As of this week, all 50 states have reopened to various degrees; last Friday Virginia joined those ranks, leaving many Virginians and area locals pondering whether it was a wise step or if it was too soon. Some University of Virginia physicians say the latter. “In my opinion, it was premature,” said Dr. Taison Bell, who is director of UVA’s medical intensive care unit and is spearheading COVID-19 care at the Medical Center. “Many of the metrics the governor laid out as a requirement for reopening were trending in the right direction, but we had not met some of the previously stated goals ― particularly in regard to testing capability and the rate of positive tests.” During Northam’s Wednesday press briefing, he was asked about specific percentages in cases that would support moving towards Phase II or regressing from Phase I. Northam cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines announced to governors across the country, which include the number of new cases, the personal protective equipment (PPE) supply and testing capabilities. “Do we have that surge capacity that we need? Do we have the equipment and ventilators that we need? Do we have staffing?” Northam replied. “All of these things are important. I think sometimes people look at the data one day to the next. We are looking at trends over a week or two.” Northam said that if the trends are positive over a two week time frame, it can signal moving forward into next phases. “We haven’t looked at a specific number,” Northam said. “It’s a combination of all the trends in all these metrics that we are taking into account.” With Phase I of its soft reopening last week, previously closed businesses or those operating in different capacities were granted permission to reopen under limited capacity with safety guidelines and mandates. In the days since, businesses and legislators alike expressed mixed feelings on how ready the state and the Charlottesville-area community is to retain a bit of the old normal. As some businesses have reopened at this time, Bell reiterated best safe practices. “I would say to continue to behave as if the coronavirus is still a major problem, because it is,” Bell explained. Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb, assistant professor of emergency medicine at UVA Health, noted that while it is difficult to control the actions of others, controlling the actions of oneself by staying home when possible and taking precautions while out are significant in reducing coronavirus spread.
“During this pandemic, I find myself continuously calculating the risk versus the benefit of engaging in activities outside my home,” Webb said. “Each time you leave your home, you are at risk.” Bell and Webb say to maintain strict social distancing in public and the workplace, practice good hygiene, wear a mask in public and avoid crowds. “This is really an instance where your actions can help determine whether you, a loved one or a stranger stays healthy,” Bell said. With some businesses reopening, the governor stressed that it is not back to business as usual. “We cannot race back to the lives we led before the pandemic,” Northam previously wrote in Executive Order 61, which allowed the Phase I of reopening. “The path forward will not be business as usual.” While the governor’s phases of reopening stand to help alleviate some of the damage to the economy the virus has caused, there are a number of people who are concerned about its damage to some Black and brown communities. Ahead of May 15, Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus expressed opposition to the launching of Phase I, calling it premature. The group noted that racial disparities have been exacerbated or highlighted by the pandemic, with some Black and brown Virginians working essential and service jobs, as well as seeing disproportionate infection rates. The caucus, composed of 23 Democratic legislators in the General Assembly, penned an open letter to Northam calling for “an equity-focused plan that clearly addresses disparities for Black Virginians, Virginians of color and other underserved and vulnerable communities.” As of Thursday afternoon, the Thomas Jefferson Health District — serving Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson county — recorded 394 COVID-19 cases, 68 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. There were 142 cases in Albemarle, with 19 patients hospitalized and four deaths. There were 72 cases in Charlottesville, with 15 patients hospitalized and two deaths. Black people made up 27.2% of COVID-19 cases in the health district and 63 % hospitalized cases. White people made up 56.3% of COVID-19 cases and 39.7% hospitalized. The fatality rate for Black people was 30.8 % and 61.5% for white people. Bell listed contributing factors to what the national and local numbers show concerning the virus’ impact on African Americans, such as structural racism and inequities, that Black communities sometimes live in more densely populated areas and in multigenerational housing. Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, who is co-chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said there is a “fear that on the workers’ side, they will have to choose between their jobs and their family’s health and well-being.” Bell noted that “Black residents are less likely than their white counterparts to be able to stay at home for work.”