Citing a huge spike in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 in the region, health and government officials gathered Monday afternoon to offer a united voice for being more aggressive with precautions.
Penny Hall, the chief operating officer for the West Piedmont Health District of the Virginia Department of Health, said “COVID-19 cases in Martinsville and Henry County have surged in the past several weeks.”
By Monday, 219 people in Martinsville and Henry County had had tested positive for COVID-19, and four have died.
“The number of cases tripled in late May, and this has been very alarming for a number of reasons,” she said. “This was a result of several workplace outbreaks, as well as family gatherings where social distancing was not observed.”
The message of Hall and various officials was simple: People aren’t taking pandemic precautions seriously enough, and it’s time to take action towards safety by wearing masks and avoiding social gatherings.
District Epidemiologist Sharon Ortiz-Garcia said that wearing masks and maintaining social distancing “are the only tools we have” to protect against the pandemic, yet when she goes to the grocery store, she sees that 80% of people aren’t taking those precautions.
Three hours after the press conference, the health department announced six new cases in Henry County: two women in their 50s and four men ranging in age from 40s to 80s. There have been more than two dozen new cases since Friday.
Looking at comparisons based on population, Martinsville and Henry County’s infection rate is almost four times greater than that of neighboring Danville and Pittsylvania County, Sovah Health Medical Director of Emergency Services Dr. Bruce Mazurek said.
Hall praised The Harvest Foundation for quick action in putting together the testing site at the Martinsville Speedway. When it opened, about a dozen people were tested daily, and now, she said, nearly 100 people are being tested each day.
Health department employees in various positions have been working seven days a week on contact tracing, and they need volunteers who speak Spanish to help with the contact tracing. Officials also appeal to companies to help identify close contacts at work and to be vigilant with cleaning and sanitizing.
“The community has always stepped up and responded well,” Henry County Board of Supervisors chair Jim Adams said. “This is a time for action. Step up and do the right thing. Wear a mask. Practice social distancing. Think of others before yourself.”
Said Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson: “We understand people have had enough of social distancing, would love to be able to go out and socialize.”
However, even though restrictions are being lifted, “Now is not the time to simply abandon all of the safe practices,” Lawson said. “We still need to maintain social distancing, wear a mask … wash your hands frequently and be aware of common-touch surfaces in public spaces.
“Our community’s safety is at risk. … Now is not the time to say ‘We have gotten past this,’ because we are far from being past it.”
Sovah Health spokesperson Kelly Fitzgerald gave guidelines on wearing masks. “Face-coverings do help slow the spread of coronavirus,” she said.
They should not be worn by children younger than 2, anyone who has trouble breathing or anyone would could not remove a mask on his own.
She shared the Center for Disease Control’s tips on how to wear a mask safely:
• Wash hands before putting on and taking off a mask.
• Put it over the nose and mouth, including under the chin.
• When removing, remove it completely, handling only the ear loops or ties.
• Put a used cloth mask straight into the washing machine for laundering.
“Also, I wanted to assure the community that it is safe to come to the hospital to seek care,” she said.
Mazurek said he has traveled to three other communities in the past month and seen that people there take coronavirus precautions much more seriously than people in Martinsville and Henry County seem to.
Every store in those communities requires the use of masks by people inside, “and I’m here today to reach out to our retail businesses and make that happen here. … There’s definitely community spread in our area, and that’s one thing we can do to stop that.”
The emergency rooms in Martinsville and Danville “are very well prepared. Our employees there are very safe. … Our patients are well protected,” he said.
In Spanish, Alfredo Garcia encouraged “la comunidad Latina” to visit the hospital or health department as needed. He also outlined the proper methods of wearing a mask.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall had a message for businesses: “I thank all of you for what you’re doing to help us fight the coronavirus and its spread. … We need you to be vigilant with your customers and your employees.”
Holding up a mask, he said, “You owe it to yourself, and, but more importantly, you owe it to the people around you” to wear a mask.
“Can something this small really make that big of a difference? Absolutely.”
Holly Kozelsky is a writer for the Martinsville Bulletin; contact her at 276-638-8801 ext. 243.
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