Editor's note: This story is accompanied by a larger one about the Amish community's handling of the COVID-19 outbreak. To read more, click here.
In more than three decades working with Pennsylvania’s Plain people, Dr. D. Holmes Morton has built relationships with the area’s Amish and Old Order Mennonite populations, earning their trust while developing an understanding of their specialized medical needs.
They’re communities with unique genetic markers that make them susceptible to certain underlying health issues, which could put them especially at-risk during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Morton, founder of the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, which serves mostly Plain families.
Now practicing in Mifflin County, Morton has leveraged his Amish connection to partner with a Juniata College biologist to make COVID-19 tests available to “horse-and-buggy” people, he said.
By Wednesday, none of the several dozen tests taken at Morton’s Central Pennsylvania Clinic in Belleville had produced positive results, he said. But he guesses it’s just a matter of time until the potentially deadly virus reaches the Plain communities.
“I have no doubt,” he said. “There is no question this virus is coming to rural Pennsylvania.”
Effective COVID-19 test
As the potentially deadly respiratory virus spread across the globe, the country and the state, Morton worked to spread education about the illness to local Plain people, who are accustomed to close-knit social gatherings and sometimes distrust modern medicine.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t always make it drink,” Morton said.
At the same time, he’s partnered with Juniata College biological sciences professor Regina Lamendella, who has developed an effective COVID-19 test.
Morton said that test could be used to evaluate 300 to 400 samples a day at the college’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership in Huntingdon County — and at a pace much faster than other more widely used tests.
“We are lucky to have her as a major part of our team,” said Jim Watt, vice president of college advancement at Juniata.”
Morton dispelled earlier reports that he had set up a horse-and-buggy drive-thru testing tent. In fact, his Plain patients are tested in a secure, isolated room within the Belleville clinic, he said. Samples are then sent to Lamendella’s lab for analysis.
Morton said he’d gladly open the process to Lancaster County’s Plain people, too, though he pointed out that more-local providers like Lancaster General Health also offer testing.
Morton spoke highly of Lamendella, whose work with “very complex samples” has put her in a unique position to bring effective COVID-19 testing to the rural area, which has been “historically medically underserved.”
Lamendella’s state-of-the-art lab work now allows Morton to send samples from Plain patients who aren’t even showing symptoms, which is important because they could still be carriers of the virus.
Asymptomatic carriers can transmit the disease, and Morton has said each infected person who attends a large gathering could infect three to five others.
“This virus is kind of everywhere around us,” he said.