Winter is Coming – Charlottesville Quarantine Report, Episode 48

This is the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. I created this show the first weekend of the pandemic as a way of covering how our community would be affected. At the time, I had a different job and felt this tremendous need to spend all of my time documenting what happened. Most of the shows were made in the first three months, and they now serve as a first rough draft of history of what happened.

But we’re still in this. I created the Charlottesville Community Engagement newscast and newsletter to do continuous coverage, but I will keep this show going. What follows is a transcript that is not edited. I will come back later and do so, but I want to get the words out, too.

Audio of the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report

(opening bell) 

As winter approaches, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said it is crucial to avoid COVID fatigue and to remain vigilant.

“I know it’s been a long eight months. People and businesses are suffering and we’re heading into darker colder months. Folks, we need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

I’m Sean Tubbs and this is the 48th installment of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. Since beginning, I’ve been tracking the numbers and trying to make sense of changes. Since then, I’ve launched a daily newscast and newsletter and one of the stories has been the rise in cases in our area caused by the return of UVA students to the community. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved.”

That’s Dr. Denise Bonds, the director of what will soon be called the Blue Ridge Health District. We’ll hear from her later on in the program today.  We’ll conclude today with a brief story about the Jefferson Madison Regional Library’s decision to open up two more branches to in-person service. 

This show has had a small newscast at the beginning of each show, and this is no exception. Here’s where we were on October 29. 

(clips) 

On October 28, 2020, Northam began his comments by drawing attention to Virginia’s relative success in stopping community spread. On the day he spoke, the Commonwealth was averaging 1,140 new cases a day and the seven-day percentage of positive cases was at 5.1 percent. 

“As you have heard on the national news, virus cases numbers are going up across our country in nearly every state. We’re lucky here in Virginia that while our case counts are trending upwards in some regions, we’re not seeing large increases.”

Northam said Virginia is not an island. The Commonwealth has borders with five states plus the District of Columbia. He said that a sudden surge of cases in rural areas can put a lot of pressure on the health care system. 

“For example, Ballad Health, the hospital system in Southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee is warning that it’s seeing an increase in COVID patients. Part of the issue there is that cases just over the border in Tennessee are spiking.”

A quick look at the cases numbers for health districts in far southwest Virginia show a surge underway. Wise County had a seven-day average of 36.1 new cases a day. That number was 37.8 in Washington County, 50.4 in Lee County, 61 in Scott County. 

Such spikes alarm health officials and the state of emergency we have been in since mid-March gives the Governor additional powers.

“During the summer, we saw a spike in cases in the east and we had to reinstate some restrictions in some localities to help get our numbers down. I’m pleased to say that worked. People took it seriously and now the eastern region case counts are not spiking.”

When Virginia began to reopen the economy in late May, northern Virginia held back for a few weeks to help improve their metrics. 

Northam said he has similar concerns now for far Southwest Virginia, but stopped short of imposing any restrictions. 

“The number of cases has been steadily increasing and the percent positivity is now just under eight percent for the region. In the southwest localities in the western end of the state it’s actually more like nine percent and has been increasing for 15 days. That’s twice the rate of the rest of the Commonwealth.”

Northam said because of contact tracing, health officials know what is causing the increase. 

“The spread in Southwest is driven in part by small family gatherings. I strongly urge everyone in the southwest to look at these numbers and step up your precautions. I ask you also to wear face protection. We know that that works.

Case numbers are rising in most states and around the world, other states and other countries, they are reimposing restrictions to get case numbers under better control. Nobody, nobody wants to have to do that but this virus remains a very real threat.”   

Northam said the Virginia Department of Health is working with local health officials in southwest virginia on ways to combat the spread without imposing restrictions. He said he is aware of COVID fatigue.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives. Most people are doing the right thing and they are tired of seeing other folks disregard the rules and disregard the health and safety of other people.” 

With Halloween and other holidays approaching, Northam is telling people to avoid gatherings and crowds, and wear a mask when around other people.  

“As scientists learned a lot more about this virus over the past eight months, we all learn more about how easily it spreads through the air and we learn more about how these guidelines truly do reduce the spread if we all follow them.”

Turning to the financial crisis, Northam described how his administration has used some of the $3.1 billion in federal CARES Act funding Virginia has received.

“We’re using CARES Act dollars to help Virginians from our small businesses to free clinics to colleges and universities. $116 million to colleges and universities to help with their COVID response. Three million for free clinics. $66 million to support access to child care. $73 million for hazard pay for home health workers. $220 million for K-12 schools. $30 million to fast-track local broadband projects. And $22 million for Virginia’s COVID vaccination program planning.”   

