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Dayhoff: Historically, Westminster and Carroll County handle public emergencies well

Ever since the first report of the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) emerged on Dec. 1 in Wuhan, the capital city in China’s Hubei province, the media has maintained a heightened level of attention to the rapidly spreading virus.

As is often the case with such dramatic moments in history there has been a rush to develop a compare and contrast with such events in the past. This simultaneously annoys and confuses historians, who often worry that relatively uninformed folks will look for facts and figures from the past to fit an agenda.

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That said, recent events have triggered many memories for those of us who had public safety responsibilities during other natural disasters or medical emergencies — especially during the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak; or have studied epidemics from the past such as the 1918 Spanish Flu.

According to an article in The Lancet, perhaps the oldest and best known medical journal in the world, “The COVID-19 outbreak ‘creates a sense of déjà vu’ with the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS.) Citing early estimates of the disease's infectiousness … comparisons have been drawn with the 1918–19 influenza pandemic.”

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Remember the SARS outbreak in 2003? According to the World Health Organization, “SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV) … is thought to [have been] an animal virus … that … first infected humans in the Guangdong province of southern China in 2002. An epidemic of SARS affected 26 countries and resulted in more than 8,000 cases in 2003…”

“Although in some respects the outbreak of COVID-19 presents a compelling argument for why history matters,” wrote The Lancet, “there are problems with analogical views of the past because they constrain our ability to grasp the complex place-and-time-specific variables that drive contemporary disease emergence…”

Today, what makes matters worse is the sensationalization of misinformation by social media. Finding credible sources of information has become increasingly important.

Locally, many of us who study emergency preparedness and response in 2020 have appreciated the work of Maggie Kunz, M.P.H., health planner, the communications lead with Carroll County Health Department. Valerie Hawkins, county Emergency Management manager, and Chris Winebrenner, the county communications manager. It is interesting to note that it was the “Health Board” that also took the public safety lead during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that hit Westminster and Carroll County particularly hard.

For example, according to an article in the Democratic Advocate on Nov. 8, 1918, “Flu Ban Raised — Flu conditions have improved and on Sunday the ban will be lifted in this county, except in Myers district where schools will not open and only day church services can be held on Sunday. All other schools will open Monday by order of the Health Board and the Board of Education except Flohrville school which will not at this time. All places in this town, moving pictures, pool rooms, bowling alleys, public meetings, etc., which were closed on account of the epidemic will be opened Monday.

On March 10, the CCHD reported, “Please note that this outbreak is changing very frequently and so answers to the questions … may also change. Make sure you get updated information from … reliable public health sources…:” State information from the Maryland Department of Health phpa.health.maryland.gov, health.maryland.gov/coronavirus, and the from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronavirus.gov, and www.cdc.gov.

For additional up-to-date information, please go to the CCHD website at cchd.maryland.gov or call the new COVID-19 Hotline for Carroll County at 410-876-4848.

Those of us in Westminster and Carroll County can be reassured that historically we handle public emergencies well. Perhaps it is a result of our early beginnings which emphasized public safety. Much of Carroll County was perceived to be dangerous until after the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the year before William Winchester laid out the town of Westminster.

The conclusion of the war expanded the western frontier for the American colonialists. This greatly increased traffic west over routes that took many settlers straight through Westminster.

One of the strongest reasons for communities to come together is for public health, safety and welfare. Assuring travelers and settlers that Westminster and Carroll County were safe was particularly important. This remains, 250 years later, a strong dynamic in our Carroll County and Westminster personality.

Special thanks to Richard Brace, LEHS, a fellow member of the Westminster Fire Department and the Water Quality Supervisor with the Carroll County Bureau of Environmental Health, for his help putting together a portion of this discussion.

Times correspondent Kevin Dayhoff is the Chaplain and PIO for the Westminster Fire Department and a member of the Westminster Common Council. His Time Flies column appears every Sunday. Reach him at kevindayhoff@gmail.com.

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