Ellen Hess has never been as scared as she was the day that COVID-19 took her breath away.
“I’ve been in a bad motorcycle accident, I’ve had three children, a major head injury, a dissected carotid artery, but I have never been as scared as that day that I could not breathe and thought for sure I was going to die,” Hess said from her bedroom in her Fluvanna County home. “I am not a dramatic person. I’m trained as a nurse. But I was scared.”
Hess, a nurse liaison with Envoy at The Village skilled nursing facility in Fork Union, was among the first staff members at the home to come down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The nursing home has seen staff and residents hit with COVID-19, accounting for the majority of cases in the county. Friday afternoon, the Thomas Jefferson Health District said the current count of confirmed cases in Fluvanna is 70, out of 212 in the district.
All staff, residents and patients at the center have been tested for the virus. Health department and company officials have declined to comment on the exact number of positive tests at the facility.
A majority of outbreaks in Virginia have been connected to nursing homes, state officials said this week, and one of the deadliest in the country has been at the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County.
Eight residents of the Thomas Jefferson Health District now have died from the virus, according to information released Friday, but officials have declined share more-specific location information, citing privacy concerns.
“I want to reassure the community that health providers are working with Envoy residents and staff,” said Mozell Booker, a Fluvanna supervisor representing the Fork Union District. “Debbie Smith, Fluvanna County emergency management coordinator, is keeping the [Board of Supervisors] informed of the progress being made. I ask that you keep positive thoughts about the health of our residents and providers.”
Hess is the wife of Fluvanna County Sheriff Eric Hess, who is now also in self-quarantine and is taking care of her as her bout with the virus enters a third week.
The sheriff has not been tested, but shows no symptoms and is continuing to work from home, keeping the office running while keeping his distance.
“I know that I do not want to go through what my wife has gone through and is still going through,” Sheriff Hess said. “I take my temperature twice a day and it’s a big relief when it reads 98 degrees and I don’t have headaches.”
For an experienced medical care professional, COVID-19’s blow has been powerful and frightening, Ellen Hess said.
“This has been scary. If you plan to have surgery, or if you are diagnosed with a disease, you can go on the internet, talk to a doctor who’s an expert and educate yourself so you know what to expect, but this has been a moving target. You wonder, what’s going to happen next?” she said. “And a lot of the time the answer is, ‘We don’t really know.’ And they don’t.”
After treatments at the University of Virginia Medical Center restored her breathing without needing a respirator, Hess returned home.
The virus, however, was not done. Her blood pressure began rising to frightening heights with excruciating headaches.
“I’m usually around 100/50 but it was reaching 226/167 and I know that’s not good,” she said. “I started getting concerned. I went into the hospital a couple of times for treatment. The doctors said there have been some reports of high blood pressure. There’s so much they don’t know, yet.”
Because many aspects of the virus are still unknown, much of the early advice given to Hess was based on the behavior of other, somewhat similar viruses.
Recent studies in the U.S. show that the virus is easily transmitted by infected people in close proximity, even if they are not showing symptoms.
Early research shows that people may have the virus and transmit it to others but never become ill. They show the virus may stay airborne in a room for up to three hours and can live on metal and plastic surfaces for up to three days.
The virus is known to attack the respiratory system, causing sudden onset pneumonia that can prove fatal. But doctors in New York, Detroit and Louisiana, states that have been hard hit by the virus, say they’ve seen indications that the virus possibly attacks the heart, liver and kidneys, as well.
Little of that was known when nursing homes and society started locking down in March as the first wave of cases hit a nursing facility in Washington state.
The Envoy at The Village in Fluvanna initiated lockdowns and cleaning regimens, following advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It was tough and disorienting for our residents because we went from having 30 to 50 voluntary activities a month to having all activities and visits end in one day,” Hess recalled. “We did our best as staff to find ways to keep them engaged, but there was a lot of anxiety about things we didn’t know.”
One bit of advice the CDC had put out, that face masks were not necessary if people did not exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, was changed by the organization after further studies showed the virus could be spread by close interaction.
“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms,” the CDC said in its masking recommendation.
That recommendation was made April 3.
On April 5, Hess began running a low-grade fever.
On April 6, she was tested.
On April 7, her test results came back positive and the couple went into quarantine.
For Sheriff Hess, it’s meant staying in one side of the house while his wife holes up in another to keep a safe distance.
He fixes the meals, many of which are brought to the doorstep by friends and neighbors, and follows special procedures to clean dishes and disinfect shared areas.
“I have hazardous-materials training, so I’m lucky in that I understand a lot of the procedures,” he said.
The sheriff manages his department via telecommuting, reading reports and holding meetings online. For stress relief, he works on their farm.
“The farm has been a pain sometimes, but it’s really kept me from going crazy,” he laughed. “It’s been great therapy mowing grass, and I’ve split about three years’ worth of firewood.”
The couple said support from the community has both buoyed their spirits and kindled pride in the county.
“We’ve had so much support from people praying for us and wishing us well and bringing food and helping out. It means so much,” Ellen Hess said. “The sheriff’s office chaplain came out and stood on a porch and prayed for us and the community and the county, and that meant a lot. This is a time when you cling to those things that give you light and a sense of normalcy.”
For others, the couple recommends respecting the stay-at-home orders put in place by Gov. Ralph Northam. People don’t know how seriously the virus may affect them until they’re already in the throes of an infection, they said.
“I’m a healthy person. I’m on no medications. I have no pre-existing conditions, no comorbidities, and this has hit me hard,” Hess said.
“People need to think whether they want to take this home to their mom or their family, if they want to feel this way,” she said. “Do you want to be the one to give it to a 90-year-old person who doesn’t recover? It is that serious.”