Ground zero: Local hospitals, health department prepare for coronavirus spike

UVA hospital has been providing medical screening for a variety of diseases as a precaution for the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. PC: Zack Wajsgras UVA hospital has been providing medical screening for a variety of diseases as a precaution for the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. PC: Zack Wajsgras

In just a matter of days, the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the Thomas Jefferson Health District has jumped from one to 16, including four in the City of Charlottesville and six in Albemarle County. While the first case was initially thought to be travel-related, it’s now unclear how the individual, a staff member at the UVA women’s center, came in contact with COVID-19, according to the health department. The department is also investigating how the remaining ten individuals contracted the virus, and who else they could have exposed to it. 

With the number of coronavirus cases in Charlottesville only expected to grow, local hospitals are taking extensive measures to prepare for an influx of patients, as well as to assist those currently seeking testing and treatment. In some parts of Italy and, most recently, New York City, an exponential spike in cases has overwhelmed local health care systems, leading to critical shortages of beds and ventilators. 

According to spokesman Eric Swensen, UVA Health System is postponing most clinical visits and surgeries scheduled between now and April 6, with the exception of urgent care, in order to “conserve our resources” and “build capacity to be able to care for folks when they need it.” To minimize the potential spread of the virus, patients at UVA hospital are no longer able to have visitors (with some exceptions). 

UVA staff is also screening everyone before allowing them to enter any facilities, he adds. “If you’re a visitor and are showing any kind of respiratory symptoms or possible exposure to coronavirus, we’re not going to allow you into our clinic or medical center.”

Swensen says there’s been a significant number of people calling UVA health care providers, as well as the UVA health call center, with questions and concerns about coronavirus. In order to prevent the virus from spreading, he urges those who think they may have the virus to call their primary care provider (or, if they don’t have one, the Virginia Department of Health hotline), and not rush to the emergency room. A doctor will then screen them over the phone for common symptoms of the coronavirus—fever, cough, and difficulty breathing—and ask about their travel history and potential exposure to the virus. If they meet the CDC criteria for testing, a doctor can send them to UVA’s referral-only coronavirus clinic

In light of the severe national shortages of coronavirus tests, UVA health is now one of the few institutions across the country that has created its own tests, with a goal to have results within one to two days, Swensen says. Due to this increase in testing capacity, it expects to see a spike in local confirmed cases of the virus in the upcoming days. 

“Depending on the severity of their symptoms…not everyone necessarily who gets coronavirus will need hospital care,” Swensen adds. “The first case in Charlottesville is an example of this, where that person is being evaluated and cared for from home.”

According to a news release, one of the other local residents diagnosed with the virus, a UVA student living off-Grounds in Albemarle County who may have contracted it while traveling, is also currently in isolation.

Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital has taken similar steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within its facilities. The hospital has a “fair amount” of ventilators and isolation rooms available, says Vice President of Medical Affairs Paul Tesoriere, and is working with the government to get more testing kits. 

“We’ve identified different areas that we will expand into if we get into a situation where we get a significant influx in patients,” says Tesoriere, “areas that are not being as utilized because the virus has cut down on some procedures or visits.”

A task force meets several times a day to address daily needs and long-term plans.

The TJHD is working closely with both UVA and Sentara, as well as other community partners, to oversee the area’s pandemic response effort and investigate the cases in Charlottesville. But it generally does not supply testing kits or personal protective gear, including masks, goggles, and gloves. Due to the mass shortage of such gear, local doctors and nurses are currently hosting an Equip Cville emergency supply drive (see page 9), collecting donations from businesses, labs, and schools, in partnership with Support Cville. 

“We are working on compiling a list of those in the community that need PPE, and any extra we have we will make sure to get to the appropriate individuals in appropriate health care settings,” says TJHD’s Public Information Officer Kathryn Goodman. “[However,] the demand for [PPE] is unprecedented, and suppliers do not have the inventory to keep up with demand. Local health care providers trying to purchase critical supplies are competing with all providers across the county…efforts like [Equip Cville] are essential to the long-term success of what will be a lengthy response.”

But tests, investigations, and supplies alone will not bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic, Goodman adds. Social distancing, or self-quarantining, is equally as important. 

“We know that there will be cases in this community, and so we’re asking people to stay home as much as possible so that we can prevent and lower the number of cases we see in the area,” she says. “If people do have to go out in public, stay six feet away from one another. [But] if people can just stay home, that’s the best thing we’re going to be able to do to prevent the spread of this.”

When to call your doctor

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from very mild to severe (or, in some cases, may not occur at all), and usually appear within two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus. They include:

  • Fever
  • Tiredness
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty breathing

If you are experiencing these symptoms, and know or suspect that you’ve been in contact with a person who has COVID-19, or have traveled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak, you should call your primary care doctor. If you don’t have one, you can also call your local emergency room, urgent care clinic, or a coronavirus hotline:

Contact your doctor early if you’re 60 or older, or have underlying chronic medical conditions, even if your symptoms are mild. Seek medical attention immediately if you’re experiencing any of these emergency warning signs of COVID-19:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to arouse
  • Bluish lips or face

Updated 3/25 to reflect accurate number of local coronavirus cases

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Brutal data of patients suffering from Coronavirus. It’s a tough situation for all of us and we need to hear our government authorities and do as they say. I have huge respect for all the hospitals and doctors who are working day and night to save people all around the world. Brielle Entzminger, thank you for sharing this collective data and information related to Covid- 19.