the county leasing the Garrett Memorial Hospital facility for a period of 50 years, with the bond debt being included in the transaction.
GRMC would become a “member system hospital” in the WVU network. A new Maryland company, GRMC Inc., has been created to be able to operate the hospital under the state’s all-payer system. The current hospital Board of Governors will become the GRMC Inc. board, answering directly to the WVUHS board.
The 55-bed hospital has been operated through WVU Medicine since a 2015 affiliation that was followed by a 2018 management agreement.
In online forums held this month with officials from the hospital, the hospital board and WVUHS, participants were told the switch would provide expanded medical services to the local area, including a change of the electronic medical records management system to one used by WVU Medicine and many hospitals in Maryland.
A proposed timeline calls for the GRMC agreement to be finalized at the end of June, with all parties entering into the lease agreement by January. In May and June, GRMC Inc. would negotiate financing to repay the county’s outstanding hospital bonds, which are above $10 million.
6. Call for county secession
Garrett County, along with Allegany and Washington, made national headlines in October when state lawmakers released letters requesting that Western Maryland become part of West Virginia.
The Republican lawmakers included state Sen. George Edwards and Delegates Wendell Beitzel, Jason Buckel, Mike McKay and William Wivell.
Letters were sent Oct. 5 and Oct. 14 to West Virginia legislative leaders, asking “that you consider adding us as constituent counties to the State of West Virginia. We believe this arrangement may be mutually beneficial for both states and for our local constituencies.”
The five Maryland legislators traveled to Charleston, W.Va., in September to discuss the matter, and were reportedly told that a letter requesting the move would be required to start the process.
However, on Oct. 22 — the day after the announcement — some lawmakers, including Edwards, withdrew their support. The other participants dropped out soon afterward.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said he would welcome the counties with open arms, while Gov. Larry Hogan expressed puzzlement at the lawmakers’ actions. The Garrett County commissioners said they had not been consulted, and were unaware of the request until the announcement was made public.
7. Narcan distribution
In early May, the Oakland Town Council opted not to make any public sites available for the Garrett County Health Department to offer free distribution of Narcan, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.
Health department officials met with town councils throughout the county to request approval for Narcan pickup events. People who had transportation issues or felt uncomfortable coming to the health department could go to one of those pickup sites and receive Narcan for free.
Participating communities included Kitzmiller, Crellin, Deer Park, Loch Lynn, Mountain Lake Park, Friendsville, Accident, Swanton and Grantsville — but not Oakland.
“We have an image of Oakland as a great small community, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect that,” Mayor Jay Moyer said at the May 3 council meeting. “I know these people have problems and it has to be addressed, but there’s ways of doing that and in places that it can be done.”
Council members suggested that since the health department is located in Oakland, it would be a better distribution site than in a parking lot or municipal park.
8. Solar debate heats up
A set of rules for the use of solar power at Deep Creek Lake are going into effect with no allowance for large-scale commercial projects.
The Board of Garrett County Commissioners voted unanimously earlier this month to codify amendments to the Deep Creek Watershed zoning ordinance to regulate the installation of solar systems in that area. The rest of the county will not be affected.
Commercial or industrial solar projects are “not going to be permitted in any district,” said Chad Fike, assistant director of the Department of Planning and Land Management.
Currently, 147 acres of farmland leased by Oakland Sand Solar LLC are being converted to a solar power generation facility. The property is located on the southern side of Sand Flat Road opposite Boy Scout Road, and the project drew public outcry in May from people who said it would cause property value, commercial and environmental problems.
Projects under way will be grandfathered in under the new set of regulations, commission Chairman Paul Edwards said.
Also, a 175-megawatt solar generating facility is being planned elsewhere in Garrett County.
CPV Backbone Solar LLC has applied to the Maryland Public Service Commission for what is known as a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which grants an applicant the authority to construct an energy generating station or high-voltage transmission line in the state.
The project — which would include more than 406,000 solar panels — is slated to be constructed on about 1,170 acres of land previously used for coal mining. The project site is located at 5187 Kitzmiller Road in Kitzmiller.
9. Garrett County Fair returns
It was two years since the sights and sounds of a county fair graced the Garrett County Fairgrounds in McHenry, but in the first week of August, it was time again to ride the rides, watch the shows, view the exhibits, listen to concerts and eat your fill.
This year marked a return to the regular activities of the Garrett County Agriculture Fair after the 2020 event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It featured the full range of activities associated with the event that draws thousands of people to one of Garrett County’s high points of the summer.
“After having to take a year off, we think there is a lot of pent-up demand for all the things that make the Garrett County Fair special to so many,” Jason Rush, Garrett County Fair Board president, said in May.
10. Waiting and praying for Haitian hostages
A group of 17 men, women and children performed outreach work at the Maison La Providence de Dieu orphanage in Ganthier, Croix-des-Bouquets, Haiti, on Oct. 16. While on the return journey from the Port Au Prince suburb, the Christian Aid Ministries vehicle was stopped by members of the “400 Mawozo” gang, and all occupants were taken hostage.
A grandmother in Garrett County waited, watched and prayed for the safe return of the hostages, which included her daughter-in-law and several grandchildren.
The woman’s son, his wife and their children had been at the mission that morning. The son chose to stay behind from the day’s trip, opting instead to prepare for the Sunday service. His wife and children went ahead and made the trip with the others, and were kidnapped later that day.
Oakland author Lucinda Kinsinger noted that she personally knows a missionary family from another state — a mother, father and two young children — who were among those kidnapped.
“As a mother myself, I can’t imagine how my friend feels to see her children in such a dangerous situation,” Kinsinger said. “Are the children hurt? Do they have enough to eat? Are they warm? Has my friend been molested by the kidnappers? These are the things I wonder.”
Two hostages were released Nov. 20 and three more Dec. 5, reportedly due to health reasons.
After two months of being held for ransom — $1 million for each of the captives — the remaining hostages were able to escape the gang of kidnappers on Dec. 15.
That night, the group found a way to open the door that was closed and blocked. They quietly left in single file, even though numerous guards were near. They followed a mountain landmark in the distance, as well as using the stars to guide them. The group walked for about 10 miles in gang territory to escape.

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