Oldham County Judge Don Allred was sitting in his living room on a Thursday night when the state health department called.
Oldham County – on historic Route 66 bordering New Mexico in the Texas Panhandle – had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Her name was B’Anna Scroggins. She was 39. She had a husband, two kids, a job and a long list of friends in her home in the county seat of Vega.
Now she had the disease.
Crap, Allred thought. It’s here.
It was March 19.
Allred, who looks the part of a rural county judge with his gray mustache, jeans, sports coat and cowboy boots, had known the virus was coming. He wasn’t naive enough to think that his 2,300-resident community would be shielded from a pandemic killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
But until that day, COVID-19 felt more like a big-city thing, something far away from the modest, single-story homes that line Vega’s narrow streets. New York and New Orleans were a world away from Vega’s 1-square-mile downtown with its handful of restaurants, eight-page weekly newspaper, gold water tower and wind turbines near the 25,000-head cattle feed yard.
Allred, who has been the county judge in Oldham County for more than three decades, hung up the phone and got to work. He hasn’t stopped since then, making calls, occasionally dropping off groceries to elderly neighbors, trying to calm the nerves of local business owners watching their earnings plummet.
For months, America has been focused on the tragedy unfolding in major cities, watching the numbers click up every day to more than 1.2 million confirmed cases of COVID and more than 80,000 deaths across the country.
But rural areas are feeling the pain of the virus in their own ways. In Oldham County, shops have been shuttered. Restaurants and businesses have lost money. Sheriff’s deputies have stopped fewer speeders on the highway and people suspected of lower-level crimes such as marijuana possession or assaults are getting low bonds to keep them out of the 10-bed jail.
And the stories of people like B’Anna Scroggins show how even one death can sideswipe tight-knit communities.
“Her loss was not just frightening to our community,” Allred said. “It was emotionally devastating.”
The basketball game
B’Anna Scroggins, her husband, Billy, and their friends packed into the Texan Dome at South Plains College on Friday, March 6, wearing their black and gold Vega Longhorns T-shirts. The regional basketball tournament had drawn a large crowd to watch the high school boys teams battle it out for a chance to go to the state finals.
The tournament was almost two hours away, but that’s what Vega residents do – support their students, even when their own kids have graduated or don’t play sports.
“The whole town was there,” said Shaye Pingel Warner, one of B’Anna’s best friends. “I bet there were 300-400 people there from our side. Probably more.”
The Scroggins crew snatched good seats – about six rows from the court. It was a heartbreaker; Vega lost 69-58 to Sundown.
Oh well, the Vega fans said through tears. On to golf and track.
At that time, Allred didn't know Scroggins so much as he knew of her. He’d followed her son, Brian, when he played basketball and football in high school. But in Vega, that’s as good as knowing someone.
“We’re all family,” he said. “In a small community, everybody either knows you or knows someone who knows you.”
Soon, B’Anna Scroggins would become a major figure in Allred’s life.
B’Anna worked as a business analyst at AIG. Billy owned his own company, C and C Gaskets, which produced custom-made refrigerator gaskets. The couple married in 1996 when B’Anna was 16 and Billy was 21. Billy loved her red hair, that she was sweet and a good listener.
They had two children and frequently hit concerts together, seeing groups like Matchbox 20 and the Goo Goo Dolls. B’Anna had recently bought tickets for a concert featuring Motley Crew, Joan Jett and others to celebrate Billy’s 45th birthday in July.
The couple also had a tightknit circle of friends. They held big Halloween parties, vacationed together at Ute Lake in New Mexico and drank margaritas at a local restaurant. B’Anna always sang Lizzo’s Truth Hurts at karaoke.
“She always had a smile on her face,” Billy Scroggins said.
On Tuesday, March 10, four days after the basketball game, B’Anna started feeling sick.
She texted Pingel Warner, “I have been coughing and had chills all night.”
Along with a crushing headache, she had a 102-degree fever.
She wasn’t the only one to get sick. Pingel Warner, her boyfriend and a few others in Vega who had attended the basketball tournament, had already fallen ill, so B’Anna wasn’t worried.
“She thought she got the flu,” Billy Scroggins said.
State officials would later confirm that the tournament might have been responsible for spreading COVID-19.
As the week progressed, B’Anna Scroggins tried to bring the fever down with Tylenol and Motrin.
By Friday, March 13, she couldn’t take it anymore. She headed to a family care clinic in Bushland, about 20 minutes away, Billy Scroggins said. There, she tested negative for the flu and strep throat and her temperature had dipped.
The doctors sent her home with instructions to return if her high fever returned.
The next day, she went to an urgent care clinic in Amarillo. She had a 103-degree fever, a piercing headache and a persistent cough. This time, she tested positive for the flu B and pneumonia.
Her blood-oxygen level was so low that doctors called an ambulance to transfer her to BSA Hospital in Amarillo.
B’Anna kept her spirits up, Billy Scroggins said. She asked her husband to check on her friend’s daughter, who was also sick.
“That’s how she was,” Billy Scroggins said. “She always worried about everybody but herself.”
