Following the Charlottesville area’s first COVID-19 diagnosis, two University of Virginia Medical Center doctors are emphasizing social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

On Monday morning, Virginia Department of Health officials and the University of Virginia confirmed that the patient, who is in her 50s, is an employee of the University of Virginia Women’s Center who lives off Grounds. She currently is receiving care and quarantine at her home, according to President Jim Ryan. 

“We wish her a speedy recovery,” he said in a letter to students, faculty and staff. 

The Virginia Department of Health said it is working to identify anyone in contact with the staff member and arrange for their isolation to stop potential coronavirus spread. Ryan’s letter stated that UVa staff is working to support potentially impacted students, faculty, and staff. The Women’s Center is being vacated and deep-cleaned under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

Dr. Tracey Hoke, the chief of quality and patient safety at UVa, says the university is following CDC and Virginia Department of Health guidelines and recommendations. She said she anticipates the guidelines to “change over the next few weeks and months.”

As noted by the Thomas Jefferson Health District  — a district within Virginia’s Department of Health, anyone who has concerns of showing symptoms should call their care providers to determine next steps and if a flu or COVID-19 test may be needed. 

“We have the ability to see a patient that is deemed appropriate for clinic visit and testing,” Hoke said. “Most positive tests are expected to come out of patients that are sheltering at home and ill, but not requiring hospitalization.

“… Everyone who we have felt was appropriate for testing according to CDC and Virginia Department of Health guidelines has had access to tests, whether that be through the [Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services] lab or the state lab or the private companies that perform labs, like LabCorps.”

Hoke added that social distancing, staying home as much as possible, and good handwashing are key to curbing virus spread.

Dr. Zack Henry, a hepatologist at University of Virginia Health, said that it could take a few weeks of social distancing and for some, quarantine, to reach a sense of normalcy again. 

“The idea of social distancing and ‘flattening the curve’ is really just trying to slow down the amount of people who get infected,” Henry said. 

Optimistically, he said that scientists and medical professionals believe the changing of the season could potentially be a positive thing to contribute to flattening the curve, or slowing the spread of the virus to avoid a spike in the number of people getting sick at once. He said that the virus has overlapping symptoms with colds, which tend to dissipate as spring turns into summer. 

“We can’t be certain yet, but it could have an effect on what the long term exposure risk could be and the need to be social distancing,” Henry said, adding that mid-April are his best estimates of when things could be less dire. 

On social distancing or self-quarantine, Henry said it could have an impact and help provide data for scientists and health care professionals. 

“If we do this now, we could have a better graph and projection to show it slowing down,” Henry said. “Honestly, it’s probably going to be a week-to-week assessment to know what the long term is going to look like. I think we know that the next two-to-four weeks, we expect to see it spread in the state. But beyond that, it’s very much going to depend on what we see.”

On worst-case-scenarios, Henry cited northern Italy’s epidemic and that country’s lockdown, stating that Virginia would need to see an “exponential uptick”  in positive-testing patients to warrant statewide lockdown. 

Henry said that the majority of people who may become infected with COVID-19 “will be able to stay home like they have the flu,” but it’s the more vulnerable populations that can be affected if more resilient residents don’t take adequate precautionary measures. 

“Let’s say we didn’t do social distancing and we all went out,” Henry said. “With mild symptoms they may not think much of it, but you may spread the virus and someone at increased risk is going to get very ill, very quickly. If that happens to a lot of people, we are going to have an overrun healthcare system.” 

“If you are thought to be well enough to stay home, you are encouraged to stay home,” Hoke said. “The goal is to keep patients at home unless it is thought they might need hospitalization.”

As a  medical professional, Henry said not to panic but “be smart” about COVID-19 and limit time in public spaces like “we need to go to the store to get something but otherwise limit time and be cognizant. And if we are sick, stay at home.”

While some people have taken to wearing face masks, Henry is among medical professionals advising the public against them unless they are experiencing symptoms or are first responders and medical professionals. 

“Uninfected people should not wear face masks. The reason infected people should wear them is that when they go out if they do cough or sneeze, they can help prevent transmitting it to anyone else,” Henry explained. “ For the rest of us uninfected, we simply need to keep washing hands, avoid touching our face and keep that 6-foot social distance from others. I think the other important part of this is that those masks are very much needed for first responders and physicians working in emergency rooms so they can serve the people around them without putting themselves or the people around them at risk.”

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Charlotte Rene Woods

I was Charlottesville Tomorrow’s government reporter from 2019 to 2022. Thanks for letting me be your resident nerd on how local and state governments serve us. Keep up with me @charlottewords on Twitter. If you haven’t yet, consider subscribing to Charlottesville Tomorrow’s FREE newsletter to get updates from the newsroom on the things you want to know.

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