Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer. Don’t touch your face. Wash your hands some more.
That’s the advice of area schools and the state health department as the coronavirus and its accompanying respiratory illness, COVID-19, spread across the country and officials locally prepare for a potential outbreak.
As of Friday afternoon, no one in Virginia has tested positive for the coronavirus; however, testing is ramping up. The Virginia Department of Health said 31 people have been tested so far and 120 people currently are under public health monitoring.
Earlier this week, the University of Virginia cancelled study abroad trips over spring break. Area schools are updating their plans developed in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2008, in which one local child died, and are sending letters home to parents.
More than 3,400 people worldwide have died from the virus, which appears to spread through droplets after a person coughs or sneezes, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., several states reported their first cases, and outbreaks appeared to widen as health care workers performed more tests.
The Thomas Jefferson District Health Department has recommended individuals get a flu shot, make an emergency action plan and stay home if they aren’t feeling well, among other advice. Local, state and federal officials say wearing a face mask is not necessary unless you are ill.
Jessica Salah, the department’s health emergency coordinator, said the agency has been planning for pandemic flu since 2004, and those response plans can be adapted for COVID-19.
Through pandemic flu planning, Salah said the health department has built strong relationships with community partners, including area school systems, to respond to an outbreak.
It’s hard to know yet how the coronavirus’ lethality compares with the flu, which has so far killed between 20,000 and 52,000 people this season in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We still have a lot to learn about the virus,” Salah said.
The city of Charlottesville said Friday that it will begin meeting weekly with the health department, Albemarle County and UVa to ensure the area is fully prepared.
The UVa Medical Center and Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital both have negative-pressure units, designed to treat people with highly contagious diseases, and say they have plans in place should a patient — either from in-town or flown in from other parts of the state — need care.
When asked if the hospitals have tested or been able to test any suspected patients, spokespeople referred all questions to the local health district, which said that publicity of testing information does not include specifics on location, such as a certain city or county, in order to preserve confidentiality.
Nationally, health care workers have reported lags in their ability to test cases due to, until recently, narrow CDC requirements for who should be tested; a small number of available test kits; and requirements that tests be sent to the CDC lab in Atlanta.
Federal officials said Thursday that tests should be administered with a doctor’s note.
UVa does not know if anyone is self-quarantining as a precaution. A spokesman for the medical center said that public health monitoring of people who have recently traveled to hotspots is handled by the department of health in coordination with the CDC.
Kathryn Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said officials are working with the state lab, and some private companies, to offer testing, and that the state health department will ensure an ability to “test everyone who needs to be tested.”
The health district has set up a hotline at (434) 972-6261 for questions about COVID-19. It will go live Monday.
The health department will staff the hotline from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday to answer questions and triage calls, Goodman said. People can leave messages that will be returned as soon as possible. If someone is experiencing a medical emergency, they should call 911.
In Washington state, which has the most reported cases in the U.S., some school districts have closed down to prevent the spread of the disease. On Friday, the University of Washington cancelled in-person classes for two weeks.
The CDC has said childcare and school administrators should work closely with local health officials to make dismissal and large event cancellation decisions, according to its interim guidance for schools.
The Albemarle County school division has convened a working group of school and department administrators who are putting the final touches on a plan that will be communicated to the public early next week, a division spokesman said.
School divisions in Fluvanna, Greene, Orange and Madison counties all have sent letters home to families about the virus.
Charlottesville City Schools has created a webpage with information about COVID-19 and said it is working with the regional and state health departments to monitor and make plans for the illness. School officials also are reinforcing good hand-washing and cleaning practices with students and posting flyers on the topic.
“Our goal would be to maintain operations while minimizing student and staff exposure,” the division said on its website.
At Greenbrier Elementary, a planned kindergarten field trip to Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital was postponed.
“Given the current climate of health concerns, I felt it was best to err on the side of caution when making this decision,” Greenbrier’s principal, Pat Cuomo, wrote in a letter to parents.
Instead, the hospital sent folks to the school to lead a lesson with students about hand washing.