While the Fredericksburg area, along with the rest of the country, faces protests over the death of George Floyd and deals with the continuing fallout from COVID-19, activities related to one crisis may impact the other.
Mary Washington Healthcare officials talked last week about learning to live with the novel coronavirus because it’s not going anywhere. They outlined activities that put people at highest risk for getting the disease, and some on the list are exactly what’s happened during demonstrations by those outraged by Floyd’s death at the hands of a white policeman in Minneapolis.
Protesters have gathered close together in large groups, and “crowds are a no-no” in the wake of the virus, Dr. Christopher Newman, MWHC’s chief medical officer, said at last week’s virtual town hall.
Many protests have been peaceful, but when the shouting starts, so does the amount of saliva being propelled into the air—and the virus is transmitted by these respiratory droplets. That’s why Newman classified as high risk similar activities, such as singing inside a church or other closed area as well as cheering from the sidelines as kids play sports.
That’s also why public health officials repeatedly have stressed the need to avoid close contact and wear masks in public.
“I assure you, this virus is widespread, it’s amongst the population,” said Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. “This is just something we’re going to have to learn to live with because it’s going to be here.”
Instead of referring to COVID-19 as a pandemic or disease that’s spread across continents, Stern is calling it “endemic,” as in something that belongs to a particular group or country—such as the way malaria is endemic to parts of Africa.
Stern said that people will continue to get sick, be hospitalized and die from the coronavirus—and Monday’s report confirmed that. A Stafford County man in his 80s has become the 18th person to die from COVID-19 in the local health district, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.
The state website also reported a ninth outbreak of the disease in the Fredericksburg area, but local health district officials believe that was a reporting error.
In addition, the Lidl store on State Route 3 in Spotsylvania County closed Monday for deep cleaning after one of its workers tested positive for COVID-19. The employee last worked on Sunday and consistent with Lidl’s COVID-19 task force, the store closed for sanitization, according to a sign posted on the door. The Lidl store was to reopen at 8 a.m. Tuesday.
In terms of resuming activities that were commonplace before the shutdown in mid-March, Dr. Jake O’Shea believes the same routine that’s been preached should continue to be practiced.
“I think a lot of it is listening to public health officials and following the guidelines for social distancing, masking and hand hygiene,” said O’Shea, who is the division chief medical officer with HCA Virginia and works closely with Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center. “I also think it’s realizing that by being smart and making the right decision, you can go back to some of what you used to do.”
His message, first and foremost, is the same one that Mary Washington Healthcare officials have stressed at four of their five virtual town-hall meetings. And that is, people should seek medical care when they need it and not put off regular checkups, screenings and procedures.
“It’s important for them to do that and it’s safe for them to do that,” O’Shea said. “One of the scariest parts of the whole pandemic is that people have been delaying care for heart attacks and strokes. It’s fear of COVID that’s kept them out of hospitals.”
When the crisis started, medical officials were learning about disease transmission and health care workers were sickened. But as proper safety protocols have been implemented, those on the front lines have been protected, Newman said. For the last seven weeks, no doctors, nurses or other associates at MWHC have contracted the virus while at work, he said.
Still, as of Monday, 108 health care workers in the local health district have gotten the virus. That includes staff at nursing homes, small group homes and other medical offices.
In terms of activities, people are safer outside than inside, said Dr. Michael McDermott, CEO of Mary Washington Healthcare. The virus has a greater chance of spreading inside confined spaces.
Those returning to offices or shopping in grocery stores and malls should wear face coverings and limit how much time they’re in close contact with another person, medical officials said.
“Keep it simple,” said Eileen Dohmann, MWHC’s chief nursing officer. “If you’re going to be inside, be socially distant and wear a mask. No matter what you’re doing, wash your hands. A lot.”
Initially, officials with health districts have defined a close contact as someone who was exposed to a sickened person for 10 minutes. The Rappahannock Area Health District reported on Monday that the definition of a close contact has changed to 15 minutes of prolonged exposure.
As for whether the virus will wilt in the summer heat and humidity, O’Shea said he wished warm weather would be the cure, “but it’s not going to be.”
Instead, people will become used to what McDermott and others are calling “a new different.”
“We’re in a period of different,” he said. “We’ve gotta be flexible and adaptable and recognize we don’t have a new normal today.”