Stacey Washington took a chance on the Fourth of July weekend.
Yes, the coronavirus pandemic was still limiting everyday life, but her birthday was July 6 and so, she thought, it would be fine to go without a face mask for a celebration in the backyard, right?
“Boy, was I wrong,” she said. “A couple of days later I woke up out of my sleep and I could not breathe.”
Washington’s spouse had to catch her before she collapsed from breathing difficulties. Sure enough, she tested positive for the virus.
“I took it for a joke, I really did, and I’m regretting it every day, every moment that I’ve been sitting in this room …,” she said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Washington shared her story in a virtual press conference Monday held by Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker. The event focused on the ongoing pandemic and safety measures local residents should take to limit the spread of the virus.
“It’s very, very, very, very serious,” Washington said. “This community isn’t taking it seriously.”
Walker said the city has received reports about gatherings with “hundreds of people.”
Walker and City Manager Tarron Richardson said city leaders are in discussion with Albemarle County officials about requesting that Gov. Ralph Northam allow the area to return to Phase Two of the state’s reopening guidelines.
“We are very concerned about the numbers spiking in our area,” Walker said.
The Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes the city and county, reported 1,236 cases of the coronavirus and 29 deaths as of Monday. In the first 13 days of July, the district saw 308 new cases, putting the month on pace to surpass June’s 380 cases.
Nationally, cases continue to skyrocket as states plough forward with eased restrictions. The U.S. has seen more than 3.3 million cases of the virus, and more than 136,000 people have died.
TJHD Director Dr. Denise Bonds said that 7% to 8% of people who are tested for the virus are positive locally. The rate of positive local tests was as low as 4.6% a month ago.
Taking a step back in reopening would help to limit capacity at businesses and gatherings.
Walker acknowledged that “there have been a lot of mixed messages” from the state, federal and local levels about how to limit the spread of the virus.
“We’ve been taking the approach of just getting the message out and having conversations with people to change behaviors instead of very heavy-handed enforcement,” she said. “If we were getting a clearer message out to the public, we would be more comfortable with a more firm response.”
Safety measures have become a political football, particularly recommendations to wear a face mask; President Donald Trump only recently appeared at an event with a mask for the first time. Some people choose not to wear one and say it restricts their breathing, while others wear one but don’t fully cover their mouth and nose or they frequently remove the mask.
“When you go outside, you say, ‘I can’t breathe with this mask on, I’m going to take it off,’” Washington said. “Try breathing with COVID.”
Jeanita Richardson, a professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, said everyone should be wearing a mask, even if it’s not heavy duty, because “wearing one is better than not wearing one.”
Charles Alexander, who helped to integrate Charlottesville schools and is known in his youth educational work as Mr. Alex Zan, spoke during the press conference and said there’s one piece of information that is reliable — everyone is at risk of catching the virus.
“COVID-19 doesn’t care about you,” he said. “COVID-19 doesn’t care about age, area code or ZIP code.”
Richardson said that those who have received a negative test are not safe because they could still contract the virus.
Richardson said anyone who has attended large gatherings or any events since mid-June should be tested.
“This is not a drill,” she said. “This is about saving your life and saving the life of people that you love.”
Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital is offering 250 free tests from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Washington Park in Charlottesville. The hospital will conduct another testing event at the park on July 23.
UVa is conducting a testing event at Buford Middle School in the city from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday.
Washington said that her body aches from the virus and she cannot sleep. She has isolated herself in a bedroom and can’t spend any time around her 11-year-old son.
“For those couple of hours I took my mask off, I said I’m alright, and I really wasn’t,” she said. “I just want everyone to know that it can happen, and it can happen to you. It can happen to any of us.”