Health district director concerned about rising COVID-19 cases

Published 9:53 pm Friday, July 17, 2020

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Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner said that Hampton Roads was close to be sent back to Phase 2 reopening due to increasing COVID-19 cases, especially in younger adults — although his district, which includes Suffolk, would have been exempted.

While Gov. Ralph Northam announced July 14 that he would step up the enforcement of mask wearing in restaurants and in other places where people gather, Wagner said he had “fully anticipated that Gov. Ralph Northam was going to revert the region back to Phase 2.”

“There was a recommendation put forth at the time that maybe the governor consider a recommendation to back down from Phase 3 to Phase 2,” Wagner said at the July 15 Suffolk City Council meeting. “Western Tidewater was going to be exempted, but as it turned out, the governor on Tuesday did not announce a receding of phases.”

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Instead, Wagner said the governor asked health district directors to continue emphasizing Phase 3 regulations, the Phase 3 executive order and the restrictions that are in place within that order, rather than backing down phases.

“I think he’s given it a modicum of time, and maybe another concerted effort here and a reinforcement of where we’re at with a little bit of a warning,” Wagner said, “that, ‘Hey, this could very well be coming.’

“And right now, as you saw, and the Eastern Region is definitely under the magnifying glass, and it seems he’ll go to sort of a region-by-region approach, and we could be part of that, and that’ll have significant impact beyond just a couple of customers that aren’t willing to wear masks.”

The seven-day COVID-19 positivity rate for Western Tidewater — inclusive of Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County — is 9.5% through July 13, up from 4.3% July 1.  The health district has had 13 total outbreaks — nine in long-term care facilities and two each in congregate settings and correctional facilities.

More than 20% of Suffolk’s 676 positive COVID-19 cases have come in the past week, according to the Virginia Health Department, and the city had its one-day high of 39 cases reported July 14. Isle of Wight has had 251 positive cases, Southampton 195 and Franklin 83. Across the district, 66 people have died from COVID-19, including 44 from Suffolk.

Statewide, 1,171 hospital beds are occupied in hospitals by COVID-19 patients, according to the state health department. In the Eastern Region, which includes Suffolk, 452 of the 2,542 hospital beds, or 17.8 percent, were occupied on July 17 by people with COVID-19. Across the region’s hospitals, about 76% of the region’s 3,348 hospital beds are full. The region has a surge capacity of 4,018 beds.

In the Western Tidewater Health District, emergency department visits from people with COVID-19-like illnesses have surged from 35 for the week ending June 27 to 112 for the week ending July 11, nearing the district’s high of 123 for the week ending April 4, according to the state health department. Urgent care visits from those with COVID-19-like illnesses have also gone up from 25 for the week ending June 27 to 73 for the week ending July 11.

Wagner said one thing that was brought to light over the weekend in a meeting with Northam and district health directors was a “considerable” trend of younger people getting COVID-19, many due to not wearing masks in nightclubs, bars and restaurants at the Oceanfront area of Virginia Beach, as well as Norfolk and Chesapeake.

However, Wagner said the Western Tidewater increase is more due to what he called backyard gatherings and not as much with people not masking or social distancing at restaurants.

“I think the problem here is I think people are under, perhaps, a false impression that if it’s friends and family that they know, it’s good, even if they’re 20, 25 and … they’re all fairly close and greeting and hugging and all those things without thinking, ‘Well, maybe this wouldn’t be quite the best time to have this type of gathering, or maybe we need to limit what we’re doing, maybe keep it to only those family members that live with us.’”

Wagner discussed the possibility of instituting what he called an education/re-education campaign to bring awareness to people about the health effects of COVID-19 on those in the 20-to-35 age group public.

Mayor Linda Johnson said the coronavirus pandemic has gotten personal for her, as she knows someone dealing “pretty badly” with COVID-19.

“I’m hearing from people that this is not real,” Johnson said. “My family’s healthy. Why should I be inconvenienced? What we’re doing to our first responders, to our nurses, our doctors, what we’re doing to them is having them go out to people, and they are becoming victims of it as well. … It really burdens me, and it frankly makes me angry when I hear people say, ‘I don’t like these (masks). I’m hot. I look funny, whatever it is to you. This is what is keeping other people alive.”

Wagner said though he understands struggling businesses who might not want to refuse service to someone who is not wearing a mask, he’s hopeful that bigger businesses mandating masks will encourage smaller ones to do the same.

He said it would impact reopening plans for schools if the Western Tidewater and Hampton Roads regions revert to Phase 2.

“I don’t think schools could potentially go,” Wagner said. “They can’t really go in a Phase 2. There’s just no way. So if you slide back, there’s lots of domino, second, third order effects with that.”

Said Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett: “I just hope people realize the importance of what you all are telling us to do — social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands.”

The Western Tidewater Health District, in partnership with the city of Suffolk, is offering free COVID-19 testing on the schedule below. Tests will be given until they run out. Walk-ups are permitted, and social distancing is required.

  • July 20: Whaleyville Recreation Center, 132 Robertson St., 9 to 11 a.m.
  • July 20: Oakland Christian United Church of Christ, 5641 Godwin Blvd., 1 to 3 p.m.
  • July. 21: Suffolk Health Department, 135 Hall Ave., 9 to 11 a.m.
  • July 22: First Baptist Church Mahan, 112 Mahan St., 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • July 22: Balm Church, 523 E. Washington St., 3 to 5 p.m.
  • Aug. 3: Belleville Meadows Apartments, 5609 Plummer Blvd., 4 to 7 p.m.