By Brandon Martin
Social distancing, frequent handwashing and avoiding crowds are among the tools federal and state officials are recommending to help address the novel coronavirus disease, otherwise known as COVID-19.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall went a step further on March 16 and issued a declaration of local emergency to help the county respond to any spread of the disease.
The City of Martinsville has taken similar action.
“This declaration is not in response to any positive tests or anticipated positive results in our area,” Hall said. “This action just gives us more flexibility as we respond in the coming days and weeks to this public health threat. It is important to remove any barriers to the County’s ability to mitigate the spread of this virus, and this will help us in this area.”
By issuing the declaration, the county is better poised to acquire necessary services in the event that they have to respond to the pandemic.
As of now, Hall said that the declaration isn’t in response to any positive cases of COVID-19 in the area but it is a way for the county to remain prepared if continued action is needed in the future.
Officials in Henry County and the City of Martinsville also have teamed to create a joint webpage to update residents about the latest information regarding the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.
The page is linked to the top of each locality’s home page.
“The best way to combat rumors is to provide facts,” said Henry County Administrator Tim Hall. “Information surrounding this pandemic is changing almost minute-by-minute, and we need to do our best to provide the most accurate and timely information we can.”
“Our local governments are working hard to provide consistent and current information for our community,” said City Manager Leon Towarnicki. “Having one location for access to the latest updates hopefully makes it easier for citizens to stay informed.”
The page will be updated as needed but at least once a day. The updates will be provided from all federal, state and local agencies and will be posted by the county’s Public Safety staff in conjunction with city personnel.
Director of the Henry County Department of Public Safety Matt Tatum said that the emergency is the panic itself.
“The vast majority of people that do get the disease, yeah they will be sick for a few days, but they will most likely get better,” he said.
Tatum said that his team is taking precautions such as staying aware of the most recent CDC studies, wearing masks, and washing their hands routinely. They are also taking measures like wiping things down with disinfectant.
“It’s a really good opportunity to remind ourselves of basic practices that we should be doing anyway,” he said. “The best thing you can do is to stay abreast of the CDC, they provide updates on the virus almost hourly on their website. Second, don’t panic and finally just remember to practice good hygiene.”
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has provided guidance for those that feel like they may have contracted the disease.
They say that some symptoms associated with those already diagnosed with COVID-19 are the development of a fever and/or acute respiratory illness symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing. If someone has these symptoms and has been in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or recently traveled from an ongoing spread of the disease, then VDH recommends they contact their healthcare professional. Those that are seriously ill are advised to call their healthcare provider ahead of time and seek care at the emergency room. If the illness is very mild, it is recommended that the person stay at home and rest.
Testing is available through the Virginia public health laboratory Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services for people who meet priority testing. According to VDH, this means people who exhibit symptoms within 14 days of coming in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 or people exhibiting symptoms who have recently traveled to an area designated with a Level 2 or 3 Travel Advisory and tested negative for influenza on their initial work-up. Those that exhibit the symptoms, that live in nursing homes or long-term care facilities who also test negative for all other pathogens also qualify for priority testing. Private laboratories such as Labcorp and Quest are also providing tests.
VDH says there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19 and that vaccines may take months to years to develop. They expect that one may not be developed and available before 2021. There is also no specific treatment for coronavirus infections. Treatment consists of supportive care and relief of symptoms. VDH asks those looking for treatment to consult a licensed physician or other healthcare provider for additional recommendations.
Public schools in Virginia were ordered to close by Northam on March 13 for a minimum of two weeks. Before closing, local schools said they were already taking precautions and reassuring families of their protocol should the need arise.
“Our nurses are evaluating any student with a fever and, if necessary, sending the student home to ensure his or her own health as well as the health of others,” said Monica Hatchett, director of communications and organizational learning for Henry County Public Schools (HCPS). “Our cleaning team is already working in light of flu, and now coronavirus, to conduct additional disinfecting as they clean to help prevent the spread of any illnesses this time of year. Additionally, we have disinfectant foggers available and ready for use if the need arises.”
Similarly, Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) concentrated their efforts on preventative measures.
“Our school nurses follow the procedures for sending students home if they become ill at school and make recommendations to parents when they are picked up,” said Felicia Preston, director of pupil personnel services at MCPS. “School nurses also created a newsletter which focuses on health topics including suggestions and recommendations when students become ill. It is informational and sent to parents four times a year. Schools have purchased Clorox wipes and/or sanitizing sprays for classroom use along with completing some more specific steps to disinfect schools on a larger scale.”
Now that the schools have been ordered to close, Hatchett said that there are plans in place to address this scenario as well.
“Schools are required to meet for a mandated time frame for a school year, 180 days or 990 hours, in order for students to achieve course credit, etc,” she said. “In the event of an extended closure, we would continue to work with VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) and the Virginia Department of Health. Currently, the requirement would be to make up the first five days missed and every other day for days missed beyond that amount.”
She said that HCPS has missed three days so far this school year due to inclement weather, but they haven’t had to make up this time because time was built into their daily schedule that covers the time missed.
Because of the rural nature and lack of broadband access in the county, Hatchett said that distance learning isn’t as feasible.
“With that in mind, our teachers used time this week during a previously scheduled early release day for students to compile review resources that can be sent home with students for use in the event of extended absences,” she added. “This will help support students so that they don’t fall behind as these materials are review of learning that has already taken place.”
She also said that state standardized tests will still take place but the timeline may be altered by VDOE to allow students to meet learning targets even with the time that might be missed.
