The Culpeper County Board of Supervisors presented a united front and offered assurances to a frazzled public during an emergency meeting held by teleconference Tuesday morning with the director of emergency services and school superintendent amid the ever-impactful COVID-19 pandemic.
“I want to take this moment to assure our citizens that our board members understand that you and your families are worried and hurting in many different ways,” said Board Chairman Gary Deal at the meeting audio broadcast live by Culpeper Media Network. “If you need us, you call us. If you want to talk, you call us—that’s what we are here for.”
In quick order, the board unanimously codified the local state of emergency declared on March 17 by Deal before receiving an update from Emergency Services Director Bill Ooten on his department’s efforts in preparing for arrival of the coronavirus. That work began back in January, he said, when the first case was announced in China and local conversations began with the hospital, medical director, health department and other partners.
Ooten hosted a community briefing with those partners on March 3 and an emergency response plan was developed. Since then, Ooten said, his office has remained in constant contact with its partners, including volunteer fire and rescue stations, law enforcement and human services.
Securing adequate protective equipment for those on the front lines has been a challenge for Culpeper, Ooten said, as it is across the state and country. Daily updates on supplies have been coming in, he said, noting 24-7 collaboration with the board chairman as well.
Deal lauded Ooten, his staff and all the brave volunteers for serving the community with passion and heart in this crisis—as of Wednesday, Culpeper County had two diagnosed coronavirus cases with the health department reporting cases of the virus in surrounding counties as well.
“Culpeper is setting the bar in our local region for preparedness and protocol,” Deal said, expressing concern for local first responders. “We cannot afford to lose you guys out there in the field.”
The chairman asked Ooten about following best practices for preventing exposure. The emergency services director said that starts with the dispatcher, specially trained to screen callers for potential symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough and shortness of breath). For callers reporting those signs, a special code is dispatched to first responders, alerting them to don protective gear.
A secondary screening of the patient is done at their home by EMS prior to any transport to the local hospital. If transported, EMS calls the hospital prior to a third screening by medical personnel in a tent outside the emergency room reserved for coronavirus cases only, Ooten said. Only then is a patient admitted to the hospital, he said, if deemed necessary.
Responding to a question from Supervisor Paul Bates about availability of personal protective equipment, Ooten said they are asking all frontline workers to turn in a weekly “burn rate report” listing how much equipment has been used. The list is then used to submit resupply requests to the state, health coalitions and the EMS council, he said.
Supervisor Kathy Campbell asked Ooten what residents should do if they get a fever. He replied, per CDC guidelines, someone who is feeling sick and showing signs of the coronavirus should call their doctor to try and set up an appointment. “They don’t want individuals storming the hospital,” Ooten said.
Once a doctor determines the patient has met the criteria for potential infection, he or she will order the test. While awaiting results of the test, that patient should self-quarantine, Ooten said. He urged people to please, stay home.
“A lot of folks coming down with this virus, have mild symptoms, but are still contagious, and the next person they pass it to could have an extremely profound effect on them,” Ooten said. “We understand it is a huge change in dynamic for our culture, but a necessary one right now to prevent the spread.”
In county government, employees have been instructed to telework if they can. If an employee is sent home by their supervisors, they will continue to get paid and will not have to use their leave, said County Administrator John Egertson. If an employee is requested to come to work by their supervisor and do not, that employee will have to use sick leave in order to get paid.
The county has implemented a hiring freeze and limited purchases to essential items until further notice. In addition, the county school system, in collaboration with human services, is providing childcare at Farmington Elementary for the children of frontline employees now that school has been cancelled for the rest of the academic year.
School Superintendent Tony Brads, in the teleconference, said of the 96 children potentially cared for through the program, it averages 20 kids daily. He anticipated demand would grow now that school is closed. Brads said the school system is appealing to its employees for help with the childcare program and/or providing auxiliary janitorial or food services assistance at the hospital “if this thing gets very difficult.”
Brads called the school closure, by state order, unprecedented. “I know this brings angst and uncertainty for many people from kindergarten up to the twelfth grade. We don’t have all the answers yet,” he said.
Asked about high school seniors getting their diplomas, Brads said they are awaiting guidance from the state as well as the current makeup of each student’s verified and credentialed credits and GPA—two months before school was supposed to end. Work sent home will not be graded due to disparity of access to learning tools by Culpeper students, he said.
“Eventually, they will get their diploma,” Brads said, adding, “Commencement cannot be held at this time,” he said, noting graduation ceremonies are “postponed indefinitely.”
The Board of Supervisors will meet again by teleconference at 10 a.m. on March 31. Like last time, audio will be livestreamed at culpepermedia.org and on cable access. The Board cancelled its April 7 night meeting at which public hearings are held due to social distancing. The morning meeting will be held.
Supervisor Brad Rosenberger offered some encouragement in closing.
“These are rough times we are in, but we are going to get through it. We just have to work nice and gently through it,” he said.
Chairman Deal presented a starker picture.
“Be informed, stay informed, but try not to obsess,” he said, encouraging everyone to follow social distancing, hand washing and not congregating in large groups. “At this time, we only have two cases in Culpeper, which I think is very positive. But be safe and assume others you are in contact with may have the virus.”