After Protesters Swarm Virginia Capitol, Doctors Warn State Is Not Ready to Reopen

By Elle Meyers

April 24, 2020

In the same week that hundreds of protesters gathered in Richmond to oppose stay-at-home orders, local health experts in Virginia said social distancing measures are working and warned against reopening the economy too quickly. 

Doctors and health professionals across Virginia gathered for a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday hosted by Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, to provide residents with information on the evolving situation of coronavirus in the state. The town hall included a panel of five medical professionals including doctors, a psychologist and a public health official.

The doctors on the panel all delivered the same message: The only way to safely reopen the economy will be to increase testing for the virus. 

Dr. Douglas Mitchell, a Virginia Beach physician who specializes in pediatric infectious disease, said rapid coronavirus testing should be more widely available at hospitals in the area next week. However, testing capacity needs to triple so that health officials can get a clearer picture of the virus’ spread. 

He also encouraged people to seek care despite the pandemic, because delaying or skipping necessary medical action, like immunizations for children, can be dangerous. 

Dr. Edward Oldfield, a physician who specializes in infectious diseases at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, gave attendees an overview on how Virginia is faring during the pandemic. He noted that the United States currently has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, and Virginia falls roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to state case and fatality rates. 

“As of April 22, the state of Virginia has over 20,000 cases reported, but we’re seeing a plateau in the number of new cases,” Oldfield said. “We’re running at about 600 new cases every single day.” 

He explained that areas with greater population density, like Fairfax and Arlington, have a higher number of cases, but also said more rural areas have seen cases. 

Oldfield encouraged patients who have COVID-19 to monitor their symptoms and to seek medical help “sooner rather than later” if they have a hard time breathing. He explained that most patients seem to respond well to oxygen therapy when it is provided earlier on in the progression of the disease.

Dr. Michael Hooper, a physician specializing in critical pulmonary care for the Sentara Healthcare System, emphasized the importance of keeping the number of critical coronavirus patients manageable so hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. He said that in hard hit areas like Italy, New York and Washington state there has been a higher rate of negative health outcomes with other diseases like appendicitis or health emergencies that are dangerous but treatable. 

“People don’t come see a doctor like they normally would because they’re scared to come to the hospital,” Hooper said. “So one of the messages we’re trying to get out to the community is that due to all social distancing measures the volumes of these sick coronavirus patients are very low in our community. We are fully capable and prepared to deal with whatever other emergency or illness you’ve been having and we’re trying to get the message out that if you’re sick and you come to the emergency room it is still safe to do so and we want you to do that.” 

Dr. Nancy Welch, who serves as the Director of the Chesapeake Health Department, urged attendees to use face masks and continue using social distancing measures. 

“You don’t have to have symptoms to be spreading the germ,” she said. “Simply talking and breathing can generate infectious droplets. By [wearing a mask in public] you are reducing the viral load in the community and helping to stop the spread.”

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