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Fredericksburg-area hospital officials 'cautiously optimistic' that most severe COVID-19 cases are decreasing

Fredericksburg-area hospital officials 'cautiously optimistic' that most severe COVID-19 cases are decreasing

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Local hospital officials are seeing some encouraging signs that the worst of COVID-19 cases may be over for the Fredericksburg area—at least in this first wave, if there is, indeed, another outbreak later this year.

“I think we’re definitely on the downhill stretch, and we’ve definitely passed the peak,” said Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical officer of Mary Washington Healthcare. “But we’re not completely out of the woods with another peak happening in our community.”

David McKnight, CEO of Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, offered the same caution.

“We have begun to see a decrease in [hospitalized] COVID-19 patients,” he said. “Although the decrease indicates we may be making progress flattening the curve, we still strongly encourage our community to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidelines to protect themselves.”

The bit of good news comes as the Fredericksburg region, and Virginia as a whole, have been monitoring the spread of illness from the novel coronavirus for eight weeks. While things are looking a little better in the local area, that’s not the case statewide—especially farther north, where thousands of local residents go to work.

Northern Virginia cases continue to climb; the Fairfax Health District, which includes the county, city and Falls Church, has recorded the highest number of deaths, hospitalizations and cases in the state. Almost 1 of every 4 of Virginia’s 492 residents who died from confirmed cases of COVID-19 lived in the Fairfax Health District.

Likewise, every county north of Stafford has at least 500 cases—Fairfax County has 3,278 of them—while cases in the Rappahannock Area Health District stood at 426, as of Tuesday.

If social-distancing practices were relaxed, and local residents resumed their northern commutes, “we could see another surge of cases in our region,” Newman said.

Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized locally continues its slightly downward trend.

Mary Washington Hospital has the largest intensive care unit among the three hospitals in the area and saw its highest patient caseload on April 16. There were 28 people hospitalized that day with COVID-19, and since then, the number of patients has hovered between 15 and 17 daily, Newman said.

Those patterns are reflected across the local health district. From April 13 to 17, there were 27 to 35 people being treated at Spotsylvania, Mary Washington and Stafford Hospital.

By April 20, there were 22 hospitalized patients, said Allison Balmes–John, spokesperson for the local health district. That number dropped to 19 by Friday, April 24; stood at 17 Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and was 16 on Tuesday.

Mary Washington Hospital shows a different number of hospitalized patients than the local health district because some of those sickened were treated at Spotsylvania. In addition, Mary Washington treats patients from outside the local health district, including residents of Orange, Fauquier, Prince William and Westmoreland counties, said Lisa Henry, marketing director at Mary Washington Healthcare.

At daily meetings, staff members have discussed the flattening of the curve, and Henry said she hears the same phrase regularly.

“Cautiously optimistic: That’s the term we’ve been using,” she said.

Many of the statistics are encouraging: Of the 199 patients who tested positive at Mary Washington or Stafford, only 17 remain hospitalized as of Tuesday. MWHC’s facilities weren’t overrun with critically ill patients as some models projected.

The maxim about “if you build it, they will come,” didn’t pan out with Mary Washington’s field hospital—a space in the parking garage that would have been used solely for COVID-19 patients if the daily count became overwhelming.

But the coronavirus has shown its deadly side, as well. Nine residents of the local health district have died, and “there’s so much we don’t know about the disease,” Henry said.

Local public health officials are glad to see the number of severe cases decreasing, but said “it is too soon for us to jump to a conclusion that the rate of the spread of the disease is seeing a true decline,” Balmes–John said.

In addition, the decrease of hospitalizations may be due to more patients being tested and getting care sooner, which contributes to a better outcome, said Dr. David Stern, acting director of the local health district. That’s especially true with those who are most vulnerable to the disease, he said.

“Family and medical providers should be more sensitive to and aggressive with care for the elderly, for COVID-19 can progress quickly,” he said. “The elderly, especially those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, immune system related disease or on cancer therapy, should see their provider and consider beginning COVID-19 treatment early.”

The increased testing capacity comes as more than 10 urgent care clinics in the region are offering drive-thru testing by appointment only—mostly to people who have symptoms of the virus or to any health care worker or first responder. While CVS Health Corp. announced Monday that it is offering free testing, with results available in 30 minutes, tests are not available at the chain’s Minute Clinics in Virginia.

Having more tests available shows the true prevalence of the virus and allows patients, and providers, to know exactly what they’re dealing with instead of thinking they have a random respiratory illness, Newman said.

Even though case numbers are most likely to go up as more tests become available, he said doctors keep the closest eye on the most severe cases of the disease—how many people are hospitalized and need ventilators. It’s estimated that up to 85 percent of those who get COVID-19 will have mild to moderate cases.

Of the 426 people in the local health district with COVID-19, as of Tuesday, there were 221 cases in Stafford; 126 in Spotsylvania County; 30 in King George County; 27 in Fredericksburg and 22 in Caroline County. There was an increase of 16 cases between Monday and Tuesday.

Elsewhere, there were 126 cases in Culpeper County; 105 in Fauquier County; 27 in Orange County and 21 in Westmoreland County.

Statewide, there were 14,339 people with the disease, as of Tuesday, and 426 deaths.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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