MANGUM — The mayor of Mangum said contact with the evangelist who was the state’s first COVID-19 death is believed to be at the root of Greer County’s four deaths and a rash of its 32 confirmed cases as of Wednesday.
Mayor Mary Jane Scott said that after a State Department of Health investigation into the county’s high numbers of COVID-19 cases for its estimated 6,000 population, it is believed the source was an evangelist from Tulsa. He came to town to preach to an unidentified congregation on March 15 and set off a deadly chain of events.
“What I’m thinking is when he came and preached and went to this person’s home and had visitation with the pastor and everyone there and then visited the nursing home, that’s how the nursing home most likely got infected,” she said.
It was days later that the Rev. Merle Dry passed away from COVID-19 complications on March 18, according a statement from a pastor of his congregation at Metro Pentecostal in Tulsa. Scott didn’t know the name of the evangelist who visited Mangum but Dry is who fits the description of the visitor.
With all the elderly residents living and staff working in the town of 3,000’s only nursing home, Grace Living Center, 320 Carey Street, the virus could sit there for however long before contact was made and it began its spread.
Scott said the Department of Health came in last weekend and tested all staff and residents in the nursing home. She said there were 13 to 16 positive results for COVID-19 in the nursing home and one of the most recent deaths came from there.
The first Greer County death was a 95 year old woman who was exposed to the traveling evangelist either during the church service or at the dinner following, Scott said. The other three deaths were residents of the nursing home.
“It’s just one of those freak things,” she said. “When you get somebody like that that goes into the nursing home you don’t expect this outcome. Rural Oklahoma didn’t think it (COVID-19) was going to be that big of deal.”
Scott said the impact of the virus and the levels of social-distancing measures implemented during its spread over the past three weeks have altered life in myriads of ways. From the cancellations of the town’s rattlesnake derby to cancellation of high school prom and graduation ceremonies, “it’s really tragic,” she said.
Also the chairperson for the annual Mangum Alumni Reunion, a century-plus old tradition, Scott said a hard decision is coming soon.
“We’re probably going to have to cancel the alumni reunion after 110 years,” she said.
But the recommendations put in place have helped slow the numbers that were rising quickly as testing rates began to ramp up the past three weeks. Scott said it’s tough to get every single person in her jurisdiction on board, however.
“The majority of people adhere to the recommendations but there’s a few people who won’t adhere to the recommendations,” she said. “I don’t know why.”
As an example, Scott told how the local United Supermarket had set up its policies for shoppers that include directions for aisle traffic and other safeguards. She said there are still those who come and “do what they’re going to do.”
“What are we going to do arrest them?” she asked. “Should you? I don’t know.”
Continuance of serving the citizens remains a priority. From the city to schools and all points between, Scott said efforts are underway. Being a low-income community where 80 percent of kids are on free or reduced lunches, you still have to provide for those in need.
“We’re doing everything we’re trying to do and trying to stay safe,” she said. “We made the mask order yesterday (Tuesday) and have a curfew in place. That’s helped a lot with people’s confidence.”
Scott confirmed that city services are continuing and all staff remain on duty, though most are working from home. Many are on-call. No utilities are being cut off, either, she said.
Scott came into office 2½ years ago. She knew what the job entailed after serving for a decade on the city council during the 1990s. But what can prepare you for a pandemic?
The mayor and city council members make $150 a month. Scott’s pay is donated to the local library. City offices for officials aren’t a thing.
“Yeah, I don’t have an office,” she said. “This is not a town where a mayor needs an office. It’s done all out of the goodness of our hearts to the community.”
City Manager Dave Andren has earned high praise from the mayor. Scott said he’s been the one on the phone with different agencies and entities to help the small community coordinate its response to COVID-19.
“He comes up with great ideas,” she said. “He deserves a lot of credit.”