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Tales of resilience: Howard County stories of change and positivity a year into the COVID pandemic

For the past year, residents, workers and public officials in Howard County have been forced to adapt and adjust their lives to survive a pandemic no one had prepared for. Amid a staggering death toll, economic hardship, and isolation, stories of change and positivity have emerged. Here are some of them.

The rabbi

Rabbi Craig Axler walked through the doors of the Arbor Terrace Fulton assisted-living home last week. A year ago, that was impossible.

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Arbor Terrace Fulton and countless nursing homes across the country were shut to outsiders last year by the impending uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 530,000 people nationwide, 223 of them in Howard County.

Axler, 48, was overcome with emotion as he walked through the front doors last week.

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“Everyone talks about the new normal,” Axler said. “That was it.”

As rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Axler frequently visited nursing and hospice facilities to pray with and for his congregants and their families. For the past year, that part of Axler’s routine has been moved to Zoom, the popular online videoconferencing platform.

On March 11, Axler went to Arbor Terrace Fulton to visit a woman with dementia in the memory care unit. As she was no longer able to make casual conversation, he was there to offer a blessing for healing as her family surrounded her.

“To be in that mental state while this pandemic is around, to see all these faces in masks, is even more disorienting than it would be [normally for her],” said Axler, a Clarksville resident.

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With residents who have more advanced dementia, Axler said he uses common songs to bridge the gap of confusion, hoping the beat and rhythm may remind someone of the song. In this case, it worked. As he began singing a common Passover song, the woman joined in, singing along word for word.

By the crinkles at the corner of their eyes, Axler could see her children smiling with delight. He was smiling, too. A year after the doors closed, hope had returned.

Ricky Lasser, of Lasser Media, videotapes Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton for a virtual Rosh Hashana celebration in September amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Ricky Lasser, of Lasser Media, videotapes Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Fulton for a virtual Rosh Hashana celebration in September amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

The public health officer

It’s been more than a year since Dr. Maura Rossman, Howard County’s health officer, first heard about COVID-19. In January 2020, the health department was receiving information about the spread of the virus through Asia and Europe. Like so many public health officials, she was unsure of how bad the spread would be.

“At that time, I think we were all thinking we would be able to control [it] like we do with tuberculous outbreaks,” said Rossman, 60.

A few weeks later, Rossman announced the first COVID-19 case in Howard County at a news conference on March 15, 2020.

Since then, there have been more than 16,000 coronavirus cases in Howard County.

Rossman called it a “miracle” that the U.S. was able to approve and begin distributing three authorized vaccines within a year — the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and the newly authorized single-dose one from Johnson & Johnson. The lack of testing and personal protective equipment shortages that plagued the county at the beginning of the pandemic are thankfully distant memories, she said.

As of Tuesday, about 25% of Howard County residents had received at least the first dose of a vaccine.

Rossman said she’s hopeful that, moving forward, people will see the need to fund and support public health at all times, similar to how police and fire departments are funded. They get funds to do their jobs not after but before the fires start.

“Public health, in my opinion, was not prepared for this pandemic,” Rossman said. “We have not funded public health to be able to respond to such a crisis as this and to have the infrastructure to be able to respond to emergencies like this.”

An emergency, she said, all the staff at the Howard County Health Department has dedicated their year to, seven days a week.

“We’re not done yet. We know with this pandemic the only constant is change, and [health department staff] have just rolled with the punches to keep our community as safe and healthy as possible,” Rossman said. “Staff didn’t sign up for this and they have been saving the world. They are true public health heroes.”

Dr. Maura Rossman, Howard County's health officer, announced in April the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program station in Columbia had begun operating as a COVID-19 test site for patients with scheduled appointments. The station has since returned to its VEIP duties.
Dr. Maura Rossman, Howard County's health officer, announced in April the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program station in Columbia had begun operating as a COVID-19 test site for patients with scheduled appointments. The station has since returned to its VEIP duties. (Brian Krista/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The community advocate

For Erika Strauss Chavarria, it’s difficult to remember how different her mindset was a year ago. In her last in-person days as a Spanish teacher at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, students were nervous and curious.

Strauss Chavarria, 38, had tissues and hand sanitizer at the front of the classroom in the early days of March 2020. “At that point we had no idea the massive impact yet of what was about to happen,” she said.

The Columbia resident said there was a buzz in the air at school on March 12, 2020, as rumors swirled that Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan might close school buildings for a few weeks.

“The kids went from joking to very seriously worried,” she said. “I remember very distinctly the switch from the kids being excited about the schools closing to them being scared.”

Questions started pouring out from students. Strauss Chavarria stopped teaching and answered what she could.

“I want to say everything is going to be OK, but I can’t,” she said. “I tell them I love them and I’ll do anything I can to help.”

