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Health officials urge continued vigilance

As Virginia enters the sixth month of the coronavirus pandemic and flu season approaches, health officials in Western Tidewater urged continued vigilance to keep the spread of COVID-19 under control.

Isle of Wight, Southampton and Franklin were excluded from the governor’s enhanced COVID-19 business and social gathering restrictions, which were recently rescinded after data showed the prevalence and spread of the virus diminished. Dr. Todd Wagner and several other regional health leaders shared an update on COVID-19 at a Sept. 14 Isle of Wight Citizens Association meeting at Windsor Town Center.

In contrast with Virginia Beach and Norfolk, where contact tracing has indicated the spread of the virus was connected more to public gathering spots for nightlife and recreation, in Western Tidewater, “we’ve seen a lot of, really, the incidents in this region in our district really occur largely as a result sort of as the result of the backyard barbecue setting,” said Wagner, who is the director of the Western Tidewater Health District.

Wagner has been speaking, organizing and supporting opportunities where members of the community can hear messages about COVID-19 from people they know and trust — faith leaders, for example. Jurisdictions in the local health district are Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, along with the cities of Franklin and Suffolk.

Wagner said the health department is relying on local jurisdictions to sustain and amplify messaging on the basics of preventing and containing the spread of the coronavirus — wearing a mask, social distancing and hand washing. At the same time, “I also recognize right now there’s quite a bit of fatigue going on in the information sector on COVID,” Wagner said. “People have kind of heard enough, they’ve seen enough. They’re kind of done with it in a lot of cases.”

Wagner also shared that in one instance, the health department withdrew the license of a restaurant in the district over repeated complaints and violations of COVID-19-related measures. The establishment’s license has since been reinstated.

“I think some people are under the assumption that this is a zero-risk game. It’s not,” he said.

“Really our intent is not to shut down facilities,” Wagner continued. “We recognize this is their livelihood. But I think with a very concerted number of warnings and effort in that regard, sometimes, it takes that,” level of action.

Remaining vigilant will become even more important in the coming weeks as flu season comes around. Wagner said it’s possible that there could be a double wave of influenza and coronavirus infections.

Dr. Mike Genco, an emergency medicine physician and Sentara administrator, said he has seen the virus begin to affect an increasing number of patients with pre-existing conditions such as lung disease, uncontrolled asthma and obesity. Genco and Chet Hart, director of the Western Tidewater Free Clinic, also shared their perspective at the meeting.

Coleen Santa Ana, president of Sentara’s Obici Hospital, BelleHarbour and St. Luke’s facilities, also spoke at the meeting, which was held with social distancing measures in the building’s gym. Santa Ana lauded all of the health care entities in Western Tidewater for working together.

As health care professionals, “we feel ultimate responsibility for your care if you come to the hospital as your health care provider. And there’s a lot of coordination amongst all of us,” Santa Ana said.

So far in September, the health district plans to offer seven free COVID-19 testing events in Smithfield, Suffolk, Windsor and Franklin. The next scheduled testing opportunities are set for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 25 at Sentara BelleHarbour and from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. on Sept. 28 at the Main Street Baptist Church in Smithfield.
Looking ahead, Wagner said he sees the biggest challenge as keeping people tuned in to the messaging about the ongoing health crisis. “This is a team game, right? We’ve got to all be in this together,” he said.