And the crisis will continue. Northam concluded his remarks on October 28 by repeating the call for vigilance.

“I am so proud of how Virginians have stepped up during this pandemic. You can see the results in our numbers compared to other states. We just need to keep it up. This pandemic will end but it will not end in the next few weeks or months. This winter will be hard on a lot of people but you have done a good job of taking of yourselves but just as importantly taking care of our neighbors.”

Earlier, Northam said that contact tracing in southwest Virginia traces many cases back to small family gathering. But what does that mean? 

Let’s hear from Health Secretary Dan Carey. 

“Really the question is, and what our contract tracers have told us, is what do you mean by that and how small is? Really if you’re in a different household it may sound innocent that you’re going over to your brother’s house and they have three kids in the household and a spouse and there’s a total of only six or eight people, if they’re from different households with different connections they really should be socially distanced. Can you do it safely? Yes, you can keep your mask on. Yes, you can keep six feet. Yes, you can use hand sanitizer frequently. But coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk. Again, we want people to stay connected emotionally but we need to be clear about physical connection and we need to keep that distance if you are not in the same continuous household. That’s what we mean. We talk to our contact tracers and they tell us it was a group of four or five people that had dinner but they didn’t have the distance, they didn’t use masks. Obviously with eating you’ve got to take the mask off, and that means you may need to spread out and as it gets cooler, it will be harder to do that.”

This has been a summary of the press conference from October 28, 2020. In a moment, we’ll get a local update from the Blue Ridge Health District. 

*

Ad-lib about patreon numbers

The University of Virginia has been critiqued by many for opening up to in-person education this fall, and for planning to do so again in the spring. However it appears that cases there did not lead to large amounts of community spread. So far. 

The topic came up  during the briefing officials with the Blue Ridge Health District gave during the October 28, 2020 meeting of the Charlottesville City Council, Albemarle Board of Supervisors and top UVA officials. 

The main focus of that meeting was equity, and the three agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding to work on racial equity. 

Like Governor Northam earlier in the day, the health district’s Ryan McKay began by drawing attention to Virginia’s place as one of the state’s doing better to control the spread of COVID.

“A lot of the strategies that we are implementing here in Virginia seem to be working whereas if we compare strategy and policy across the country, we may find that those differences have created opportunities for greater spread and exposure. Among those strategies include things like social distancing, minimizing the size of social gathering, restricting visitation to different facilities and really adhering to those guidelines.” 

McKay cited Carnegie-Mellon data that shows states with mask-wear requirements have lower transmission rates. This will be important as the temperature drops.

“I think that’s a critical component as we head into late fall and winter, more people will be indoors,” McKay said. “The mask-wearing combined with other mitigation strategies is going to be really critical.”

The COVID-tracking dashboard on the UVA website has been listing active cases since August 17. On that day, Charlottesville listed 560 cases and Albemarle had 913. As of October 29, Charlottesville had overtaken Albemarle and had 1,607 cases. Albemarle had 1,593. 

“In September and October we saw some pretty big increases in the daily cases. We’ve dropped off a little bit in early October but now we’re picking up again. I think this is sort of the nature of how COVID is going to work. We’ll see increases, we’ll work quickly to mitigate and hopefully contain spread and then at some point we see another increase.” 

Cases roses as UVA began classes on September 8. But McKay said they were largely contained to the UVA community. 

“I will say that even though we say larger numbers of cases coming from the University setting, we did not see transmission from students or faculty into the community,” McKay said. 

However, the University has been conducting a lot of tests, and they all count toward the percent positivity rating. On September 6, the positive percentage for PCR tests was 7.5 percent. That number was at 2.7 percent on October 29.

“It’s important to understand that positivity rate may be being skewed by all of those tests that are being done,” McKay said. “We really need to look at what we’re seeing in terms of the raw data, the number of cases we’re seeing, and where that transmission is occurring.” 

McKay pointed to a key demographic when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. 

“We also see a pretty significant change when it comes to age,” McKay said. “Even though the majority of our cases are among those who are 10-19 and 20-29, those who are dying of COVID are of older populations, 50 and above.” 

Since the pandemic began, we’ve had Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. McKay say holidays lead to increases as more people gather together. So will the colder months.

“COVID isn’t going away but the challenges will increase and I think it’s important for us to understand how we can  address those now by strengthening what we’ve done, but also how we can adapt,” McKay said. 

