Local health, school and community leaders are taking preventative measures and devising contingency plans to help protect against the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, should the virus arrive in the area.
A climb in the number of positive cases in Virginia on Thursday led Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a state of emergency and on Friday he ordered all K-12 schools to close for a minimum of two weeks.
Northam said the state of emergency declaration will allow Virginia to more easily work with other states and the federal government to combat the virus.
Mount Rogers Health District Director Karen Shelton said on Thursday that while Southwest Virginia has had no positive cases of the virus and the risk remains low at this time, it’s important to prepare.
As of press time on Friday, Virginia had 30 positive or presumptively positive cases of the virus. A case in Sullivan County, Tennessee, also has been confirmed.
Shelton said hand-washing, social distancing and environmental cleaning serve as an important first-line of defense against spreading the virus.
“We know that this disease has spread rapidly across the world,” she said. “It has come into America and into Virginia and we do feel if it comes into our community, it will slow down the spread of the disease.”
Shelton explained that 80 percent of those who contract the virus only experience mild symptoms while 13 percent experience severe symptoms and 6 percent become critical cases. She said those over the age of 60 or who having underlying health conditions are at a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms.
Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have taken steps as the threat of the virus approaches with all in the region restricting visits.
Carrington Place in Wytheville and Rural Retreat, as well as Francis Marion Manor in Marion and Valley Health Care Center in Chilhowie, have eliminated visiting hours altogether and have instructed vendors to transfer supplies at the entrance. Additionally, health care workers will be screened before entering the building.
During a Thursday afternoon press conference, Northam also announced that the VDH has expanded its testing criteria to ensure people living in nursing homes who have symptoms will be tested immediately.
Hospitals also have taken precautionary measures. Ballad Health, which operates Smyth County Community Hospital in Marion, plans to implement entrance restrictions and screen those who enter the facility beginning Monday, March 16. Hospitals belonging to the health system will also limit the number of visitors per patient to one, with no visitors under 12 permitted.
In Wytheville, officials at Wythe County Community Hospital are also reviewing their emergency operations plans and restricting visitor access. Individuals experiencing a fever, cough, sore throat or other flu-like symptoms will only be permitted entrance for treatment.
Shelton noted that anyone who may have symptoms of the virus – fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing – should contact his primary care provider before arriving for testing. She said the heads-up would allow the provider to be prepared and ensure there are adequate resources for testing.
Emergency personnel are also receiving training from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and dispatchers are being trained on which questions to ask callers to determine if the individual could be at risk, allowing emergency personnel to respond accordingly.
Wythe County Emergency Services Coordinator Curtis Crawford told supervisors on Tuesday that resources are available for makeshift field hospitals should there be a large influx of infections. He told the board that the county has access to multiple tents, along with ways to heat them.
Crawford urged those looking for more information about the virus to say informed from reliable sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Virginia Department of Health. The county and school systems in Wythe have also put information on their social media sites concerning risks and preparations.
Virus fears have also disrupted or threatened to disrupt all levels of schooling across the region. Students at private and public universities saw their spring breaks extended and online classes being offered in lieu of in-person attendance. Athletes at the highest levels of college and high school sports have found themselves sitting out championship tournaments. And rites of passage – from elementary school trips to historic Williamsburg to senior trips – have been called off. The NCAA cancelled March Madness and the NCAA wrestling tournaments.
The Virginia High School League called off basketball state tournament play, which had been set for Thursday through Saturday at Virginia Commonwealth University. The teams slated to play have instead been declared co-champions.
“While we understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our teams, our decision is based on discussion we have had on how COVID-19 is progressing in the commonwealth,” VHSL Executive Director Dr. John W. “Billy” Haun said. “We feel this decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of, most importantly, our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, families, and fans.”
The VHSL on Friday delayed the spring sports season by two weeks. The first date of play is now set for March 30. Originally, play was to begin on Monday. A VHSL team is set to meet on March 25 to re-evaluate. Local schools will still be allowed to practice. The VHSL also postponed forensics state championships to May 2.
Following the lead of Ivy League schools, Virginia universities and colleges began to send students home on Wednesday.
Radford students will transition to online classes on March 23, extending spring break through March 20 to give professors an opportunity to make the switch. The university plans to re-evaluate its operations on April 17. Residence halls will be closed as will student recreation and wellness centers. The school has also banned meetings of more than 75 people.
The University of Virginia’s College at Wise has also moved to online classes. In a note to students on Wednesday, Chancellor Donna Henry said that online instruction would begin on March 23. The school will review its plans on April 5. She said that international students and some others with “extenuating circumstances may return to residence halls” but events with more than 100 people in attendance would be postponed, cancelled or offered electronically.
Henry’s decision came in the wake of the University of Virginia’s main campus decision to do the same thing. Buildings at the Wise campus, including the health clinic, will remain open, she said. Athletics are not, however, cancelled, according to Henry.
