Indiana County, community immunity and the infodemic

Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess receives a vaccination against Covid-19 at The Communities at Indian Haven in Indiana, Pa., Jan. 25, 2021. Photo: Facebook

Coronavirus diary

By David Loomis

INDIANA – Partisan rancor has been on their unofficial agenda since Indiana County commissioners’ December meeting when they unanimously approved a double-digit tax hike, the largest in memory. At their early-January meeting, the majority Republican commissioners scapegoated the board’s minority member, Democrat Sherene Hess.

Would the rancor resume at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting?

Yes. But this time the scapegoating shifted to a citizen who read a statement targeting Ms. Hess, whose alleged offense was getting vaccinated during a photo op at the county’s nursing home on Jan. 25. Allegedly worse, she posted the photo on Facebook to encourage staff and residents of the nursing home and citizens of the county to follow her good example. The citizen concluded by accusing Ms. Hess of a “selfish act,” asserting falsely that she “jumped the line” to get the shot.

“Slander,” “inaccurate” and “untrue,” responded another citizen, who called on the board’s majority members to respond, too. In the process, the second citizen refocused discussion on an actual public-health issue – the herd immunity, or “community immunity,” needed to defeat the virus. Such immunity is put at risk by the county’s well-documented resistance to public-health mitigation strategies like mask-wearing, county leadership’s largely mute approach to public information and reported resistance to vaccinations among workers at some nursing homes.

Indiana County is home to 16 congregate-care facilities where Covid-19 cases have been recorded. Together they account for 59 of the county’s 151 total Covid-related deaths, according to state Department of Health data. One facility is Indian Haven, the county-owned home where Ms. Hess was invited to receive a Pfizer vaccine, for which she was eligible, and to encourage others to follow her example.

Ms. Hess’s shot ricocheted ‘round the county’s social-media silos and sparked the public discussion that lasted for 12 minutes of the commissioners’ 50-minute meeting last week. Following is a transcript of the discussion drawn from the official audio, beginning at two minutes, 30 seconds into the session. The transcript is edited for length.

TAMMY CURRY: Is no other person allowed to make a comment?

COMMISSIONER HESS: We’ll take public comments from anyone.

Tammy Graham Curry, White Township, Aug. 16, 2019. Photo: Anthony Frazier.

CURRY: OK. Thank you…. Tammy Curry from Indiana.

On Monday, a picture of Commissioner Hess receiving a Covid-19 vaccination appeared on social media. This picture, captioned “Commissioner Sherene Hess stopped by at the Communities at Indian Haven to get a Covid-19 vaccination and show support,” spread quickly, as did outrage and disgust.

While this caption was designed to lead people to believe that it was by happenstance, that is simply not true. In fact, Ms. Hess, believing herself to be a role model to encourage others, set this up with Affinity, who manages Indian Haven.

Shock and outrage spread quickly as those who have been waiting patiently … expressed disgust that a healthy woman in her early 50s used her position to receive the vaccine outside the current Phase 1A guidelines. Families … waiting were left dumbfounded.

Ms. Hess falls under Phase 1C, like all other county elected officials. Why not use the county sheriff or deputies or other law enforcement as a role model, those that fall under the current Phase 1A guidelines?

The reason given by Indian Haven staff that she is on the board and attends meetings is untrue. You cannot contract Covid via Zoom ….

Just how many undecided staff decided to get the vaccine because Ms. Hess did? Why not pictures of them getting a vaccine shot?

Supply is short but demand is high. That one vaccination could have been a lifesaver for a high-risk person …. The ruse of being a role model failed miserably, as it incited anger and distrust. All that it accomplished was another black eye in the commissioners office … and unnecessarily on Indian Haven.

While you may believe you truly have a good reason for your action, Ms. Hess, your selfish act and flaunting it on social media proved otherwise.

I would like to thank commissioners Keith and Gorman for being present during these troubling times and for you and all other county employees who are patiently waiting your turn and for the PA House GOP for stepping to the back of the line and letting others go first. A true leader puts others ahead of themselves.

