An Ohio county heard mixed messages on COVID-19. Now it’s a hotspot.

The Darke County General Health District offices. Photo from Google Maps.

With the coronavirus raging in Darke County and health officials promoting a much-needed testing opportunity earlier this month, an area lawmaker offered a different message to her constituents in western Ohio.

Quoting President Reagan, state Rep. Jena Powell wrote to her thousands of social followers: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”

It’s a challenge, Gov. Mike DeWine admits, to get a state of “independent thinkers” on board with a pandemic response theme of “In This Together Ohio.”

This “frontier attitude,” as one Darke County resident put it, might be traced back to the 1800s, when a local native known as Annie Oakley achieved national fame for her sharpshooting ability. There is even an Annie Oakley festival held annually in the county seat of Greenville. (It was canceled this year.)

Six miles north of Greenville, the Ansonia High School Tigers go by the slogan, “Hunted by many, tamed by few.”

Throughout 2020, residents of Darke County have received a torrent of conflicting information from the public officials serving them. An emphasis on health and safety has competed with messages of personal liberty, government infringement and a belief that COVID-19 impacts only a narrow, vulnerable population of residents. 

In the summer, local law enforcement agencies stressed they would not enforce the statewide mask mandate. In the fall, a Darke County lawmaker openly encouraged families to hold Thanksgiving gatherings just as health officials were imploring Ohioans to keep their festivities limited.  

Darke County is located in rural western Ohio along the border with Indiana.

Darke County, with a population just over 51,000, is now reckoning with the consequences. It now has one of the highest COVID-19 occurrence rates of any county in Ohio. Around 1-in-15 residents there have tested positive for the virus. Cases and hospitalizations have skyrocketed in recent weeks and 72 have died.

The Ohio Capital Journal reviewed months of public statements, local news reports, social media pages and spoke with a number of residents about the county’s pandemic response this year. Those interviewed agreed that health order compliance was minimal in the early months but that the recent surge has caused a change of heart for some in Darke County.

The virus remains a controversial subject there — particularly on social media, where there still debates about masks and fears about more government shutdowns.

“I think it has really divided people,” said Darke County native Vicki Briner Lansen. “I think it’s a real shame that it just became absolutely political.”

‘You want to be preemptive, not reactive’

That politicization began before Darke County and most others in the region had even recorded their first case of COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy, whose district includes Darke County, addressed the coronavirus at a forum in neighboring Miami County in early March.

“I genuinely believe that if this was the Obama administration, you’d hear less panic, less alarm,” Davidson was quoted as saying.

U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson

During those early weeks, Davidson did also use his social media accounts to guide constituents toward proper health information about the virus.

Look out for your neighbors,” Davidson wrote when Darke County’s first positive case was confirmed. “The Ohio Health Department, the Center for Disease Control, and the White House all advise practicing social distancing.”

Those initial weeks in Darke County were like most other communities in the state. The Greenville Daily Advocate newspaper reported noteworthy virus updates for citizens to follow. Many public events were canceled, restaurants ramped up their takeout capabilities and the Wayne HealthCare Hospital in Greenville issued restrictions on patient visitors. In the village of Union City, officials stocked police cruisers with disposable gloves and masks.

The Darke County General Health District issued a public health emergency. Commissioner Terrence Holman told the public, “You want to be preemptive, not reactive.”

The first death was reported in late March. Darke County had recorded 13 total cases to that point, with most coming from a Greenville nursing home. 

Face masks were described as being necessary for those infected with the virus or having a high risk of exposure. The health department asked for donations of PPE to assist with the county’s pandemic response, and local school children offered up their own handmade masks.

CDC guidance shifted toward promoting their use for the general public when away from home. This wider scope of mitigation did not catch on as quickly in Darke County.

Almost no one wore a mask early on, said Arcanum village administrator Bill Kessler. He said it was tough to get buy-in to the initial health orders issued by the DeWine administration. 

The criticism grew, particularly from Republican officials angered at the closing of schools and businesses. Though most businesses were allowed to reopen by the end of May, many had grown tired of the state’s comprehensive response to the virus.

