This story has been updated to reflect changes occurring after the print version was published.
These days, the coronavirus is on everyone’s mind. The trick is to keep it off your hands and face and be ready if the situation gets worse than it already is. In recent days, many community stakeholders in Orange County have begun pooling their knowledge and making contingency plans in response to the pandemic.
The Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District is working with government bodies, schools and other organizations throughout the region to provide information and updates. Although the number of confirmed cases in Virginia of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is currently small, that could change.
Dr. Wade Kartchner, the district’s health director, said the mounting number of cases and deaths elsewhere from the highly contagious virus is “certainly cause for concern.”
Kartchner stressed that the state and regional health departments have experience addressing past flu pandemics and have a solid preparedness plan.
He said that people should wash their hands regularly, cover their noses and mouths when they sneeze or cough, avoid touching their faces (where germs can take hold) and stay home when sick.
Of note, Kartchner said people who are not sick generally should not wear masks in an attempt to stay healthy.
“It’s not going to be helpful,” he said, because most people don’t know how to use the masks properly. If you take it off, touch your face with a germy hand and then put the mask back on, that defeats the purpose.
“The bottom line,” the doctor said, is “keep calm, cover your cough and sneeze, and wash your hands.”
Kartchner and a team of his colleagues have been meeting and consulting with community leaders in the five-county district, which covers Orange, Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison and Rappahannock counties.
Glenda Bradley, assistant county administrator, said the county meeting with health department officials has been scheduled for Monday morning. Participants will include Orange County supervisors, law enforcement leaders, county department heads, officials from the towns of Orange and Gordonsville, school administrators and representatives from social services and local nursing homes.
In the meantime, county employees have received information on the virus from their health insurance provider.
Bradley said, “Each department also has been provided disinfecting supplies to use on areas of particular concern or areas that are more likely to be touched frequently.”
She added that maintenance workers have been instructed to consistently clean surfaces, including door handles, countertops, microwaves, refrigerators, bathroom fixtures, light switches, phones and keyboards.
She said that further steps, including the possible use of gloves and masks by staff in essential positions, might be taken “once confirmed cases are in the community or within close proximity.”
Jim Crozier, chair of the board of supervisors, said he expects to get “a much better idea of what the health department recommends” after attending the meeting on Monday. For now, he said, “the county as a whole is taking what appear to be the appropriate precautions.”
He said he has heard from “four or five” local employers encouraging their workers to stay home if they show signs of flu-like illness. He has not heard, however, from local residents afraid they have the coronavirus.
As a public figure used to shaking a lot of hands, Crozier has begun washing his hands more frequently and keeping hand sanitizer at the ready if he can’t easily access soap and water. He said he has noticed that some people are opting for fist-bumps or just “acknowledging that they see you” rather than shaking hands. (Others around the county have been seen tapping elbows instead of hugging.)
Dogwood Village is taking the threat of the coronavirus very seriously. For a brief period, visitors were asked to fill out a questionnaire inquiring whether they had recently traveled abroad, had a fever or any flu-like symptoms or had been in close contact with anyone diagnosed with the coronavirus or anyone being tested for it. By Wednesday, the questionnaire had been scrapped in favor of politely turning away all visitors, given the severity of the virus’ threat to elderly and infirm people.
Staff members at the front desk of the nursing building said visitors informed thus far of the new policy had understood the concern and responded graciously. Staff stressed that residents can still be in touch with family and friends by phone and computer. Further, the facility would work to accommodate family members wishing to visit with a dying patient.
Before this latest development, Patty Talley, director of customer and consumer relations, said letters went out to the nursing facility’s residents and their families “stressing the importance of handwashing, avoiding close contact with individuals that are sick, covering your cough or sneeze with tissues and throwing them in the trash, cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth and remaining home when you are sick except for physician visits.”
She said Dogwood Village has always asked family members with flu or flu-like symptoms to postpone their visits until they’re well.
“We don’t want to be the bad guy. We just want to keep our residents and our staff safe,” she said.
Dorren Brown, executive director of the Orange County Free Clinic, said that she and her staff are in regular contact with the Virginia Department of Health: “They’re sending us stuff all the time” related to the coronavirus.
Brown said a patient who arrives with flu-like symptoms is immediately outfitted with a face mask, but she pointed out that this is standard practice at the clinic, not something introduced in response to the coronavirus.
Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) sent an information sheet home on Friday with students in kindergarten through grade eight, according to Bill Berry, assistant superintendent for student and administrative services. He said the document went home with high school students on Monday.
Last week Berry said the central office had been fielding inquiries about “our preparedness to address the virus.” He noted that the school division is in contact with Kartchner’s office and that school nurses were being educated on proper protocols. Signs in school lavatories urge handwashing, he added.
The OCPS information sheet includes instructions from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding safe hygiene practices that will prevent the disease from spreading. It also describes the school system’s “action steps” in response to a looming pandemic, including a promise to provide clear, timely information to parents.
The document states that OCPS uses disinfectants and cleansers meeting the standards of the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency. To maintain “a clean, safe environment,” the schools will begin cleaning “high touch” surfaces every day. Those surfaces include doors, doorknobs, and handicap access “push plates.”
Further, school staff members will keep an eye out for anyone with symptoms matching those of the coronavirus and dispatch them to the school nurse for evaluation.
Cleaning supplies were to be distributed to classrooms and offices, according to the information sheet, so staff could clean their desks, chairs, keyboards, phones and other surfaces, “especially if someone coughed or sneezed in that vicinity.”
Finally, according the information sheet, OCPS is in contact with the Virginia Department of Education and other school divisions to discuss what to do if schools must close for a lengthy period.
Like other colleges in the region, Germanna Community College has decided to close for the time being. According to a release distributed Wednesday, the school’s spring break has been extended through Friday, March 20. After that, “all classes will resume through virtual or alternative delivery,” beginning Monday, March 23, and continuing at least through Friday, April 3. All GCC events are canceled through Monday, April 6.
Meanwhile, at Food Lion in Orange, shelves typically well stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes were looking very picked over on Friday. By Wednesday, signs announced that some items were temporarily out of stock.
Matt Harakal, the supermarket chain’s manager of media and community relations, released a statement reading, in part, “We are following the guidance of global, national and local health authorities. We encourage our associates to take steps to prevent the spread of any germs and to follow the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including regular handwashing and staying home when sick.
“We are in close contact with all our suppliers and are restocking any out-of-stock items as fast as possible. We will continue to closely monitor the situation as it develops around the globe while ensuring we are supporting our customers in the towns and cities we serve.”
Community stakeholders agree that education is essential—along with good hygiene.
Crozier said during his 30 years as a first responder, “We dealt with a lot of other illnesses, viruses, that had never come down the pike before. In each case, you take the best commonsense precautions that you can. That usually decreases the odds of contracting something.”
So what approach should county residents take for the time being?
In brief, Crozier said, "Plain old common sense and cleanliness."