Three days later, B’Anna Scroggins stopped breathing. She was resuscitated, intubated and taken to the ICU. Two days later, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Pingel Warner started asking people on Facebook to pray for her friend.
“Calling on our prayer warriors to pray fervently for one of my dearest friends, B'Anna Scroggins,” Pingel Warner wrote on March 19, the first of multiple posts. “The next few days are the most critical. Please pray for complete healing and restoration.”
Hundreds of people responded.
“I don’t know her but God knows her and I am praying for her miracle healing in Jesus name,” one person wrote.
“Keep fighting B'Anna Scroggins!!!” another wrote. “God is with you!!"
Chaos and control
As soon as Allred discovered Scroggins had COVID-19, he snapped into action.
Allred called the emergency management coordinator and the sheriff’s office, a small department with five deputies and five jailers. The dispatchers were notified of the case so, in case they were called there for an emergency, the responders would be wearing appropriate protective gear.
Then he had to figure out how to inform those who didn’t know about Scroggins’s official confirmation of COVID. They had to rely on the state health department for guidance, he said. There’s no hospital, not even a single doctor, in Oldham County.
“We were basically in the dark, not knowing what to do or how to react,” Allred said. He worried about somehow violating HIPAA. He worried about the rumor mill spreading wrong information. And he worried that more cases were coming.
On March 20, the county posted the COVID-19 confirmation on its emergency management Facebook page.
“Texas Department of State Health Services has notified local officials of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Oldham County,” the post read. “No further information is available at this time but will be provided as it becomes available”
That same day, Pingel Warner confirmed on Facebook that B’Anna was the one who tested positive for the virus because the rumor mill had been churning. At least 15 to 20 people had texted or messaged her, worried that they had been exposed to the disease.
The disease that had seemed so distant suddenly became very real.
“Most of the time she was in our prayers, hoping she was going to be OK, that she was going to make it through this,” Allred said. “No one really had an understanding of the seriousness. We all knew it could be fatal, but she was a 39-year-old woman. We thought, ‘She’ll be OK. We’ll get through this.’”
Rumors flew through the community, often instigated by Facebook or Twitter.
“The first week or two weeks, 70-80% of my job was trying to stomp out rumors,” Allred said. “It was ‘So and so has it,’ and then, ‘Their whole family has it,’ and ‘What do I do, I saw them?’”
Before B’Anna’s death, when Billy Scroggins left home in a mask to go to the post office, a neighbor called the police, accusing him of spreading the disease.
Allred started getting calls from residents worried about the disease. He told people what he could and tried to give them accurate information. If they were feeling ill, he told them what the health department had instructed him to say: If you start feeling bad and have a fever, wait it out for a few days. After that, if you don’t feel better, call the hospital and let them know you’re coming.
Allred resisted calling for a shelter-in-place measure, saying the county was so rural that it was isolated enough to slow the spread of the disease. Instead, he brought 5-gallon jugs of hand sanitizer to the schools, to fire departments, city and county offices. He helped deliver groceries to his neighbors.
He worked with the sheriff’s office and used his position as county magistrate to keep travelers picked up on the highway out of jail and out of the county. In late March, the governor ordered the shutdown.
Meanwhile, Allred was worried about the county’s economic health.
Roy Arellano, co-owner of Rooster’s Mexican Restaurant and Cantina in Vega, stood in mid-April in an empty dining room. Chairs were stacked on maroon-colored tables. The fountain in the corner bubbled audibly when ordinarily it would be drowned out by the sound of talking customers.
Business was down 60% since mid-March, when Gov. Greg Abbott banned eating in restaurants. Arellano had to lay off four employees, leaving himself and two others to handle to-go orders.
“It affects our business,” he said. “A lot of people are afraid to come out.”
Local veterinarian T.J. Barclay also has seen a dip in his business, which mainly focuses on horses. With rodeos and other events canceled, owners don’t need his services as much.
Kirkland Feedyard in Vega – which fattens cattle before slaughter – has taken a hit from the stock market, said Robby Kirkland, who runs the operation.
“My message for my family, to customers is that we’re all healthy and alive. Maybe we don’t have as much money in our pockets, but we still have our jobs.”
Oldham County wouldn’t let its businesses die without a fight, though. People were eating out as much as they could. They also started buying gift certificates for haircuts from Bill’s Barber Shop.
“Just to put some money in his pocket,” Allred said.
But telling people they had to shut their doors was hard. Salons, gift shops, T-shirt stores – none of them qualified as essential business, something that irked the owners, particularly because Walmart and Dollar General stayed open.
“How is a barber who wears a mask and gloves a bigger hazard to my community than 250 people walking around Walmart?” Allred asked.
Oldham County Commissioner Quincy Taylor – who owns Taylor’s Vega Market – never had a problem with losing business. The problem was she had too much.
In early March, when people started hoarding, people from the surrounding areas would clean out her shop – toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods, rice. Nothing was left for the locals, Taylor said.
Taylor closed her doors and only provided curbside pick up or delivery service. It wasn’t just a matter of making sure her neighbors had food, she said. It was about their health, too.
“I didn’t want all those people from Amarillo coming to our store bringing us who knows what,” Taylor said.
