CHARLES TOWN – In a replay of the initial coronavirus outbreak in March, the Jefferson County Health Department is being flooded with calls from citizens and business owners anxious about and bewildered by infections in their families and among their employees.
“What’s happening in the community is a ton of new cases,” reported Gillian Beach, the health department’s supervising sanitarian and acting director.
“People are now finally getting aware of how difficult it is,” commented Judith Jones, a county board of health member.
Health officials in Jefferson County and across West Virginia are straining to respond to the second upsurge of COVID-19 infections since cases spiked in the spring. This time, a record number of COVID cases and hospitalizations are being registered in West Virginia as the first few coronavirus vaccines might become available as early as December and before they could become more widely available as early as April.
In Jefferson, as free coronavirus drive-up testing has increased, the number of confirmed COVID cases, so far standing at 357 this month, has already surpassed those identified in October, which had posted a record number of 183 cases in the county.
Responding to the viral resurgence, the county board of health agreed to temporarily hire five part-time workers to help the agency track and notify individuals who might have come in contact with an actively infected person. Health department administrators said they would also inquire about using contract tracers that state officials have already trained and are ready to deploy.
Some Jefferson County businesses and government offices had temporarily closed last week because of the infection spike, including several employees who contracted the virus at Paddy’s Irish Pub and an employee at Ortega’s Taco Shop in Charles Town.
“We always have and always will continue to follow health department protocol to do our part in containing the virus,” a post on Paddy’s Facebook page explained on Nov. 11. “We are trying our best to keep every one safe and to also keep our team employed. This is quite a difficult balance and is new territory for everyone.
“At this point, we are fighting for the survival of our restaurant, staff, customers, farmers, food distributors, sales representatives and many more,” states a Nov. 10 message on Facebook from Ortega’s owner and operator Natalie Greene. “With this, there is no doubt things will keep getting tough, which is why we need your patience, understanding and support more than ever.”
The Bushel & Peck grocery that operates next to Ortega’s inside George Washington Hall also closed as a precaution until more is known about the restaurant’s status.
Several county agencies have also been touched by coronavirus exposures. Infections and quarantines closed the county prosecutor’s office closed for two days last week and caused all circuit and magistrate court hearings to revert to online sessions. County Chief Prosecuting Attorney Matt Harvey said protocols the office put in place earlier this year helped contain the outbreak.
One county deputy and two court bailiffs were placed off duty due to either a family member testing positive for an infection or because of possible exposures to someone who was infected, Sheriff Pete Dougherty reported. “We are trying to be cautious to minimize exposure,” he wrote in an email.
Across the state, more than 700 new cases were recorded seven days in a row since last Tuesday, up from fewer than 380 daily cases trending at the beginning of the month. Last Friday health officials reported that the single-day number of people hospitalized statewide with a COVID infection had spiked to 1,033, an all-time high for the Mountain State.
“The threat that we have right now is the community spread,” Gov. Jim Justice explained last Friday, referring to when a contagion has spread so widely that the sources of infections cannot be determined.
Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus response coordinator, said health officials are confident the current community spread of the virus stems from people gathering for social events and celebrations, from dinner parties to weddings.
“It’s from people getting together and feeling secure around people that you know and taking your masks off,” he said of the recent surge in cases. “We’ve seen that more and more be the primary source of spread.”
Across the state, 246 infections have arisen from church gatherings, including from at least one congregation in Jefferson County. Nursing homes statewide have reported 78 infections and 127 deaths, including five deaths in one Charles Town nursing home.
People gathering indoors as the weather cools will invite more infections, Marsh added. “The indoor environment in the winter is worse because when people take off their masks indoors the aerosols and droplets that can spread COVID-19 from person to person can be suspected in the air for periods of time,” he said, “and in the winter the air is dryer and that allows the droplets to stay airborne even longer.”
Marsh urged individuals, families and workplaces to continue to take seriously the recommended steps to prevent the spread of the virus that health officials had made a mantra during the outbreak — wearing face coverings in public places, physical distancing and avoiding crowds, and frequent hand washing.