Thank you very much.

HESS: Just a quick response. You’re terribly misinformed, Ms. Curry. I’d be happy to speak with you outside this business meeting about that, about the facts.

CURRY: The fact remains, you jumped line.

HESS: You’re misinformed. Sorry.

CURRY: Oh, so you have a health reason that allows you to get that vaccine when you did?

HESS: The chair will call the meeting back to order, please….

Anne Simmons, Indiana, Pa.

ANNE SIMMONS:  … I am very private about my own medical condition. But I want you to know … that I, too, like Commissioner Hess, am part of that group that is between 16 and 64 who is at high-risk. Basically what I’m hearing from Tammy Graham Curry is basically almost like slander in a public forum, sharing information that is inaccurate and untrue.

And I’m very uncomfortable because I am revealing a lot about my own personal health. And I applaud Commissioner Hess for engaging Tammy Curry in conversation after this meeting, because that information is private.

I am very proud of Commissioner Hess because I did speak publicly to the commissioners at the December meeting, and I asked for two things: I asked for messaging to encourage people to take the vaccine. We have a concern in this community with vaccine hesitancy. The second thing I asked the commissioners to do, my recommendation back in the December public meeting, is to ask people, even after they’ve received the vaccine, to continue to wear masks.

I applaud Commissioner Hess for publicly sharing that because we have a major concern in this community about herd immunity, or community immunity. And I would encourage Commissioner Hess to continue to meet with public groups and to talk about vaccine hesitancy and the importance of herd immunity or community immunity.

My last query is directed to Commissioner Gorman and Commissioner Keith. Were either of you asked or have had communication with Indian Haven about the importance of this public display, of encouraging citizens to wear masks as well as other important public health measures …? Could you answer my question: Were you also in communication with Indian Haven?

COMMISSIONER MIKE KEITH: We would be glad to discuss that with you after the meeting.

SIMMONS: I would also like to hear from Commissioner Gorman because my understanding is that she was also invited by Indian Haven to participate in this event and to help out with this communication to the rest of the community. And again, Commissioner Hess, it’s private, but she is in the age group, the age 16 to age 64, that is at high risk. And Commissioner Hess should have received, like she did, a vaccine. And again, I applaud her for doing this publicly, because we are in a worldwide pandemic.

COMMISSIONER ROBIN GORMAN: Your time is up. It is for comment, and we do not like to get involved in conversation, because of time. But I will answer your question publicly.

I was, as all commissioners are, in constant communication with Indian Haven on a regular basis when they asked us to get on a call in supporting the vaccination, the second call we had about that ….

I was not invited nor requested … to take the vaccine, and that was totally appropriate because Commissioner Hess being of a group that could get it and on the board and for all the right reasons for the encouragement and the use of that public leadership position. We totally supported that. And I am not in any kind of 16-64 group that is allowed to take the vaccination at this time.

So what she did, I agree with you, we were in total support of. But I was not, nor am I, in the group that can take the vaccination and was not invited to do so.

SIMMONS: Thank you, Commissioner Gorman, for sharing this transparency. I would encourage community citizens to please share information publicly that’s true and accurate. Thank you.

Epilog

INDIANA —  The head of the company that manages The Communities at Indian Haven, the county-owned nursing home, reported in a Feb. 1 statement that the home’s Jan. 25 vaccine clinic was a “team effort” that enabled the home “to accomplish the initial goal established for herd immunity.”

The effort “tapped into multiple experts and community leaders,” including “The Indiana County Commissioners, Board for Communities at Indian Haven,” said Denise McQuown-Hatter, president of Affinity Health Services of Indiana.

“We ended up hitting the number we were looking for,” McQuown-Hatter said. “We were very pleased with what we achieved.”

More vaccination clinics are planned, she added.

“There’s nothing else that’s going to get us out of this,” McQuown-Hatter said in a Feb. 1 phone interview.

David Loomis

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David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.

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