State Rep. Jena Powell, R-Arcanum, on left, represents the southern portion of Darke County. State Rep. Susan Manchester, R-Waynesfield, represents the northern portion.

“The double standards and misinformation from @GovMikeDeWine and (state health director) Amy Acton is absurd,” Powell, an Arcanum native, posted on June 1. “Open up Ohio and remove restrictions on our community. Let us live in freedom.”

Over the summer, Darke County reported a couple of new cases per day and reached 200 cumulative confirmed cases the second week of June.

Powell and Susan Manchester, the other state representative covering Darke County, signed a letter urging DeWine to cancel all of the existing health orders.

“Ohio smashed the curve long ago,” they and 17 other lawmakers argued. “Mission accomplished!”

‘We are NOT the mask police!’

DeWine announced a statewide mask mandate on July 22 forcing Ohioans to wear face coverings when out in public. Darke County reported 31 active cases of the virus as of that date.

Within hours, local law enforcement agencies made clear they would not be enforcing the mask order.

The Darke County Sheriff’s Office posted a widely-shared announcement to Facebook that afternoon with the message: “We are NOT the mask police!”

The Ansonia village page echoed that sentiment: “The villager police, the village administration/council, and the sheriff departments are not enforcing the mask mandate.”

The Ohio Department of Health debuted a Public Health Advisory System during the summer which features a color-coded map to showcase virus spread. On the week the mask mandate was announced, Darke County was labeled in yellow: the lowest level of spread of the four labels.

A week later, Darke County was upgraded to orange (“increased exposure and spread”). 

The rate of new cases accelerated from there. Prior to this, the highest number positive cases seen in Darke County in one month was 93 in May. The county recorded over 300 new cases in August.

A few hundred more were recorded in September before Darke County set another record with 450 new cases in October.

Mask wearing remained inconsistent. The county’s two state representatives and two state senators — Steve Huffman of Tipp City and Matt Huffman of Lima — joined State Auditor Keith Faber for a maskless group photo with a cardboard cutout of President Trump in mid-October. The Ohio Capital Journal requested interviews with all four Darke County lawmakers to hear their perspective about the surge of cases in the county. None responded. 

By the second week of November, entire swaths of Ohio had been elevated to red on the advisory system map indicating “very high exposure and spread.” This included every county surrounding Darke, which before long would join them.

Local residents continued to hear dueling messages and realities on a near-daily basis. 

On Nov. 11, Darke County reported 52 deaths from the coronavirus and 285 active cases. Rep. Powell, who months before had believed the mission was accomplished, now claimed the recent surge was to be expected.

“As months have gone by, thankfully the virus is not as deadly as was once predicted,” she wrote that day. “Over the next several weeks, we will be seeing a large rise in COVID-19 cases across our state and nation. This will be due to more testing, more people congregating inside as the weather gets colder, and the normal ebbs and flows of a virus.”

The positivity rate for Ohioans getting tested rose from just 2.5% in mid-September to over 13% on Nov. 11. DeWine and health officials alike noted this proved Ohio’s increase in cases was not explained by more testing as Powell claimed. 

While Powell advocated for a pandemic response centered on protecting “the most vulnerable,” figures from Darke County’s health department showed the spread had become a community-wide problem.

Statistics as of Nov. 12 showed that just 22% of Darke County cases to that point were recorded in long-term care facilities like nursing homes. The remaining 78% of cases were recorded among the general public. 

As DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health called on families to host smaller gatherings for Thanksgiving to prevent further travel and virus spread, Powell told constituents to do the opposite.

The local health department continued urging residents to wear masks, publishing a video on Nov. 16 showing how to properly wear different types of face coverings. The video noted that “COVID cases are at an all time high right now.”

Hours later, Powell wrote about masks: “No. It’s our freedom and it’s being ripped from us through executive force.”

The surge continues

Powell and the three other Darke County state lawmakers kept their focus on the governor. All four signed a letter expressing concerns about any further government action taken to prevent the spread.

