Health director cautions schools not to reopen too quickly

Published 6:44 pm Tuesday, September 22, 2020

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The director of the Western Tidewater Health District said that while case counts in the region have remained relatively level, it has seen a recent increase tied to outbreaks in correctional facilities and cautioned schools not to move forward with reopening too quickly.
“Right now, based on what I’m seeing and, this goes with what I’ve advised the school district, at least here in Suffolk, that I would not change course real rapidly right now with offering more in-person instruction, at least for the short-term,” said Dr. Todd Wagner, health district director, during Suffolk City Council’s Sept. 16 meeting.

“… I’m hopeful that these cases will begin to drop off, but right now, we’re still staying fairly level. And in the district and the city being, already, at a fairly high rate, a high prevalence of disease, I would not want to really change course at this point until  things get a bit better.”

While Nansemond-Suffolk Academy and Suffolk Christian Academy have both reopened fully for in-person instruction, most students in Suffolk Public Schools began the year with virtual instruction for at least the first nine weeks. Some special education students are attending in-person classes twice per week, and the division’s elementary schools are hosting child care programs.

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As of Sept. 22, the health district’s 7-day positivity rate is 10.2%, down from 15.7% Aug. 30. In Suffolk, there have been 1,908 COVID-19 cases, 123 hospitalized and 72 deaths.

Wagner said the trends in cases, hospitalizations and rates of positivity are heading in the right direction now that Gov. Ralph Northam has eased restrictions on the Eastern Region to be in Phase 3.

Wagner said calls of complaints about business and restaurant compliance with COVID-19 regulations have dropped significantly recently.

He noted the shortage of testing for COVID-19 and said the focus should be on testing those people who have been in contact with a positive COVID-19 person.

“We still do some community testing because it helps us, really more for academic purposes, keeping a pulse on the community prevalence,” Wagner said, “but in reality, right now, we know what the prevalence is out there. We know … it’s fairly high in the community here.”

However, Wagner said in following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, it would not advise testing of asymptomatic people, even if they are college students coming from high prevalence campuses. He said the turnaround times for getting test results – which has gotten better over the past couple of weeks – is still an issue.

“We don’t want to necessarily just carte blanche test large swaths of the population,” Wagner said.

Wagner also noted the length of the coronavirus pandemic in the public’s fatigue in continuing to take proper health measures such as masking, social distancing, and washing hands.

“I know there’s a little bit of fatigue out there because the message always seems to be the same,” Wagner said. “But the reality of it is it’s really all we have right now. So what sounds like a redundant message is only redundant because we still have some gaps in that armor that we have.”

Councilman Roger Fawcett asked Wagner about what impacts he expects to see with the oncoming flu season.

“We will have a colliding of the two seasons likely here,” Wagner said. “We just know the flu’s coming. There are already cases out there.”

With the flu season approaching, Wagner said he expects “early adaptors” to get flu shots early, which reduces the first stock that comes out, but he expects a sizeable increase in the vaccine to be available within a few weeks.

“I highly encourage people to get the flu vaccination always, but especially this year,” Wagner said. “This sort of thing which we’re calling the twin-demic, potentially, with a higher, or very bad flu season on top of a significant COVID situation. So as soon as you can get it, I highly, highly encourage people to get it. Persistence will pay.”