17848 DOH Testing Lab

Pennsylvania Commonwealth microbiologist Kerry Pollard performs a manual extraction of the coronavirus inside the extraction lab at the Pennsylvania Department of Health Bureau of Laboratories on Friday, March 6, 2020.

A recent increase in COVID-19 patients at an area hospital has raised concerns that the illness might be spreading among the county’s Plain-sect population, but the evidence isn’t conclusive.

In the past, WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital consistently reported fewer than 10 inpatients a day who were confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19. Last week it hit the double digits. This week, it reported 22 on Monday, 26 on Tuesday, 31 on Wednesday and 24 on Thursday.

Dr. Jun Chon, the Ephrata hospital's vice president of medical affairs, said in an email that in the past two weeks “we have noticed a higher number of cases among Plain community members than we have seen in the past.”

But WellSpan would not provide specific numbers on cases in the Plain community, and a spokesman for the state Department of Health reiterated that it “cannot comment on cases or clusters of cases.”

By contrast, the number of COVID-19 inpatients at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Hospital hit the mid-50s in late May and then held steady in the mid-40s before dropping to 36 on Wednesday and 38 on Thursday.

Dr. Michael Ripchinski, Lancaster General's chief clinical officer, said he doesn't have enough information to say if there's been a significant increase in that part of the population. But, he said, the hospital has admitted Plain patients for COVID-19 since March, “a handful now and then,” and hasn't seen a spike recently.

The county's third hospital, UPMC Lititz, does not publicly report how many COVID-19 patients it has.

County coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni said Wednesday that of 315 COVID-19 deaths in the county, his records showed there were six identified as Old Order Amish, all within the last two to three weeks and most from the northeast part of the county.

All were elderly and had other health issues, he said, with four dying in a hospital and two in their homes.

He said he suspects, but does not know for sure, that some deaths potentially caused by the coronavirus might not be reported to his office — for instance, if an older person gets sick and dies at home without being tested.

Caution still necessary

Joanne Eshleman, WellSpan's director of Plain community relationships, said in an email that the system has been taking extra efforts to educate the Plain community about COVID-19 since March.

“While most of the rest of the population gets their information online or via television news, this population relies heavily on printed materials and word-of-mouth information,” she said, describing mailings to church leaders and individual conversations.

Additionally, she said, Dr. Keith Wright hosted a series of eight phone presentations that drew between 25 and 100 callers a week.

Eshleman wrote that many other local organizations are also working to educate and reinforce safety measures.They include midwives, home care and hospice organizations, specialty clinics and public health educators.

Lancaster General has also been working with the Amish community via printed materials and outreach to leaders, Ripchinski said.

He stressed that it's still important for everyone to maintain social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands regularly and well, particularly in light of all that has happened in the last week and a half.

“Not only the protests, but also going to yellow,” he said. “There's a lot more movement in the county; we all have to remain diligent to ensure that we're practicing those three while we're out and about.”

Need for testing

Dr. D. Holmes Morton spent decades working with the Plain community in Lancaster County as founder of the Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, and now is medical director of a similar clinic in Belleville, Mifflin County.

Morton said he has been aware of a couple of outbreaks in Lancaster County since March, and last weekend saw five patients from a Lancaster family who appeared to be sick with COVID-19. Just one of the five had been tested, he said, and it appears that a lot of people who might be infected have not gotten tested.

“That is a problem,” he said. “The Department of Health depends upon reports of positive tests to track disease prevalence.”

He's been working hard to emphasize what a serious threat COVID-19 is, he said.

Phil Lapp has family members who are Amish and has worked extensively with the local community, as co-founder of tour guide company LoKal Experiences and more recently to coordinate volunteer mask-making efforts.

He said prominent Amish people he has talked to have expressed concern about an increasing number of cases and several recent deaths in the Amish community.

He's worried too, he said, particularly given the close-knit nature of Amish society.

“It's OK to admit you're sick and it's OK to get help,” he said, noting that in the long run, “It will help your entire group.”

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