Virus Outbreak Sad Summer

The usually bustling Virginia Beach oceanfront was quiet during a windy Saturday in early April.

At the Virginia Beach Boardwalk on Sunday morning, there were hints of warmer—and hopefully better—days ahead.

Dozens of families rode their bicycles up and down the shore. A couple tossed a Frisbee back and forth on the sand. One of three Kohr Brothers Frozen Custard stands was open for business, despite a brisk breeze that kept temperatures below 60 degrees before noon.

Only a handful of people wore masks, and keeping 6 feet apart was difficult at times. Two women donned “faith over fear” T-shirts as they pressed on with their jogs.

In less than two weeks, oceanfront communities across the U.S. will usher in Memorial Day weekend—the unofficial start of the summer season that counts for places like Virginia Beach. Without souvenir purchases at Sunsations stores, open seating at restaurants, bookings at hotels and timeshares, and groups able to freely mingle on the sand and in the water, the economy is a shadow of its usual self.

“During this vital season, we earn much of our profit for the year and save necessary cash reserves to survive the lean offseason months,” Bruce Thompson, chief executive officer of Gold Key | PHR Hotels, Restaurants & Resorts in Virginia Beach, wrote in a Monday Letter to the Editor in the RTD. “That will not be possible this summer.”

There’s a range of reasons why a normal trip to the beach won’t be possible this summer. We appear unified in our desire to move past COVID-19. But the divide in beliefs over what’s happening, how long it will take and the practices being applied to get there, is concerning.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation is clear: “Limiting face-to-face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).”

But in an April 29 editorial, we highlighted how Virginians’ itch to get out and about is making it one of the most difficult states to practice social distancing.

History also tells us that pandemics come in waves. The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that during the post-peak period of an outbreak, “pandemic disease levels in most countries with adequate surveillance will have dropped below peak observed levels.” Even if activity is decreasing, “it is uncertain if additional waves will occur and countries will need to be prepared for a second wave.”

Federal officials in the U.S. largely left the response to COVID-19 up to the states. The U.S. has more reported cases (at least 1.3 million) and deaths (at least 80,000) than anywhere in the world. And a weekend report in the RTD warned that the commonwealth is missing the mark on its goal of 10,000 tests per day. Virginia exceeded 25,000 reported cases of the coronavirus on Monday.

The commonwealth hopes to slowly start reopening this Friday, gradually lifting social and business restrictions that were put in place in March to keep the highly contagious virus from overwhelming the state’s hospitals.

Public health experts told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that testing capacity is the key to easing restrictions. As Erin Sorrell, a virologist at Georgetown University, explained to reporter Mel Leonor, “Testing is everything. It is absolutely critical when considering reopening.”

Virginia has lagged well behind other states in testing. In fact, the commonwealth places third-to-last in number of tests per 100,000 residents in the United States, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Why has Virginia fallen short on testing during this extraordinary public health crisis?

This shortage has been part of an overall disturbing trend across Virginia and the nation as cities, counties and states have battled in a “Lord of the Flies” competition for scarce resources. We’ve heard about members of Congress calling corporate CEOs to secure much-needed personal protective equipment for their states as well as county administrators soliciting for supplies from local businesses. We should be united, not divided.

Virginians—and all Americans—need to have confidence and feel safe as we emerge from sheltering in place. We have one shot at reopening the economy. It’s a delicate balancing act between health and business concerns, one that requires ubiquitous testing, good data and a pragmatic approach to safety.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the world have recovered from COVID-19—as people do each year from the flu and other pathogens. But this virus is not yet capable of being defeated with an injection by a local health care provider. The Spanish flu claimed an estimated 50 million lives worldwide, in three waves from the spring of 1918 to the summer of 1919.

Is that figure enough to make a trip to the beach during wave one of COVID-19 seem trivial? What other evidence or perspective is needed?

—The Richmond Times-Dispatch

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