Shutting Down

Shutting Down

EDDIE BROWN directs traffic as Rockbridge County High School students leave school Friday afternoon, just after Gov. Ralph Northam had announced that all public schools would be closing for the next two weeks. (Stephanie Mikels Blevins photo)

Schools, Courts Closed, Events Canceled, Facilities Restrict Access During Emergency

School cancellations and event cancellations abound. Area residents see-saw between panic and the necessity to maintain a modicum of normalcy. After all, there are still cars on the road and people on the streets, even if there’s no toilet paper on the shelves.

Last Sunday night, residents were patronizing local businesses as usual, and The Southern Inn was at its customary level of packed, although many diners could be seen with their hands aloft, rigorously folding them over again and again in the air, spreading coveted sanitizer.

“The only certainties are uncertainties,” resident Sarah Cumming told The NewsGazette when asked about how she was dealing with the coronavirus.

By Monday night and Tuesday, business was slowing at a number of restaurants, with some going to strictly drive-through service. Business at area grocery stores, meanwhile, has been brisk as residents attempted to stock up in case they had to stay at home for a long period of time.

There are still no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the Rockbridge area, but surrounding areas are beginning to be affected. According to the Virginia Department of Health, there is one confirmed case of coronavirus in Harrisonburg — a person in their 60s — and one confirmed case in Charlottesville. As of yesterday afternoon, there were 67 confirmed cases in Virginia. Last Saturday, the state’s first COVID-19 related death was reported by the VDH and the Peninsula Health District, and the second death, also in the Peninsula Health District, was reported yesterday.

The first patient was a male in his 70s, and the cause of death was respiratory failure as a result of COVID-19.

The second patient was also a man in his 70s.

“This is a public health crisis — we must all treat it as such,” Gov. Ralph S. Northam wrote in a statement following the first death. Northam then reiterated advice that has, for at least a week or so, been taken to heart by locals and officials alike with increasing strictness.

“Take basic health precautions, avoid large gatherings, telework if possible, and stay home if you are sick.”

Last Friday, Northam announced that Virginia public schools would be closed for the next two weeks at minimum —starting March 16 and ending March 27 — and local colleges took action as well. Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, Southern Virginia University and Dabney S. Lancaster College announced their transitions to online learning and their cancellations of on-campus operations. W&L on Thursday had already closed its campus, including its museums, to the public.

While VMI will reassess a possible return of students to campus after April 17, W&L will institute remote learning for the remainder of both the winter and spring terms. Likewise, SVU will not see its students return to campus until the fall; all students must exit their dorms by March 31.

Last week’s school closings were followed on Monday by the announcement that all civil, criminal and traffic cases in Virginia courts scheduled from yesterday through April 6 would be continued.

In a press conference yesterday, Northam also announced that Department of Motor Vehicle offices would be temporarily closing statewide and transitioning to online services.

He also urged businesses like restaurants, gyms and theaters to implement a 10-person limit to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Some local businesses are already complying with the recommendation. Pronto, Blue Sky, The Southern Inn, McDonalds and Cook-out, for example, have transitioned to take-out only.

Northam informed the public that Virginia has between 300-400 test kits on hand, with more being ordered to double that amount. The lack of test kits would explain care providers’ recent insistence that those with mild symptoms should not be superfluously tested; they should instead take it upon themselves to self-quarantine.

While plans for drive-through tests are pending, according to Northam, health care providers are still taking vigorous measures to separate the influx of possible COVID-19 patients from health workers and patients with other illnesses.

The Rockbridge Area Health Center and Carilion Clinic, for example, are urging patients who have recently returned from abroad and patients with a cough, congestion, runny nose or a fever to call for a brief phone screening instead of coming in.

RAHC will then spirit those patients to a separate sphere for testing and treatment if necessary.

“We have a designated zone within the health center in which we will see patients exhibiting symptoms,” Suzanne Sheridan, the chief executive officer of RAHC, told The News-Gazette. “This area is completely zoned off from the rest of the patient population.”

Test kits may be in short supply for a period of time.

“We have limited test kits and we are following VDH and CDC recommendations,” Sheridan told The News-Gazette.

Carilion Stonewall Jackson Hospital is also setting special restrictions and policies to contain and prepare for the spread of coronavirus, such as closing all entrances but the main entrance.

In a Monday update, Carilion Clinic decided to postpone all nonessential surgeries and procedures.

“Every patient with a scheduled surgery or procedure at Carilion in the coming weeks should work with their provider to determine the best approach,” the media update reads.

Policies for visitors are also changing. Visitors will not be permitted for inpatient psychiatric and behavioral health patients “due to the communal nature of the visiting area of those units.”

For patients in labor, contracted certified doulas will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Patients are also limited to one designated visitor, who will be screened before entering. That visitor is not allowed switch out with other visitors.

Augusta Health has also edited their visitor precautions, instituting a “No Access Policy” for all inpatient and outpatient areas with a few exceptions, like labor and delivery, end of life/hospice and pediatrics.

Many dental providers, meanwhile, are in the process of canceling all non-emergency appointments following a recommendation from the American Dental Association. RAHC confirmed that their operations would conform to this policy.

“We are contacting patients with scheduled appointments,” Sheridan said. “We remain available for our patients with dental emergencies and pain.” - - -

- - -The local governments of Rockbridge, Lexington and Buena Vista declared a “Local State of Emergency” yesterday.

“We are working together as a region to continually plan, coordinate and evaluate new information in this rapidly evolving public health threat,” a joint statement from local officials Spencer Suter, Jim Halasz and Jay Scudder reads. “Our communities should be prepared for any adjustments, postponements, and cancellations that go into effect as we work together to keep everyone safe.”

The statement encouraged residents and businesses to monitor the situation through credible sources, like the Virginia Department of Health website and the Center for Disease Control website.

In response to the Local State of Emergency, this week’s city council meetings in Lexington and Buena Vista were canceled. The Lexington Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission and Threshold Housing Commission also cancelled their meetings for the remainder of the month.

The News-Gazette

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