'The minister didn’t show up'
Doctors in the ICU put B’Anna Scroggins in a medically induced coma to help get oxygen to her organs. But nothing helped.
On March 23, her blood oxygen levels never got above 30. A normal reading is between 95 and 100. Her heart raced, swinging between 130 and 160 beats per minute.
Her husband Billy began feeling achy and lethargic, symptoms he attributed to stress. He was allowed to see his wife only outfitted in double gloves, a face shield and a gown. B’Anna’s sister kept vigil at her side while Billy checked in on their 16-year-old daughter, Shaylee, and got some rest.
At 2:30 a.m. on March 24, B’Anna Scroggins’s heart stopped. She was gone.
Three days later, Billy Scroggins was diagnosed with COVID-19. Scroggins, who has asthma, had to use his inhaler more, but mostly felt weak and tired. He felt better shortly after receiving a Z-Pack, which is an antibiotic, on the day he was diagnosed.
The community rallied around the Scroggins family, setting up a GoFundMe account that generated more than $25,000.
“It blew me away,” Billy Scroggins said. “I was so shocked.”
Allred wasn’t. He knew the town would support the Scroggins family.
“It was very serious and devastating,” Allred said. “It became real and it became alive and it became local.”
He also knew the community was scared.
After his wife’s death, a handful of people sat outside Billy Scroggins’s house in their cars and masks to make sure he didn’t leave. One rumor accused him of threatening to cough all over the local store’s produce.
“I’m not mad at anybody,” Billy Scroggins said. “Nobody knows how to react to these things.”
And yet, things got even harder. The same community that had leapt to help Scroggins deal with the loss of his wife couldn’t help him do the most basic thing – hold her funeral.
B’Anna’s Scroggins’s funeral was postponed three times. The first two stemmed from conversations about whether the health department would allow friends to watch from their cars. The answer was no, he said.
Allred had to tell Scroggins that people couldn’t attend the funeral not only because of the executive order that only 10 people could gather at a time, but because Billy Scroggins and his daughter were still quarantined.
“It was terrible,” Allred said. “There’s things you have to do sometimes that you despise, but you have to do those things to protect the community.”
The third time the funeral was pushed back was because the grave digger got sick.
Ultimately, only immediate family – Scroggins, his two children and his son’s fiancee – came to the graveside on April 1. Several law enforcement officers, who saluted the family as they arrived at the cemetery, sat in their cars outside the gates as a sign of respect, but also to make sure no one else attended the funeral, Scroggins said.
But the minister the family had arranged didn’t show.
“He was afraid,” Billy Scroggins said.
Funeral director Bart Boxwell stepped up. He said a few words, praying for God to watch over the family in their time of need. He played “It is Well,” by Kristene DiMarco on a little boombox.
Scroggins doesn’t remember much about the burial. He was crying too much.
The little house that B’Anna was renovating is quiet now. Billy spends his days caring for Shaylee, a quiet girl who is spending time with a few friends and her boyfriend.
Billy Scroggins is celebrating the birth of his 21-year-old son’s first child, and going to work. He’ll miss his wife’s smile and the way she dragged him out of the house and her edict that, no matter how annoyed they got with each other, they’d always figure it out.
“We just worked,” he said. “We always had the rule that we don’t go to bed mad. And we never did.”
'I don’t think we’ll ever be like we were'
A couple of weeks, but what feels like eons, after B’Anna Scroggins’s death, life in Oldham County is returning to some semblance of normalcy.
Rooster’s and the Dairy Queen are open for partial in-restaurant dining. The county courthouse doors are open, though officials are still limiting the number of customers who can enter offices at the same time.
Taylor is letting a few people come into her grocery, though curbside service and delivery are still the priority. Businesses like salons and barber shops are open, and the school is finalizing a plan that would allow their 42 seniors to have a graduation ceremony.
In other ways, life here remains on pause. Churches are still closed. Businesses are having to live with the money they lost these past few months.
What will the new normal look like? Taylor wonders. Will people go to football games again? Will they be able to have parties? Will they be able to look at each other without worrying they’ll catch something?
“Everything is so different,” Taylor said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be like we were. Look how much it’s already changed us.”
The threat of the disease spreading into Oldham County remains ever present. While the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is still three, the rural county is surrounded by areas with far more cases.
Potter County, home of Amarillo and directly east of Oldham County, has about 1,000 cases of the virus. Nearby Moore County has more than 400 and Randall County has about 300.
Many Oldham residents commute to work in Amarillo or other cities, which means more cases could show up.
“I’m concerned about it filtering out to our local communities,” Allred said. “I don’t think any of us are naive enough to think this is over.”
Despite the heartbreak of B’Anna Scroggins’s death, COVID-19 has also shown Vega’s heart, he said. One person gave $1,000 to the grocery store for its employees, while others brought meals, cookies or banana bread to keep them fed during the long days.
Families are spending more timewith their children, and there is a sense of gratitude things aren’t worse.
“There are people that are scared out there, but we cannot live in fear,” he said. “We must live in facts. I know God can take any tragedy and turn it into triumph.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus in Texas: How death has rattled a tightknit community