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Ohio County Marks One Year of COVID-19

Photo by Derek Redd People file through to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations at The Highlands. Those vaccines played a major role in the drop in COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths since their height in January.

WHEELING — Kathleen Dieffenbaugher will jokingly refer to herself, her husband and her three children as “The First Family of COVID” in Ohio County.

She appreciates that she can have a sense of humor about it now. It wasn’t always all laughs last March when they literally lived up to the moniker.

Diffenbaugher’s daughter Claire, after she returned from a European trip a little more than a year ago, became the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 in Ohio County. Soon after, the entire family — Kathleen, husband Isaac, daughters Hannah and Claire and son Nathan — all contracted the virus. Their experiences eventually were shared by thousands in the county and millions around the country as COVID-19 embedded itself into everyday life.

Kathleen Diffenbaugher said that, luckily, no one among the five became seriously ill. They still had to quarantine, so once they all cycled through their physical illness, they tried to make their time at home as fun as they could in the three weeks they had to stay there.

There were board games and family time. There was a theme week where the Dieffenbaugher children picked a theme each day and would hold a party or dress up in costume. The family held a “COVID Prom.”

Yet, even during those fun times, there remained concern. Concrete knowledge about COVID-19 was scarce. Health experts were learning as they went in researching the disease, which meant folks in the community had to wait to learn from them. Dieffenbaugher said she tried to keep the family at ease in face of the unknown.

“In the beginning for us, there was so much that was still unknown. Information everywhere was changing so much daily,” Dieffenbaugher said. “I’m a nurse by trade, but I think that helped me to keep everyone calm and level-headed.”

That constantly evolving information also complicated matters on the public health side. Wheeling-Ohio County Health Administrator Howard Gamble said that, especially in the beginning, each new day could bring a new revelation that led Ohio County and the rest of West Virginia to pivot in how it both treated the disease and protected others from it.

“Not only were you learning constantly with the virus and things were changing, and sometimes those changes were very, very small … those are small changes we can adapt to,” he said. “Those are easy to overcome. What was difficult was the major changes in some of our larger public health policy. We knew if we put into place larger changes, it would cause some concern.”

Precautions were put into place, guidelines as simple as public mask wearing and as extreme as closing schools, gyms and restaurants. Regardless, the virus continued to burst through those defenses and spread.

“It can be frustrating, but we know it’s going to happen, no matter what the disease is,” Gamble said, “from measles to hepatitis, even yellow fever. It’s human nature to get out and about. The disease doesn’t know what we’re putting in place. It just knows it needs a host and the next host is the next person that’s available.”

Meanwhile, those who got sick from the virus early had to deal with the stigma of being infected. Dieffenbaugher said that her family not only had to worry about breaches of privacy — they kept their diagnosis close to the vest, yet people still called them and said they knew they were sick — but they also had to stay off social media during their quarantine. Early in the pandemic, when people learned that others were sick in their neighborhoods, they sometimes reacted poorly.

“As the news reports were coming out that a 20-year-old college student was the first one, there were a lot of haters on social media that said a lot of really awful things,” she said. “So we kind of had to shut all that down and become very insular. My husband was very protective of that.”

While there were haters, there also was a wonderful network of friends and neighbors that helped the Dieffenbaughers get groceries or medicine from the pharmacy. They came by with board games and ready-made meals.

As the Dieffenbaughers recovered, they watched others start to deal with the virus themselves. In the late fall and winter, they watched as cases surged and COVID-related deaths climbed. Healthcare and long-term care facilities were overcome with sick patients and residents.

That had its effect on healthcare workers, too. Health departments can’t just plug in new workers and have them able to handle the rigors of COVID-19 right away, Gamble said. They need to be trained and prepared for what they’re about to face. As the surge climbed, it outpaced the rate that health departments could get trained employees and volunteers into the field.

“It was a challenge,” Gamble said. “It was a little more concerning that if we keep this up at this level, I don’t know if we can maintain the public health workforce as effectively as we are. We were pulling our inspectors to help with disease management or testing clinics.”

Dieffenbaugher and her family saw the surge and saw more and more of their neighbors fight the virus. She said she wanted her family to be a resource for others, not just for information, but for confidence that they could battle the disease.

“I didn’t affect our lives in the way it did other people, so I really think we were spoiled in that respect,” she said. “But we also tried to put other people at ease, people who were really panicking and fearful, we tried to say, hey, yes it can be bad, but here’s a whole family that survived and was doing fine.”

The light at the end of the tunnel came into view in January, as multiple vaccines hit the market and the numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths started to fall. At the pandemic’s height on Jan. 10, there were 29,257 active cases in West Virginia. As of Thursday, there were 5,811.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 139,750 positive COVID-19 cases, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources, along with 2,628 deaths. In Ohio County, there have been 3,792 positive cases and 77 deaths. While numbers continue to fall, and the light at the end of the tunnel continues to grow, Gamble said that there is still a long way to go until COVID-19 will truly be held at bay. Until then, he said people should still get tested if they feel sick, stay up on all their vaccinations and stay on top of what’s happening in the community, so they can adjust their movements and plans if COVID numbers rise again.

“We still have to be cautious,” he said. “I’ll tell you right now, even though we’re vaccinating a lot of people all week, all month, since December, we’ve still got to be cautious.

“You have to control this virus,” Gamble added. “You’re not going to eradicate it yet. We’ve just got to control it so it’s like measles and polio and hepatitis — it’s in the community, but we’ve just got to control it.”

The Dieffenbaughers may have been the first to deal with COVID-19 in Ohio County, but they were far from the last. And while Kathleen Dieffenbaugher is happy to see brighter days ahead in terms of the virus, she knows the pandemic will be a significant part of local and American history.

“It’s certainly a relief that we’re on the other side of this,” she said. “I don’t think anyone a year ago thought that we would be having this conversation one year later. It’s a shame to see what it has done to us as a country, to our school children and to our elderly. It’s going to have long-lasting effects. We’re going to be talking about it for generations.”

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