Some universities and colleges continue to expand online class offerings to help curtail the potential spread of COVID-19.
Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) shifted a majority of classes to online. The campus will use the extra time to focus on deep cleaning and sanitizing.
“This situation is fluid and changing constantly. We are fully committed to making the needed changes quickly and efficiently as they arise. At this point in time, we will focus on limiting possible exposure [and] expanding our regular cleaning and sanitizing regimen,” PHCC President Dr. Angeline Godwin wrote in a statement.
Those hands-on classes that are not possible to teach remotely will move to a modified schedule to ensure that students can receive instruction in very small groups where social distancing will be practiced.
“While there are no suspected cases of the coronavirus at Ferrum College, a transition to online instruction will begin Wednesday, March 18. The college plans to resume in-seat classes on April 6.
“To reduce the need for students to travel, the college will permit students to remain on campus, if they choose to do so. Students who choose to leave campus will not be permitted to return until the college resumes normal operations. During this time, residence halls and dining services will remain open,” the college wrote in a release.
The Department of Corrections has canceled offender visitation at all facilities until further notice. Off-site video visitation is still available. All official travel outside of Virginia by state employees has been halted as well. There will be some leeway for inter-state commuters and essential personnel. State employees have been advised to limit in-person meetings and non-essential work-related gatherings.
Because of fears of spreading the virus, some aspects of daily life have also been interrupted. The National Basketball Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association have postponed games until further notice until. In addition, NASCAR has added an infectious disease specialist to their consulting physician group to provide technical assistance and to inform policy. They are also taking precautions such as having media events in open-air facilities and implementing structures to distance drivers from the press and general public.
The virus also is impacting annual events; Northam imposed a state-wide ban on special public events that expect gatherings of more than 100 people.
“It’s just not a good idea for that many people to be that close to each other right now,” he said. “That means events that bring together more than 100 people in a single room or a single confined space without room to spread out.”
The list of events impacted includes parades, festivals and gatherings in auditoriums, stadiums or conferences, Northam said, noting that airports, offices, hospitals, restaurants or grocery stores were not included.
The High Point Market Authority postponed this year’s Spring Market, from April 25-29 until June 12-14 in expectation that conditions will be improved by then. The market has been a major part of the state’s economy since 1909. The event has only been cancelled once, in 1942 markets because of World War II.
Sovah Health announced in a media advisory that they will begin enhancing visitor restrictions and implementing new screening requirements beginning March 15.
As of now, the hospital does not have a presumptive positive case of COVID-19, according to the advisory.
Wake Forest Baptist Health, along with six other regional health systems, is expanding visitor restrictions and asking those who are not immediate family members to avoid visiting patients unless absolutely necessary – even if visitors are healthy and regardless of their age. Existing visitor restrictions for children age 12 and under that were previously implemented to help control the spread of flu remain in effect.
The restrictions apply to all Wake Forest Baptist inpatient locations.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” the release stated. Additional steps may be needed to help control the spread of the virus.
Health officials said that prevention is the best course of action, and underscore the importance of frequent hand washing, avoiding large crowds, traveling, and touching your face.
COVID-19 has become a worldwide pandemic and government officials, businesses and families are all scrambling to find ways to address it.
As of March 16, there have been 1,629 total reported cases of the virus in the United States resulting in 41 deaths. It has spread to 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Because of the increased number of cases, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13 to combat the outbreak, freeing $50 billion in federal resources that will be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For Virginia, and as of Sunday, there had been 48 presumptive positive cases and one death so far out of 408 people tested. The number of cases had risen to 51 by Monday, according to reports.
Northam declared a state of emergency in the Commonwealth on March 12 to allow more flexibility for the state to ease regulatory requirements and procurement rules. It also allows for continued federal and multi-state coordination, and ensures continued access to critical services for the most vulnerable Virginians.
“Our top priority is to make sure Virginians stay safe and healthy, and that our response to this situation leaves no one behind,” Northam said. “From our health department, to our schools, to our hospitals, to our transit systems, Virginia’s agencies and institutions have been thoroughly planning for every scenario. This emergency declaration will ensure we can continue to prepare for and appropriately respond to Virginians’ needs during this time.”
The declaration followed a teleconference with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., about various concerns regarding the impact of the virus.
“I think we should expect these numbers to increase and dramatically increase as more testing equipment gets into the marketplace,” Warner said. “We need more tests out in the marketplace and that will result in a higher number of confirmed cases.”
On March 11, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 5.9 percent, adding on to a decline of 20.3 percent from a high reached on Feb. 12. The Dow fell again on March 16 by approximately 3,000 points, even after federal officials took actions to try to stabilize the economy, such as waiving interest rates on federally backed student loans and purchasing more crude oil for the U.S. reserve.
Warner said that concerns of the virus have forced businesses to tell their workers to stay home to minimize the potential of spreading the disease. This action prevents cash flow into small businesses and specifically hurts employees.
“No one should lose their job, lose their pay or not have the flexibility to take care of their kids if their schools are shut down,” he said. “Let’s focus on those that have the illness or are quarantining on their own. If you are in that two-week quarantine period then you should not lose your job and pay.”
He also said that the House of Representatives worked on a package to address paid sick leave, shore up unemployment benefits to provide immediate support for furloughed employees, and provide nutritional support for students at schools that rely on Title I funds who may not get meals due to school closures.
The bill, H.R. 6201 or Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed the House on March 14. It also now has passed the Senate.
Ninth District U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., voted in favor of the legislation “to counteract the economic and social damage inflicted by the coronavirus. It’s not perfect, but it will help.”