By Brandon Martin
Government and health officials called on Henry County and Martinsville businesses and residents to be more vigilant in following recommended coronavirus (COVID-19) prevention techniques. The call came during a June 8 press conference to address a recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the area.
West Piedmont Health District Chief Operations Officer Penny Hall said that at the time of the press conference, the two localities had a combined 219 positive COVID-19 cases, and four deaths. In late May, the cases tripled, Hall added.
She said the main causes of the spike were workplace outbreaks and family gatherings where social distancing guidelines were not observed.
Sharon Ortiz Garcia, epidemiologist for West Piedmont, said that the increased numbers aren’t due to positive retests of individuals.
Health officials have seen some continue to test positive after the initial diagnosis, Garcia said, and added that a single case could result in a person continuing to test positive for 6 to 8 weeks.
However, those numbers are not included in the total number of positive cases reported in Virginia, she said.
From her experience in the community, she said that approximately 80 percent of the people she sees in grocery stores aren’t wearing facemasks.
“You’ll see the staff wearing masks, but you don’t see the customers wearing masks,” Garcia said, adding that other guidelines such as social distancing aren’t being followed either.
To help solve this, Hall said that the health department is seeking cooperation from business leaders to assist contact tracers in identifying the close contacts of workers who may have been exposed to the virus.
“Only if we all move quickly and in unison can we stem the tide of new COVID infections,” she said.
Dr. Bruce Mazurek, director of the emergency department at Sovah Health, said that based on the current population, Martinsville-Henry County has about 300 cases per 100,000.
“To give you an example, Danville-Pennsylvania County is 80,” he said. “We are almost four times greater.”
Mazurek said that during his travels to areas of differing populations, those that had better results also had retail and customer service based businesses that required shoppers entering stores to wear a mask. He asked local businesses to do the same.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall also asked local retail and manufacturing businesses to help.
“We need each and every one of our businesses to lead the way,” Hall said. “We need you to be vigilant with your customers and your employees. We need our businesses to help remind everybody that this is not about us. It’s not about how tough we are or how much of an imposition it is to wear a mask.”
Holding his face mask up in the air, Hall said “this mask weighs a third of a pound. You owe it to yourself, but more importantly, you owe it to the people around you, to put this thing on.”
Mazurek also reminded residents that both Sovah facilities in Martinsville and Danville are “very safe” and “well protected. If there is something ailing you or bothering you, please don’t put that off,” he said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Jim Adams also called on the community to “step up” in helping mitigate rising COVID-19 cases.
“Wear a mask, practice social distancing, think of others before yourself,” Adams said before referencing biblical scripture about the Good Samaritan being a good neighbor.
“When the question was asked, who is my neighbor?, the conclusion to the parable is those that have need. Our community has a need right now. Our community is asking you to respond to that need,” Adams said.
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson also appealed “to citizens to do what is right.” She said she sympathizes with those who want to socialize, but “even though our governor has relaxed restrictions for openings, now is simply not the time to abandon safe practices.”
In addition to mindfulness of facemasks and social distancing, Lawson also reminded residents to watch for common-touch surfaces like elevators.
“Our community’s safety is at risk. We need to stay the course and continue to be proactive to stop the spread of this virus,” Lawson said. “We are far from being past it.”
Penny Hall said the health department is seeking volunteers who can speak Spanish to help engage with the local Hispanic/Latino population to promote safe practices.
Alfredo Lopez, an EMT with Henry County Public Safety, was present at the conference to translate for viewers.