That night at a news conference, Hogan announced a two-week closure. So Strauss Chavarria and her students planned for two weeks at home, not knowing a year later they’d still be learning online.

“I had a lot of students who I didn’t see again because they didn’t have the ability to get back online again,” she said.

The stress of online school and the needs of her students, however, is not all that consumed this past year for Strauss Chavarria. Her organization, Columbia Community Care, kept stomachs full and pantries stocked for those facing food insecurity in Howard County.

After Hogan’s announcement, Strauss Chavarria posted on Facebook, seeking help to get lunches for students who were dependent on those provided during the school day while school buildings were closed. She collected donations, worked with friends and community members who responded to her Facebook post, and helped as many families as she could.

“I remember in that moment thinking, ‘We’ve got to mobilize something. I’ve got to get these kids lunches,’ ” she said.

Strauss Chavarria worked to supplement the public school system’s free lunch program with other foods and supplies to support whole families. Through donations, the group stocked tables and delivered groceries around the county.

A year later, the Facebook group is a nonprofit with hundreds of volunteers helping work a well-oiled machine of getting food to those who need it. Since it started, Columbia Community Care has helped more than 100,000 people through its drive-thru sites and completed nearly 10,000 home deliveries.

While the success of the organization is an accomplishment for Strauss Chavarria, she’s frustrated and sad that the need in Howard and for the resources of Columbia Community Care is so great.

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“We should not have to exist. The fact that Columbia Community Care exists is not a failure of the system, it’s the design of the system,” she said. “When you think about the success, it’s tainted.”

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Erika Strauss Chavarria created Columbia Community Care in March 2020 to see what needs existed in the community amid the coronavirus pandemic and to find people who could help meet those demands.
Erika Strauss Chavarria created Columbia Community Care in March 2020 to see what needs existed in the community amid the coronavirus pandemic and to find people who could help meet those demands. (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

The shop owners

The realities of the pandemic first hit Aisha Applewhite in February 2020 while talking to her aunt and uncle, who live in Florence, Italy. They would describe dystopian-like isolation and long lines in the grocery store. It became a question of when, not if, for Applewhite.

“From that point forward, it was a mode of survival,” said Applewhite, 42.

The North Laurel resident worked to get her then second- and seventh-grade children through virtual school and, when summer hit, she picked up a shelved dream and turned it into reality.

“Life changed and what became important to me was to fulfill my passion,” Applewhite said.

While she had spent the past 20 years working as a certified public accountant, the ongoing pandemic had her looking at what brought her the most joy: baking. So Applewhite started Applecore’s Bake Shoppe to cater to dessert enthusiasts like herself.

“In 2020, I baked my first cake for sale and from there it was off and running,” she said.

Sarah McGee Mariman, owner of Thirty Hair Salon in Columbia, said there was a lot of stress in running a business during the pandemic. On April 1, the salon will move to a new, larger space a few doors down in the Snowden Center.
Sarah McGee Mariman, owner of Thirty Hair Salon in Columbia, said there was a lot of stress in running a business during the pandemic. On April 1, the salon will move to a new, larger space a few doors down in the Snowden Center. (Jeffrey F. Bill/Baltimore Sun Media)

Success in the midst of the pandemic is not uncommon in Howard.

Sarah McGee Mariman, the owner of Thirty Hair Salon in Columbia, got a glimpse of that, too, but her year was not without stress and anxiety.

“I remember telling [my employees], ‘We’re going to keep working until we can’t anymore,’ ” she said. “Those first couple days were an absolute blur. I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat. I was a zombie. I was sitting at the home office, figuring out how much money we have, calling the landlord, on hold with the unemployment office.”

McGee Mariman’s salon closed March 17, 2020. By Easter weekend, she got an email confirming her salon received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government. She broke down in tears. Without that approval, she said her business could not have survived.

At that time, the unemployment rate in Howard County was 8.1%, according to the statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today the county’s unemployment rate is 4.5%.

Over the course of the spring, McGee Mariman, 36, a Carroll County resident, received funding from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, a small business COVID-19 emergency relief grant from the state of Maryland, a grant from the national Salon & Spa Relief Fund and a HoCO Rise business grant.

Two months after she first shut her doors, Thirty Hair Salon was open for business again in May.

McGee Mariman is just now reaching the same level of clients and income she had before the pandemic. Because of social distancing precautions, she still has to keep every other sink and chair open.

“Today we just roll with the punches,” she said. “We’ve come out on the other side significantly stronger.”

On April 1, Thirty Hair Salon will move to a new, larger space a few doors down in the Snowden Center off Snowden River Parkway. Having a bigger space will enable her to increase capacity, even with social distancing, she said.

“Some of us did come out the other side better,” McGee Mariman said. “The difference of coming back for my team, there’s a heightened awareness of every person counts. Every client matters more now, in different ways. Every dollar they give to our business helps us stay afloat and take care of 13 families.”

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