By Brandon Martin and Cory L. Higgs
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.
The virus 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.
The declaration freed $50 billion in federal resources that will be used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
For Virginia, there have been 45 presumptive positive cases and one death so far out of 408 people tested.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, for similar reasons to Trump, declared a state of emergency for the Commonwealth on March 12 in a move that allows 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 market place 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. It has since rebounded, as 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 type of action prevents cash flow into small businesses and specifically hurts employees of the gig economy that rely on wages from tips to remain financially stable.
“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 is currently working on a package to address paid sick leave, shoring up unemployment benefits to provide immediate support for furloughed employees, and providing nutritional support for students at schools that rely on Title I funds who may not get meals due to school closures.
The bill that Warner was referring to, H.R. 6201 or Families First Coronavirus Response Act, passed on March 14 and Congressman Morgan Griffith, R-Va., voted in favor of the legislation.
“I plan to support the bill the House will vote on tonight to counteract the economic and social damage inflicted by the coronavirus,” he said in a social media post before casting his vote. “It’s not perfect, but it will help.”
Northam also ordered public schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks on March 13. Before closing, local schools said they were already taking precautions and reassuring families of their protocol should the need arise.
Patrick County Schools said in a social media post that “the school system is constantly monitoring the health status of the students and staff in our schools. We are continuing with the constant cleaning and disinfecting of the schools each day.” Officials said that “should a coronavirus case be reported in the county, then the school division will follow the guidance provided by the Health Department and the CDC.”
Students and staff are encouraged to follow practical hygiene habits and practices to fight the spread of germs and bacteria, even when out of school.
Some universities and colleges initially extended Spring Break for students and continue to expand online class offerings to help curtail the potential spread of COVID-19.
Patrick Henry Community College reported it was “closely working with our governing body, the VCCS, to monitor the situation. We are prepared to initiate whatever measures become necessary in order to keep our Patriots safe. This may include providing students who have traveled outside of the region with the resources to self-quarantine. This could eventually mean moving all in-person classes to online.” PHCC stated that students and faculty are “strongly discouraged from personal travel outside of the region. If you do decide to travel, you may be required to not return to campus and directed to self-quarantine for 14 days.”
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 to employees.
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 PHCC has moved to address the issue of hands-on learning, other colleges and universities don’t have precautions in place.
“While there are no suspected cases of the coronavirus at Ferrum College, the institution will take the following actions: Classes will meet as usual tomorrow; however, classes will be canceled Monday and Tuesday to allow for the transition to online instruction to begin Wednesday, March 18,” the school said in a March 12 press release. “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.”
Some students say those measures will come at a cost.
Flaklinda Mehmeti, a student at Radford University, said the school’s move to extend Spring Break and shift all classes to online will prove to be inconvenient in terms of quality of education.
“While all of the classes are provided online, that doesn’t help students who gain extra insight from things like laboratories which the university can’t provide over the internet,” she said.
Other state-run organizations are also being affected by the virus.
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.
In a press conference Sunday, 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 airports, offices, hospitals, restaurants or grocery stores were not included.
The High Point Market Authority postponed this year’s Spring Market, slated for April 25-29, until a later date in early June in expectation that conditions have improved by then.
The High Point 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.
“Our board of directors will continue to monitor the situation, and we will remain in communication with the proper medical and elected officials,” said Tom Conley, president and CEO of the High Point Market Authority. “Our aim is to have a decision in early May as to if Market can occur, given the uncertainties of this rapidly evolving situation.”
Hospitals and emergency responders in Patrick and Henry counties also are attempting to comfort the public in the midst of the panic over COVID-19.
Sovah Health announced in a media advisory that they will begin enhancing visitor restrictions and implementing new screening requirements beginning March 15.
First, they reduced visitor entrances down to two points at their Danville and Martinsville sites–the main entrance and the emergency department. Staff will man the entrance points to screen patients, visitors and other staff members for respiratory symptoms and for travel history, as suggested by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Additionally, the hospital is only allowing one visitor per patient at a time and the visitor must be at least age 16.
Exceptions to the new restriction may be made for end-of-life and pediatric patients. The hospital also said that visitation hours may change as the situation continues to unfold. 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:
- Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center
- Wake Forest Baptist Health – Davie Medical Center
- Wake Forest Baptist Health – High Point Medical Center
- Wake Forest Baptist Health – Lexington Medical Center
- Wake Forest Baptist Health – Wilkes Medical Center
The decision to expand visitor restrictions is a collaborative effort between Wake Forest Baptist Health and six other regional health systems: Atrium Health, Blue Ridge Health, CaroMont Health, Cone Health, Novant Health, and Randolph Health.
“This is a rapidly evolving situation,” said the Wake Forest Baptist press release. They report they will take additional steps to help control the spread of the virus as necessary and encourage potential visitors to utilize other forms of visitation like phones and video chatting technologies.
Wake Forest says the best cause of action to prevent the spread of the virus is the frequent washing of your hands and other practical hygiene measures such as avoiding large crowds, traveling, and touching your face.