Area coronavirus preparations ramp up

Published 10:38 pm Thursday, March 12, 2020

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With the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic due to the coronavirus outbreak and Gov. Ralph Northam declaring a state of emergency for Virginia, preparations really ramped up in the city and region on Thursday.

There have been no presumptive positive cases of COVID-19 — the illness caused by coronavirus — in the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Suffolk and Franklin, along with Isle of Wight and Southampton counties.

However, with 17 presumptive positive COVID-19 cases statewide, city government, schools and private entities have postponed or canceled events or are adjusting operations.

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Local government plans

City spokeswoman Diana Klink said the city’s administrative team has worked closely with public health officials and they have been looking at all planned events and programs to determine the best course of action.

Suffolk Fire & Rescue has established operational plans for dealing with sick patients, including those with shortness of breath, labored breathing, fevers and lethargy.

It has also completed an inventory of personal protective equipment, and supplies have been ordered. Firefighters and medics are being retrained on the proper techniques to put on and take off the equipment, and “PPE Go bags” are on every department vehicle to care for anyone who has symptoms consistent with COVID-19.

Emergency dispatchers, Klink said, will be able to screen 911 callers to determine if a person could have been exposed to COVID-19 and then notify responders about it.

Fire & Rescue is also in contact with area emergency departments at Bon Secours and Sentara, as well as the department’s operational medical director to help patients who may show signs of COVID-19.

City employee travel has also been restricted.

The city has canceled the following events and activities over the next three weeks:

  • Parks and Recreation youth indoor soccer tournaments that were scheduled for Saturday at Mack Benn Jr. Recreation Center and March 21 at King’s Fork High School.
  • Parks and Recreation youth basketball league tournaments that were scheduled for Saturday at Oakland Recreation Center.
  • The Parks and Recreation Eggstravaganza at Bennett’s Creek Park that was scheduled for April 4. This will not be rescheduled.
  • Senior programs at the East Suffolk Recreation Center and Whaleyville Recreation Center have been canceled effective Monday until further notice to protect those most vulnerable and at-risk. The recreation centers themselves will remain open.

Other events, such as the Parks and Recreation volunteer youth sports coaches banquet scheduled for March 19, and IconiCon, scheduled for March 28 at the North Suffolk Public Library, have been postponed.

Klink said that cancellations, closings and postponements can change daily and sometimes hourly as new information comes in.

“City administration has worked very closely with our public health officials as the situation has evolved,” Klink said. “We are looking at each planned event and city program and weighing if the risks outweigh the benefit to our citizens. Only after careful consideration are decisions and recommendations made on closings and cancellations.”

The Suffolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority has canceled its March 24 joint committee and board of commissioners meetings.


Organizations and churches

The Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts has postponed events until the end of March. Anyone with tickets to events from Thursday through March 27 are asked to hold onto their tickets, as it said it would try to reschedule events during that time period. No determination has yet been made on classes there.

The GFWC Junto Woman’s Club meeting for March 16 has been canceled, and it is looking to reschedule the human trafficking program for April 20, though that has yet to be determined.

All church activity, including worship, is suspended for two weeks at the following Episcopal churches: St. Paul’s Church on Main Street, St. Mark’s Church on Tynes Street, St. John’s Church in Chuckatuck and Glebe Church in Driver. Further guidance will be issued by the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia March 26.

“While heartbreaking, it is necessary, and an action I support,” the Rev. Keith Emerson of St. Paul’s Church said in a statement.



Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III said Thursday that the division is finalizing plans for virtual learning for secondary students through its SPS Connect program if schools close. Elementary school teachers in the division are putting together instructional packets, Gordon said. If schools are open and there are extracurricular activities, they will be limited to the participants and their families only. Field trips will be looked at on a case-by-case basis with the emphasis of limiting large groups.

Gordon said that if schools close, there will be a teacher workday first.

Nansemond-Suffolk Academy announced Thursday it would close school Monday “to prepare our faculty and staff for the possibility of extended virtual learning,” according to Karen Schompert, NSA director of communications and public relations.

Staff will use the day to make preparations and for professional development, and administrators have been reviewing the school’s virtual learning plan and said it would work closely with local officials to determine if and when school cancellations are necessary.

The division activated its Pandemic Response Plan to “review its preparedness and response, the phases of a pandemic, planning and operations, infection control and recovery.”

The school division has encouraged social distancing and has increased cleaning routines to monitor high-touch and regular trafficked areas continuously, and it has provided custodians with solutions to fight flu and coronavirus.

The region’s colleges and universities have also been announcing their plans.

Paul D. Camp Community College, with campuses in Suffolk and Franklin, will close to students and visitors until April 3, according to college president Dr. Dan Lufkin. All classes will be taught remotely beginning March 18.

Lufkin, in an email to the campus community, said all other functions of the college would remain operational, but asks that all business be done by phone, email or through its website. Faculty, staff and employees of the college will report to campus as usual, but all group activities, which include classes, athletics and other special events will be postponed until a date to be determined.

“While I understand that these changes will create inconveniences for some,” Lufkin wrote, “every effort is being made to mitigate them. … Those who are required to come on campus should feel confident knowing that every effort is being made to maintain a clean and safe working environment. As soon as health officials indicate it is safe to do so, we will resume normal campus activities.”

Regionally, Tidewater Community College has canceled classes Monday and Tuesday, and will resume online classes March 18. Remote instruction will continue through at least April 1.

Norfolk State University is extending spring break for its students through March 22 and will reopen residence halls at that time. It will be moving classes online March 23 through April 6. Any university event involving at least 100 people has been suspended.

Old Dominion University has extended spring break for a week and suspended in-person classes and moved them online for the immediate future, according to an announcement on its website.

All ODU classes will resume online March 23 and will update any changes to its schedule by April 6.



Sentara Healthcare plans to limit routine hospital visits at its facilities, including Sentara Obici Hospital, to two visitors per patient at its hospitals, emergency departments and outpatient settings.

However, Sentara said it would adjust for end-of-life situations when families want to gather at a loved one’s bedside. Visitors to senior facilities will be asked screening questions about recent travel, health status and will be required to sign-in.


Regional Jail

At the Western Tidewater Regional Jail in Suffolk, it is screening new intakes and has set up isolation areas in the jail, according to jail superintendent William Smith.

Any inmates with compromised immune systems or who are geriatric will be monitored more closely by the jail’s medical staff, Smith said. The jail has also increased sanitation efforts and have added more hand sanitizing stations. It also has a stock of personal protection equipment if needed.

Though inmate visitation is non-contact, attorneys can request contact visits, and the jail also has video visitation for family and friends of inmates.

Smith said the jail routinely deals with many medical issues “that have the propensity to spread rapidly among the inmate population.”