“Stopping the outbreak comes down to personal behavior and personal decisions,” the letter stated.

The governor’s administration reissued the mask mandate, instituted a curfew and signed a new health order requiring businesses to take a heavier hand in enforcing that customers wear masks. 

Chief Mark Ater of the Union City Police Department was quick to condemn these orders.

“We will NOT be enforcing the curfew and mask orders,” a statement from the department read.

“We have taken an oath to uphold the constitution and enforce all federal, state, and local laws,” Ater said in the statement. “We will not be involved in enforcing unconstitutional orders such as the health orders that were issued and will never disregard the constitutional rights of our citizens.”

The police department tagged Powell in the comment section, who responded: “great news!”

State Sen. Stephen Huffman, R-Tipp City, on left, represents the southern portion of Darke County. State Sen. Matt Huffman, R-Lima, represents the northern portion.

November proved to be a challenging month for the Darke County General Health District. Officials were overwhelmed with the increased caseload, the Daily Advocate reported, making it difficult to handle contact tracing, field questions from residents and process data for their daily updates.  

Darke County recorded more than 1,300 new cases in November, just about doubling its yearly total in one month’s time. 

Some organizations began to take action. The Greenville Hometown Holiday Horse Parade was canceled to mixed reactions. 

“Although disappointing to many and a hard decision to make,” one person wrote on Facebook, “it’s in the best interest for the health of our community.”

“Get rid of the stupid governor,” another wrote, “who has to ruin everything for everyone and we would be having the parade.”

On the day the parade would have been held, the health department posted a reminder about the need for social distancing.

“Sorry, I’m human,” a Greenville resident commented. “Not some Orwellian robot. This experiment in social engineering is appalling. No way!”

Vicki Briner Lansen can often be found among the many Darke County area Facebook pages trying to encourage others to follow health guidelines. Lansen is a Greenville native now living in northwest Ohio and is making plans to soon move back there. 

She recently spent a few weeks visiting her hometown and was surprised at how many were still not following basic mitigation practices.

“People think, ‘I don’t know anyone who’s died (from COVID-19). It hasn’t affected me,’” she told the Ohio Capital Journal. “It’s like thinking poverty is not an issue because you’re not impoverished.”

Lansen believes it’s important to debate those still downplaying the virus, even if it means having difficult conversations and being on the receiving end of harsh criticism.

“I’m listening to what my doctor says and what my doctor does and what medical science shows us that we know right now,” Lansen said, adding that she tries not to make her arguments political. “That’s where I try to come from.”

Some remain unconvinced. In one of these Facebook debates, a Darke County skeptic wrote that they have had family members die of COVID-19 this year.

“However,” they added, “they would have just as easily died from pneumonia.”

One of those currently sick from the virus is Eddie Anjos of Greenville. His husband, Matt Guyette, believed it was only a matter of time, as Anjos works in a health care facility across the border in Indiana.

Guyette, who unsuccessfully campaigned for Congress earlier in 2020, said the year in Darke County has been marked by a general distrust of the media and expert officials. 

“It’s an area where people tend to be very self-reliant,” Guyette said, adding that some have a “frontier mentality” when it comes to trusting what those in Columbus say about COVID-19 and other issues. “They see (government) as a hindrance rather than something that can help them.”

Topping the list of COVID-19 occurrence

Amid the statewide surge, ODH has tried to show that virus spread can affect rural areas just as much as in major population centers. At the regular press conferences, DeWine shows population-adjusted comparisons of the virus case counts in Ohio’s 88 counties.

Darke County ranked poorly for much of the fall, with the sharp increase in cases weighing heavily on the county of 51,000 residents.

The chart published on Nov. 30 had startling news — Darke County topped the list with the highest occurrence of COVID-19 in the entire state. 

This put the county in the spotlight. ODH and the Ohio National Guard partnered with local health officials to offer a free “pop-up testing” clinic in Greenville for Dec. 3. The newspaper’s announcement of the testing, along with further promotion by DeWine, was met with a wave of backlash on social media. 