Virginia Tech, James Madison and Virginia Commonwealth were also numbered among the public universities to switch to an online model. Tech didn’t specify how long the classes would be conducted online but said that residence halls and dining halls would remain closed until March 20. JMU is planning to conduct classes online through at least April 5, and VCU is looking at online classes “for the foreseeable future.”
Emory & Henry is following the lead of those in the public space, extending spring break for an extra week until March 29. The private college plans to resume classes on March 30 though officials noted “this is subject to change.”
In a release on the coronavirus plans, E&H said “it is our expectation … that we will finish classes … in person on campus.” Officials said students had been encouraged to take textbooks home on spring break in case the need arose for remote classes. The school, along with others in the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, opted to suspend activities, including athletic competitions, through March 29, too. Practices may continue, the school said, at the discretion of the head coach.
On Thursday, Wytheville Community College announced it would cancel all in-person classes between March 16 and 20. Students should not return for classes during this time. Additionally, WCC faculty and staff are working to develop plans for possible remote instruction.
WCC spokesman Kenneth Akers pointed out on Wednesday that the transition wouldn’t be difficult as most in-person classes have some sort of online component. Students should keep an eye out for additional information near the end of the week.
Changes and uncertainties trickled down to local school divisions, too.
While school systems were making plans for shuttering their doors and remote instruction, the governor stepped in Friday.
Northam ordered all K-12 schools in Virginia to close for a minimum of two weeks in response to the continued spread of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19.
Schools will close from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 27, at a minimum, a governor’s office press release said. Localities will maintain authority over specific staffing decisions to ensure students maintain continuity of services or learning, while protecting the public health of teachers and staff.
“We are taking this action to keep Virginians as safe and healthy as possible, and to minimize exposure to COVID-19,” said Northam. “I recognize this will pose a hardship on many families, but closing our schools for two weeks will not only give our staff time to clean and disinfect school facilities, it will help slow the spread of this virus. This is a fluid and fast-changing situation. We will do everything possible to ensure that students who rely on school nutrition programs continue to have access to meals, and that the disruption to academics is as minimal as possible.”
Virginia Department of Education officials are working closely with school divisions and the Department of Social Services to ensure students who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs are able to access those programs while schools are closed. The Department of Education will issue guidance and memos to superintendents across the commonwealth to provide specifics about the continuity of education, school nutrition, and updated public health guidelines.
School officials, the press release said, are also working to minimize disruptions to instructional time.
“The Department of Education is working closely with divisions to minimize disruptions to our students’ academic development by encouraging schools to provide students and families with educational resources throughout this time,” said Dr. James Lane, state superintendent of public instruction. “We are committed to help divisions address all the implications of these closures and will seek to provide each division with maximum flexibility to address local needs as they arise, especially as it relates to make-up days.”
In Smyth County, students in grades Pre-K through 5 will receive work packets and students in middle and high schools will use Google Classrooms for instruction.
The school system decided on Wednesday to halt out-of-state and overnight travel, meaning senior class trips have been canceled as have spring trips to Colonial Williamsburg. Smyth Superintendent Dennis Carter said the traditional Williamsburg trip will be postponed until the fall. High school principals are working with travel agencies to try to get refunds on their senior trips.
Likewise, Wythe County schools ceased all school- and division-sponsored travel outside of the county effective March 12. All events sponsored by outside groups have also been cancelled.
Bland County schools are considering trips on a case-by-case basis. An elementary school trip to Monticello was among those to already be postponed.
No Need for Panic
Wythe, Bland and Smyth county leaders are working closely with VDH and VDEM leaders to monitor the situation for needed changes.
Smyth County and Town of Marion officials are also making plans to help curb virus spread.
The Town of Marion assembled a taskforce this week to monitor the situation and the town and county are increasing the frequency their properties are being cleaned. Marion Mayor David Helms and Board of Supervisor Chair Judy Wyant also noted that their water and sewer departments do offer online payment options.
Additionally, the Marion Police Department is working on a telephone reporting system that could be implemented to decrease personal contact in non-emergency situations or non-active crimes.
Marion Police Chief John Clair explained that many crimes are already reported via telephone and that this would just offer residents the opportunity avoid contact with officers if they chose. Use of the system would be optional.
Things that could be reported on the dedicated line would include crimes like thefts, credit card fraud or low-damage hit-and-run accidents where callers are primarily seeking a police report. Tips may also be called in on the line. Clair said the system could also be used in other future situations.
Shelton advised that while health and community leaders are making preparations, there is no need for panic.
“We’re not being alarmist,” she said. “We’re just trying to be practical. We know this has spread in other countries and we do expect it will be here. We want people to use good sense and take the simple measures that we discuss.”