Covid-19 did not spare US Amish communities
Facebook posts claim Amish religious communities have not been affected by the deadly Covid-19 pandemic. But the administrator of a Pennsylvania medical center that mainly treats Amish patients said they have experienced higher than average Covid-19 infection rates, US health authorities documented cases in an Amish community in Ohio, and there are first-hand accounts of the disease spreading in the Christian Anabaptist group.
“Why isn’t Covid affecting you people?” reads text on an image of a masked person speaking with two men dressed in Amish clothing, posted on Facebook February 6, 2021. “We don’t have TV,” one of the men answers.
“The Amish vaccine,” text accompanying the image says.
A second set of Facebook posts from 2020 claim “6 months later and the Amish are all still alive and Covid free. Their cure = No TV!” roughly six months after the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.
Lancaster County in Pennsylvania is home to the largest Amish settlement in the US, with more than 40,000 people. Communities are mostly concentrated in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.
Allen Hoover, an administrator at Parochial Medical Center (PMC) in Lancaster County, addressed the claim that the Amish are unaffected by Covid-19.
“We see primarily Amish and other plain people here at PMC, and the opposite is actually the case. Because the Amish are such a tight knit community, and because they have largely ignored all safety protocols among themselves, they have experienced a much higher than average Covid-19 infection rate,” Hoover told AFP in an email.
He said the medical center has seen many cases of Covid-19 among Amish patients, including deaths. He noted that while infections are high, death rates from the virus are lower because “their older people live with family and extended family and not in old people’s homes, and usually maintain a healthier lifestyle.”
However, most Covid-19 cases go unreported in Amish communities due to wariness of outside “meddling,” Hoover said.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health authorities investigated an outbreak in an Amish community in Ohio that occurred in May 2020, months before the posts above claimed the Amish had been unaffected.
“Social gatherings, important in Amish communities, likely contributed to rapid transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in a rural Ohio Amish community,” the CDC said, using the official name of the virus that causes Covid-19.
Donald Kraybill, Senior Fellow Emeritus at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, said in an email: “Many Amish communities in various states have been infected by Covid… I have contacts in various states with Amish leaders and they have reported deaths.”
Kraybill and Charles Hurst, one of the authors of “An Amish Paradox,” confirmed the two men pictured in the meme do appear to be Amish. But a reverse image search dates the photo to at least 2015, prior to discovery of the disease in 2019.
Braxton Mitchell, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who studies Amish populations, said: “I can tell you that Amish in many communities that I know of have been hit particularly hard by Covid.”
It is “not surprising since many Amish do not practice social distancing and do not wear masks,” he said in an email.
Pennsylvania Department of Health deputy press secretary Maggi Barton said in an email that “all residents can be affected by Covid-19 -- no one is immune to this virus.”
Health data is not gathered by religious affiliation, so specific counts on Amish infections are not available, an Indiana Department of Health spokeswoman said.
Steven Nolt, interim director of Elizabethtown College’s Young Center, provided AFP with a digital copy of entries in Lancaster-based Amish periodical The Diary, which attest to first-hand experiences with Covid-19.
A letter on page 40 of the June 2020 issue mentions the effects of Covid-19 on a New Haven, Indiana community.
Wilma Zehr writes: “Lots of people are sick in the area which I feel it just started among our people. Some did test positive for Covid-19 and (others) didn’t test. Some are really sick, others in hospital and some just have hard headaches and aches and still keep going and not stay home… I feel we should try and do social distancing, etc. like they ask us to.”
A poem on the front page of the same issue by Naomi Peachey of Ovid, New York also suggests that readers follow health authorities’ recommendations, and hints at the dangers of the coronavirus.
“We shouldn’t go visiting, nor sneezing or cough / Only a little sniffle, and that’s quite enough / To raise the red flags, and hunker down home / We should follow rules, lest authorities come,” the poem says.
“I’ve lost count of how many people it’s affected in our community,” the man was quoted as saying. “I lost one of my very good friends.”
More than 479,000 Americans have died from Covid-19.
The false claim about the Amish is part of a larger trend of misinformation downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus or contending the virus is a hoax. AFP has debunked such claims here, here and here.