By Stefanie Jackson – Jon Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District, updated Northampton supervisors on the coronavirus pandemic during their May 12 regular meeting, which was held electronically.
As of May 12, Northampton County had 171 cases of COVID-19, and more than half of them – about 98 – originated at the Heritage Hall nursing home in Nassawadox, Richardson said.
“Most of our resources right now are involved … in case investigations … reaching out to every single positive case and following them throughout their illness period,” he said.
After Gov. Ralph Northam’s May 8 unveiling of Phase One of his Forward Virginia plan, some health department resources were redirected “to figure out some of the measures we can put into place to keep people safe while businesses start to reopen,” Richardson continued.
The majority of the Heritage Hall COVID-19 cases were found April 30, when the Virginia National Guard tested every resident and employee at the facility.
When the health department realized how many Heritage Hall employees would be unable to work due to COVID-19 infection, they worked over the weekend to coordinate with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, and volunteers began reporting for duty at the nursing home by 5:30 a.m. Sunday, Richardson said.
About 1,400 Eastern Shore residents received free COVID-19 testing at Eastern Shore Community College (ESCC) last weekend, and preliminary results show around 3.5% tested positive, he said.
“That’s actually fairly decent compared to what we were worried we might see,” Richardson said.
The event presented an opportunity for the health department to learn more about how many asymptomatic people are carrying the disease.
A team from the CDC (Center for Disease Control), which has had “boots on the ground” on the Shore for about two weeks, surveyed about 900 of the 1,400 individuals who were tested at ESCC and are compiling the data into a report.
A CDC infection prevention control specialist visited Heritage Hall to educate employees on topics such as proper donning and doffing of PPE (personal protective equipment) and cleaning measures.
“She was very impressed with Heritage Hall’s housekeeping staff,” Richardson said. “In fact, she said it was one of the best staffs she had come across in all her travels in the visits she does to long-term care facilities … around the country.”
Supervisor Betsy Mapp asked Richardson if he thought the Eastern Shore was ready to reopen for business.
“We’ve got to follow what the governor thinks is best for the state,” he said, but “the rate of infection that we’re seeing … is promising.”
“I think the important thing is going to be – while we’re reopening – is really making sure that people listen,” Richardson continued.
Some members of the community “don’t really think this thing is a serious thing, but any of us that have had … somebody close to us pass away, we know it’s not a joke,” he said.
The governor’s executive order 61 gives the health department more authority to enforce coronavirus-related restrictions, and “we’re definitely going to rely on the county as a partner in that,” Richardson said.
Dr. Richard Williams, director of the Eastern Shore Health District, offered additional advice.
Sanitizing surfaces, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds are practices that should continue during Phase One, he said.
“Wearing cloth face coverings is going to be extremely important,” he added. “We protect each other when we do that. We really don’t know, in this environment, whether we might have COVID and we don’t even know about it.”
Only about 3% of the coronavirus tests done at the community college were positive, but that was only a “snapshot in time,” Williams cautioned.
“The nature of this pathogen, this organism, is very, very tricky. It will really fool you.”