“It’s really time not to panic and to not be fearful but to be resolved that we will work together to make sure that we use our power, which we have today, to be able to stop the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
“Today, we are better at taking care of people with COVID. We have better drugs. We understand how to treat, which we didn’t before,” he added.
While announcing a tighter face-covering mandate and other contagion-tamping measures, Justice said West Virginia’s peaks of COVID cases have followed other surges around the country. Past infection peaks in the state have caused spikes in COVID hospitalizations two to four weeks later, Marsh said.
Those struggling in an intensive care unit across the state reached 104, another record high. WVU Medicine’s Berkeley Hospital Center in Martinsburg, where COVID patients from Jefferson County are treated in isolated areas, had 20 patients with severe virus symptoms or complications late last week.
WVU Medicine officials said a patient “surge plan” put in place for its Jefferson and Berkeley hospitals since the outbreak began, remains in place as hospitalizations are monitored daily.
Marsh said hospitals across West Virginia still have considerable space, staff and equipment to safely treat COVID patients. “We have plenty of capacity of our [intensive care] beds across the state, and we have capacity in ventilators across the state,” he said.
Throughout West Virginia, 60 people died last week from infections, including an 80-year-old woman from Jefferson. Nearly 600 deaths have occurred since the outbreak began, representing nearly 2 percent of the nearly 30,400 cases reported statewide. Total deaths of Jefferson residents stood at 12 as of Monday.
Controlling community infection rates — “flattening the curve” as was stated during the initial outbreak in March — will safeguard the ability of physicians and medical staff needed to care for COVID patients, Marsh said.
Meanwhile, the end of the year is a typical time for people to schedule surgeries and procedures before the holidays or use their annual medical insurance coverage benefits, Marsh said. “The majority of hospital beds that are taken up are not from people with COVID-19,” he explained. “They’re taken up from people who have other medical problems that they need to get treated for.”
Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, asked people not to neglect medical appointments or regular treatments because of the outbreak. “A lot of people are fearful to go see their doctor or have their routine visits, but prevention is key,” she said. “A lot of emergency room visits can be taken care of by your family doctor if you see them ahead of time.”
While extending the statewide school closings for the Thanksgiving holiday through Dec. 2 in anticipation of possibly more virus spreading from family gatherings during the holiday, Justice said that virus outbreaks as of last Friday had occurred in 21 schools across West Virginia. Those classroom cases involved 118 infections.
Rising community-wide infections slipped Jefferson’s public schools into a Code Orange heightened status, triggering a mandatory closing of classrooms this week that sends all students to online instruction at home. Last week, Harpers Ferry Middle School was closed for two days before reopening after the Veteran’s Day holiday to allow overburdened health department contact tracers to deal with infections at the school.
Jefferson County schools and classrooms were scheduled to be open during the three days before Thanksgiving.
Justice and state health officials shunned a call the West Virginia Education Association issued to close down school buildings and revert to online learning for the rest of the year. Students are the safest in schools, and children need the structure and social interaction and instruction that schools provide, they said.
Many families also need schools open to work their jobs and keep the economy going, making a decision to close schools for any extended period a last resort, Justice added. “There’s so many ramifications there,” he said.
Last week, Justice said his staff attorneys told him police can charge people with obstructing justice who fail to wear masks in all public and private buildings, except for homes. Store shoppers can be charged with trespassing if they ignore store signs directing them to wear a face covering, he said.
On Monday, Justice attempted to allay fears that boiled up over the weekend — fears he said were stoked and stirred by outcasts and opportunists — that his orders to wear face coverings violated constitutional freedoms and were a step toward infringing on gun-possession rights in the future. He also took time to dispel talk that the coronavirus and its dangers are a hoax that public officials and medical experts made up.
“This is not smoke and mirrors,” the governor said. “It is the real, real, real thing, and it is eating us alive right as we speak.”
His explanation turned into nearly a plea for common sense and understanding. The discomfort and inconvenience of wearing a mask are inconsequential to the harm a face covering can prevent, he said.
“We’ve been pleading with people over and over and over to wear their mask,” he said. “We know the situation that the vaccine is on the way, but it’s not here yet.
“West Virginia, you need to tighten up. That’s all there is to it.”