Officials from the Thomas Jefferson Health District and the Charlottesville chief of police provided updates on area coronavirus testing and clarified social distancing enforcement methods during a digital town hall Friday.
The second of its kind held by the health district — which includes Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson — the town hall allowed participants to send in questions to the panel.
The panelists were Dr. Denise Bonds, medical director for the TJHD; RaShall Brackney, Charlottesville’s chief of police; Dr. Keri Hall, an infectious disease specialist at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital; and Elizabeth Irvin, executive director of the Women’s Initiative.
Brackney said the department is fielding calls from community members reporting large gatherings and is recording the information before taking steps to call business owners or residents who may be in violation. Currently, a state order limits gatherings to no more than 10 people, with all adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Additionally, she said the department is working with the area’s commonwealth’s attorneys to determine the best way to handle violations of the stay-at-home order.
“I know there were comments made previously by [University of Virginia Chief of Police Tim Longo] that we’re now criminalizing behavior that is normal, and I would say that’s just the opposite of what we’re doing,” she said. “We’ve taken the approach in the region that we are not criminalizing behavior as a result of these stay-at-home orders.”
Later in the town hall, Brackney said city police are not stopping people who are wearing face masks, as wearing cloth face masks is considered a way to maintain public health. State officials also have said they are not enforcing the code that bans face masks at this time.
Though many parks have been closed, Brackney said the department still is encouraging people to get outside and exercise, but in a way that maintains physical distance.
“We’re all in this together, and freedom comes with responsibility to each other, to make sure that we all have the opportunities to get back out into the economies, to get back out into the schools,” she said. “The executive orders are in place and we have to continue to enforce those but we’re going to do education first.”
Updated numbers provided by Bond showed a total of 253 cases of confirmed COVID-19 in the health district, with 138 of those being women — a departure from national trends. Bond said that, like much of the country, the district is seeing a disproportionate number of cases among African Americans, a theme that was a focus of a previous town hall.
The district recently was approved to use state testing facilities for people who are uninsured or underinsured, according to Bond, allowing them, it’s hoped, to address some of the inequalities in the area. She also referenced a drive-thru clinic Saturday in Fluvanna County for people in that area with symptoms or who live with someone who works at the Envoy at the Village, a long-term care facility in Fork Union that is experiencing an outbreak of coronavirus cases.
The health district does not reveal specific location information for infected individuals, due to privacy laws, but urged area residents to assume that everywhere in the district carries a risk of infection. Because infection is everywhere, Bond said individuals should limit their grocery trips, wear personal protective equipment and regularly wash their hands.
According to Hall, Sentara Martha Jefferson has seen a large increase in its ability to quickly test individuals for COVID-19. Additionally, due to an “overwhelming” community response, she said the hospital is well-stocked with personal protective equipment.
During her portion of the town hall, Irvin emphasized the importance of maintaining good mental health by practicing self-care and noted that social distancing is more akin to physical distancing, not emotional distancing.
“We should be emotionally as connected as possible, even while we’re physically distancing from each other,” she said. “So I hope you’re texting friends more often than you used to; I hope you’re not just flicking through your Facebook but commenting on somebody and making sure you say happy birthday to them; I hope that you’re reaching out and calling friends and family more often than you were before.”