COVID-19 virus

Doctors and nurses in the Lynchburg region are urging residents to stay home as the coronavirus threatens to stress local hospitals with an influx of sick patients.

A group of local medical providers have begun circulating an online petition calling on residents to only leave their homes for essential activities during the course of the pandemic. They also are asking companies to direct employees to work remotely and insisting educational institutions close residential facilities for the foreseeable future.

As of Saturday afternoon, the petition had garnered about 200 signatures.

“We want to make sure that the community understands the seriousness of this disease,” said Dr. Elizabeth Cook, a Lynchburg hospitalist and the president of the group circulating the petition.

“It’s really easy to be lulled into a false sense of security because we only have a few cases in the community and it feels like it’s happening in other places. But this is a very serious challenge for the community.”

Lynchburg General Hospital, the only hospital with an intensive care unit in the region, announced Friday it had admitted its first patient critically ill with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

A spokesperson for Centra Health said the patient is a man in his early 60s and that he is “being treated in a negative pressure, isolation room.”

The hospital has about 20 available ICU beds and about 100 ventilators, raising concerns a significant outbreak could overwhelm medical providers. The disease causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms for most patients but some, especially the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions, experience severe symptoms, which can lead to death.

Dr. Andy Mueller, CEO of Centra Health, said last week the health system is working to expand capacity and Cook said she believes local hospitals are ready to overcome an increase in hospitalizations.

“We’re prepared for it,” she said. “But if the numbers become massive, it becomes very challenging even with a well thought out planned response to keep up with the demand.”

Cook said residents can help slow the spread of the virus by practicing social distancing, refraining from touching their faces and routinely washing their hands.

“The people who would otherwise just have a mild illness need to take it seriously and protect everybody in the community by following these recommendations,” she said. “It can become very serious very quickly here in our community.”

Virginia health officials also urge residents to stay mostly indoors this weekend and take the pandemic more seriously, as the tally of reported cases climbed to 739, up 135 cases from Friday, and the number of deaths reached 17 on Saturday.

As of press time Saturday eight people have tested positive in the Central Virginia Health District, which covers Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.

Gov. Ralph Northam warned Friday local hospitals soon could be overwhelmed with cases of the novel coronavirus, lacking enough ventilators, respirator masks and other equipment to meet the expected surge of patients.

Officials said 1,500 hospital ventilators are available across the state but they did not provide details on the total number of available intensive-care beds.

Authorities cautioned the surge of positive coronavirus tests announced this week for the most part represented infections contracted weeks earlier, given the number of days it takes for symptoms to develop, for a person to get tested and for the tests to be processed. Still, the mounting caseload is taxing local health systems.

“The issue is very simple: We do not have enough testing materials or personal protective equipment for our medical staff and first responders,” Northam said during a briefing for reporters Friday. “If we act like this doesn’t apply to us, we will literally see more cases. We’ll see our hospitals overwhelmed.”

Meanwhile, Virginia hospitals across the state worked to stay ahead of the still-rising curve of infections amid continued national shortages of respirator masks and other protective gear.

“We are continuously monitoring our supply chain and following all CDC guidelines for PPE reuse and conservation,” said Tracy Connell, spokeswoman for the five-hospital Inova Health System in northern Virginia. “As you know, this is an evolving situation.”

Economists at the Federal Reserve Bank in Richmond said the pandemic and its related shutdowns are having a significant impact on the economies of Virginia and Maryland, which are normally resistant to national slowdowns because of their work with the federal government and its contractors.

“The challenge is that the best way to stop the virus is to halt the things that drive our economy, so of course you’re not going to see things return to normal until we as consumers are confident that we can go out,” said economist Sonya Ravindranath Waddell, who leads the regional economics group at the Richmond Fed.

Last week alone, initial unemployment claims in Virginia topped 46,000 — about double the next highest level on record, in 1989, the Fed economists said. Even during the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, the state’s weekly unemployment peaked at just under 22,000, they said.

Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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