As we approach the winter, Dr. Denise Bonds suggests this is a time to talk about resilience. She said the community has demonstrated an ability to come together in difficult times. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved,” said Dr. Bonds. “Resilience here is our ability to cope with a variety of situations in a healthy and productive way. There’s many components to resilience. Strenghthening and promoting access to public health, health care and social services is certainly one. There’s been significant coordination between the city, the county, the health district and many of our nonprofits to provide wrap-around services in our area. Additionally, early on in the pandemic and continuing even now today there were community-led testing events that were supported by both of our hospitals as well as the health district.”

However, Dr. Bonds said more resources are needed to help ensure that people in this diverse community get the care and attention they need. 

“We certainly need more community health worker positions. We know that this can be a really successful way to gain the trust of our communities, to have individuals from that community work in partnership with us and community members.”

“Public health is one of those agencies that really needs substantial funding on a regular basis to do its job correctly. It makes it very challenging when public health or other social agencies are underfunded and then are asked to respond as we have here with COVID.”  

For now, Dr. Bonds said one of the biggest threats is that people will just get bored of all of this, and decide it’s no longer an issue. 

“We are seeing a huge amount of COVID fatigue both here internally in the health department but I think even among the citizens in our community. People are really tired. They’re tired of the stress and anxiety that COVID has built up about not really knowing what the next phase is going to bring, knowing if we’re going to bring a vaccine, when that’s going to be available, and we’re just now beginning to see the impacts of that. We know that its really impacted small businesses in our community. Many individuals have lost their jobs and been forced to seek unemployment. I think we’re just beginning to see the start of how this is going to be the long-term effect.”

In conclusion, the bottom line is that an increase in  cases may be inevitable due to changing seasons.

“Winter is coming. We’re going to see a lot of people moving to indoor activities which are higher risk. This is an aerosolized virus and we know that it’s shared when you breathe out and there’s less air turnover in an inside space. That I think is what is being reflected in the upper Midwest and the North Dakota area. They’re having the beginning of a very cold season so they’re going inside. We know that there are things that will help so for first of all, stay at home. Don’t go out if you don’t have to. And wearing masks does prevent it.”

Dr. Bonds said she personally has canceled her family Thanksgiving celebration, even though her family had been planning to do it outside.  

(musical sting)

Two more branches of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library are set to reopen by appointment only for extremely small numbers of people. David Plunket is the library system’s director. 

“Next Monday, Crozet and Scottsville will be joining Greene, Louisa and Nelson in moving to tier 3 appointment service,” said David Plunkett, the library system’s director. “Scottsville, unfortunately at the moment will only be one appointment at a time in order to keep the six-feet social distancing to make this work. The branch is so small it’s about the size of my office here.” 

The library closed early in the state of emergency but added curbside service at the Central and Northside branches in the summer. They opened branches in outlying counties in September and added Sunday hours to the Central branch earlier this month. Plunkett told the JMRL Board of Trustees at their meeting Monday that they will continue to add back services slowly, but would revert back if COVID conditions drastically worsen. If they remain steady, Plunkett plans to continue adding service.

“The goal is going to be to work with Charlottesville to open the city area branches,” Plunkett said. “I’m aiming for between Thanksgiving and Christmas for Gordon Avenue, Northside and Central. Albemarle has been reviewing the tier 3 plans to make sure they don’t have any objections to Crozet and Scottsville. I have heard none so far.” 

The initial number of patrons at a time will be five. 

Lisa Woolfork is one of three library trustees for Charlottesville. She posed an important question.

“This question isn’t really a critique at all of the plan,” Woolfork said. “I guess it’s a question about some of the speculation or what your thoughts might be on the speculation that we can expect numbers to rise nationally maybe as well as in the state as the weather gets colder and flu season converges on COVID. Do you have any thoughts about what a bump in infection rates might mean?”

“I believe that the model that we have in place at Greene, Louisa, and Nelson could continue throughout a bump because you’re talking about nobody being in close contact with any members of the public, you’re talking about everybody masked at all times and you’re talking about very limited people in a building, and you’re talking about a massive amount of cleaning by staff that’s happening on a daily basis.”

Plunkett said staff is reviewing closely the new definition that the Centers for Disease Control have for “close contact.” Previously it was listed as someone who had been within six feet of an infected person for a 15-minute period. Now close contact is defined as someone who has been within six feet of a positive case for a cumulative 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. He said that change would not affect the plan to open up the Scottsville and Crozet libraries to appointment-only service beginning on Monday. 

-ad lib out 

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