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Don’t let guard down on virus

The state of Virginia is in the third phase of Gov. Ralph Northam’s reopening plan as of last Wednesday, but state and local health officials continue to urge caution.

Numbers in Virginia were falling for quite some time, but they seem to be on the rise again, including locally. On Friday, the Western Tidewater Health District reported its largest one-day increase in cases since May 15.

Speaking at a Suffolk City Council meeting last week, the first day of the Phase 3 reopening, Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner cautioned people to be vigilant.

“The fact that I’m starting to see a little bit of leveling off, a little bit of increase in the percent positivity, combined with the fact that … we just went to Phase 3 reopening, this weekend, we’ve got a large Fourth of July weekend, makes me concerned,” Wagner said at the meeting. That was before the spike in cases on Friday.

Although many things have reopened in Phase 3, and there is no more stay-at-home order in effect, life isn’t back to “normal” quite yet. The virus is still circulating in our community, so it might pay to be even more vigilant than we have been the past few months.

Northam himself tightened up on Phase 3 regulations late last week, deciding to continue to ban bar seating in restaurants. Previously, that restriction was to be lifted in Phase 3. Restaurants may use non-bar seating in the bar area, as long as a minimum of 6 feet between tables is provided.

“We are taking a cautious approach as we enter Phase 3 and maintaining the current restrictions on bar areas,” he said. “In Virginia, our hospitalization rates have fallen, our percentage of positive tests continues to trend downward, and we are conducting more than 10,000 tests each day. We want these trends to continue, but if our public health metrics begin moving in the wrong direction, I will not hesitate to take action to protect the health and safety of our communities.”

Virginia is currently averaging more than 10,400 tests per day — exceeding public health officials’ goal — and hospitals continue to report ample supplies of personal protective equipment. The percentage of positive tests has dropped to 6% from a high of 20% in mid-April. The number of Virginians hospitalized with a positive or pending COVID-19 test has declined significantly over the past several weeks, and more than 1,200 contact tracers are presently working throughout the commonwealth.

On June 10, the day the stay-at-home order expired, Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, shared some things he thinks people should do this summer to stay safe.

First of all, he recommended that people still stay at home if they don’t have to be out.

“We feel that people can go out and participate in some activities outside of the home, but the virus is still there, so clearly staying at home will be safer,” he said. “This is especially true for people in high risk groups, the elderly, people with underlying medical conditions — those of us in those categories should only go out if absolutely necessary for the foreseeable future.”

Oliver also said wearing a mask is a way to prevent spread of the virus. The mask recommendation — which has become an unnecessary topic of partisan divide in this country — is gaining bipartisan support, with the Republican governor of solid-red Texas having issued a mask edict last week as cases in his state soared.

“The reason why I should wear a mask is so that I don’t infect you,” Oliver said. “If I’m out and about and spreading respiratory droplets, I can infect others whether or not I’m feeling sick. If the majority of people wear a mask, it can significantly decrease the spread of the virus, so that’s the reason for wearing a mask.”

Oliver also recommended that people wash their hands frequently with soap and water, use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available, and keep their distance from others.

For more information about COVID-19 and the novel coronavirus, visit vdh.virginia.gov.