None of the four lawmakers representing Darke County shared information about the testing opportunity on social media or their legislative websites. 

The morning of testing day, Powell instead posted a video of the Christmas decorations inside the Statehouse. Hours later as testing wrapped up, she shared another video of her testimony on a proposed bill requiring high school athletic teams be strictly separated by students’ biological sex.

A new chart listing the COVID-19 county occurrence rates was released on Dec. 3. Darke County remained at No. 1. Neighboring Miami County was No. 4. In the Miami County seat of Troy, officials held the traditional tree lighting event in late November despite warnings from the county health commissioner

DeWine was asked about the spread in Darke County at his press conference that day and about some of Powell’s comments encouraging citizens to host Thanksgiving gatherings.

“How are Ohioans supposed to know what to do when there is such conflicting advice from their elected officials?” a reporter asked.

Throughout 2020, DeWine has been reticent to publicly condemn those who have spread misinformation about the virus, downplayed its seriousness or contradicted his administration’s public health messages. 

DeWine’s public response has generally been to offer optimism that facts, science and level-headedness will win the day. 

“I think Ohioans are independent thinkers,” DeWine said in response to the Darke County question. “That’s been my experience throughout my life. They think for themselves.”

The governor added that he was encouraged how local leaders have responded to the recent surge. Wayne HealthCare Hospital has benefitted from its connection to the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association. This has allowed hospitals in western Ohio to handle staffing and patient load during the recent surge.

Peggy Emerson, president of the Darke County Chamber of Commerce, said she too is happy with the improved adherence to safety guidelines among local business owners. She complimented local business owners on showing ingenuity in finding ways to adjust to the circumstances and keep customers safe. 

The Chamber is holding off from its typical public events such as ribbon cuttings and banquets. Instead, the organization highlights Darke County small businesses on social media with an emphasis on safe ways to shop local. 

These posts often include a photo or two with the business owners. Out of habit, some reach to take their masks off when the camera comes out.

“I say, ‘no, no! Leave it on!’ I want people to see they can come,” Emerson said. 

The organization has also become a hub for COVID-19 information, Emerson described. The Chamber passes along state guidance to local entrepreneurs and in turn helps to advocate for their needs to state officials. 

Moving forward

Darke County communities continue to adjust. The Greenville library had offered curbside pick-up, but recently decided to fully close. High school sports are ongoing. Photos of games show some spectators wearing masks, some not. The Greenville High School band is preparing for a winter concert with a limited crowd; a flier warns that masks and social distancing “are required.”

The village of Ansonia held a “reverse parade,” posting a list of home addresses that were decorated so that residents could drive around and see them. Parade “entry fees” were donated to a food pantry. 

The village of Ansonia website tells residents, “stay calm and try to not get sick from worrying.”

Ansonia Mayor Ted Adkins advises residents on the town website to take care of family and neighbors, making reference to hand washing but offering no mention of masks or staying apart.

“Help others if you can,” the page reads. “Stay calm and try not to get sick from worrying. Wash your hands regularly and stay home if you or any of your immediate family members are sick.”

In the Arcanum monthly newsletter, Mayor Bonnie Millard referenced the individual spirit still felt by many residents but asked they respect the community through wearing masks when out in public.

“We all have rights to live our lives as we see fit,” Millard wrote, “but a little common sense will get us through this!”

Kessler, the Arcanum village administrator, said he is noticing more and more people wearing masks in recent weeks.

“It’s a reluctant thing, but I really do feel that people are participating in what the governor’s asking them to do,” he said. 

Darke County residents aren’t enthusiastic about it, Kessler emphasized. But they’re tolerating it.

Kessler said Arcanum has adjusted well to the pandemic, utilizing CARES Act money to buy temperature scanners for public offices and hands-free dryers for its restrooms. The village council has switched again to holding meetings by video conference, and there is now a drive-thru and walk-up counter at the main office to safely drop off utility payments.

Kessler speaks pridefully about working for the village, but for the time being, he is doing so remotely.

A few of his family members tested positive last week. He has to quarantine at home.

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