**Editor's Note: This story has been updated at 3:27 p.m. March 12 from the original March 11 version to include the latest information.
The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 (coronavirus) a pandemic, but here in Franklin County, it’s business as usual — mostly.
Officials from the Virginia Department of Health hosted a briefing at Franklin County Government Center on Wednesday morning to provide a better understanding of COVID-19.
As of press time, the commonwealth had 17 presumptive cases of COVID-19, but none in southwest Virginia. Dr. Sharon Ortiz-Garcia, an epidemiologist for VDH, explained that presumptive positive cases are treated as if they are confirmed cases, but have not necessarily received test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If we have a presumptive case, we are going to treat it as if it was final confirmation; we are not going to wait on the CDC,” Ortiz-Garcia said. “We are going to basically implement our response in terms of contact tracing and isolating the case and recommending quarantine to any close contacts as if it was a confirmed case.”
Dr. Kerry Gateley, health director for the West Piedmont Health District of VDH, which includes Franklin, Henry and Patrick counties, said the area will “probably” see the illness pop up soon in the area.
Ortiz-Garcia said there are three people in the West Piedmont District who have self-quarantined, not because they are ill at this time, but because they traveled from a country with a level 3 travel notice. She confirmed they did not travel from China or Iran.
A level 3 travel notice, according to the CDC, advises citizens to avoid nonessential travel due to widespread community transmission. At press time, China, Iran, Italy and South Korea have level 3 travel notices.
Gateley said that now is the time to plan for contingencies and to evaluate gatherings. For government bodies or businesses, he said to gauge by asking questions such as “Do we really need to have that meeting?” or “Is it necessary?”
He said his opinion is shutting things down now is the answer, but the timing is difficult.
“On the one hand, from my standpoint that is a ‘yeah let’s (shut down)now,’ ” Gateley said. “In other areas, let’s shut down the schools, and send everybody home from the colleges now, the problem is that is a tremendous decision — tremendous social and economic impact. It’s the idea of trying to figure out when are things at the place where we need to do these very dramatic life-changing activities. I am tending to be cautious not wanting to go around yelling wolf and disrupting everybody’s lives.”
He added that because little is known at this point about the virus, no one knows if, as spring and summer months approach, will that impact the virus? Will it drop off and possibly ramp up again during the general flu season or will it continue? Not having those answers makes the decision to shut down even more difficult.
“If we have a summer effect, and the cases all dropped off then here I am messed up everybody’s life for no purpose,” Gateley said. “On the other hand if I wait too late … then you’re closing schools because of absenteeism, then the cat’s out of the bag there.”
He added the virus is rising and not slowing down currently.
Gateley said surgical masks are not as helpful as people think because masks need to be fit-tested, and the gaps in fit act as an air tunnel.
“If you are thinking you are going to try prevent the spread of disease by wearing masks alone, unfortunately a particle coughed (out) hits a surface, and we’re starting to see information from China, that it can survive for a while on that surface,” Gateley said.
When asked to define “a while” Gateley said three to four days.
He explained that hand washing is important because a person can touch a surface and then touch their face and infect themselves. The virus is most commonly spread from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, close personal contact (such as caring for or living with an infected person) or touching an object or surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or eyes before washing your hands. Gateley also advised to not shake hands and practice social distance.
“I know that doesn’t sound powerful, but you can talk to any infection control practitioner in any hospital anywhere and ask them about the effectiveness of washing hands and how readily diseases can spread,” he said. “But actually it’s very important.”
Gateley noted there is a difference between quarantine and isolation. He explained that quarantine is for those who may have had exposure to stay away from others for a period of 14 days, whereas isolation is for infected individuals who are being kept from others, and alerting health care workers to take special precautions.
While Gateley said it is a good idea to restrict gatherings, he noted that the virus is spreading. He said word leaked out that Italy was considering quarantine and people scattered, rendering the quarantine ineffective. He called “dramatic efforts” to contain the virus “logistical nightmares.”
“These big bold measures are difficult to do, very difficult to maintain, logistical nightmares and depending upon the size of your population and a whole lot of other factors, ultimately are probably not going to be possible to impose,” Gateley said.
He added that he “didn’t know what the mayor of New York City was going to do with the National Guard.”
Instead, Gateley said it is up to individuals to take care of themselves, and in doing so taking care of their neighbors.
“If they think there is a reasonable exposure and need to self-quarantine (with the help of VDH), we’re happy to help,” Gateley said. “If everybody will think in that regard we have a pretty good chance of slowing this virus down.”
Ferrum College and Franklin County Public Schools have both issued statements they are monitoring the situation and will make decisions accordingly.
On Thursday, FCPS Superintendent Dr. Mark Church announced the district will cancel classes to have a teacher workday Friday, March 20 so teachers can make lesson plans “in case there is an extended disruption.”
In a letter to parents Thursday, Church wrote, “If school is closed for an extended period of time, our teachers will be prepared to provide instruction through a variety of methods to your children.”
He added, “Parents will be an important part of the instructional process and we hope that you will take an active role to assist your children and their teachers to ensure that the learning continues. All of our students are provided a school email and many of our students have access to a computer and internet at home. Of course, we do realize that we have some students who do not. We have a plan for those students as well so teaching and learning will continue equitably.”
In addition to the preparations, the school division also closed the buildings to large gatherings such as the upcoming Dailey and Vincent concert, and effective March 13, all scheduled field trips to areas where cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed and trips outside of the region will be canceled. Athletic and co-curricular activities, Church said, will be assessed on an individual case-by-case basis.
Ferrum College President Dr. David Johns established a Coronavirus Response Task Force headed by Dean of Students Nicole Lenez, who is monitoring the situation and providing daily reports to Johns. Johns said the college is also increasing efforts in disinfecting public areas.
“We will act with prudence and caution, but not with fear or speculation,” Johns said in his statement. “We will monitor the situation daily, communicate with the campus regularly and maintain contact with the Virginia Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
Cancellations of local events have begun such as the March 13 Dancing for a Cause and Rocky Mount Health and Rehabilitation Center’s April 2 open house.
While music festivals such as the famed Coachella and South by Southwest have been canceled or postponed, locally the show will go on at The Harvester Performance Center.
Harvester CEO Matt Hankins said, “We will continue to operate unless the Commonwealth of Virginia or one of its agencies issues an order requiring us to shut down for a period of time ... we have been working diligently with our cleaning contractors to ensure our high standards for cleanliness and sanitation are met every single time our doors open. ”