Alexandrians brace for coronavirus outbreak

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Alexandrians brace for coronavirus outbreak
An illustration of the COVID-19 virus. (Image/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
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By Luke Anderson | [email protected]

As the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to spread globally, Alexandria residents and businesses are bracing for an outbreak. Some are already feeling the impact.

The first case of the virus in Virginia was confirmed on March 7. As of Thursday, there were 34 coronavirus cases confirmed in D.C., Maryland and Virginia, according to the Washington Post.

One Alexandria resident tested “presumptive positive” for COVID-19 on Wednesday, meaning the resident tested positive on a test conducted by the state Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services in Richmond, but the result is still pending confirmation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a news release. The resident is self-quarantined at home and doing well, according to the release.

The Alexandria resident allegedly contracted the disease from a resident of Washington D.C. associated with Christ Church of Georgetown who has a confirmed case of COVID-19, according to the release. The Alexandria Health Department announced on Tuesday evening that the D.C. resident spent time at the Immanuel Chapel of the Virginia Theological Seminary. AHD urges anyone who visited the chapel between Feb. 26 and March 4 to monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days.

Alexandria resident and congressman Don Beyer announced on Tuesday that he intended to self-quarantine after coming in contact with someone with the virus.

“This afternoon my wife Megan and I were contacted by the Virginia Department of Health to share details with us about the illness of a friend who tested positive for COVID-19 after dining with us,” Beyer said in a statement. “They informed us that the timeline of his infection began shortly after our contact on February 28.”

The Centers for Disease Control is recommending that people frequently wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. They encourage coughing and sneezing etiquette — into a tissue that’s then thrown away or into your sleeve — and self-isolation if feeling ill.

City Manager Mark Jinks says that the City of Alexandria has a planning committee that has been meeting regularly over the last six weeks to prepare for potential issues in the future and to update their continuity plans.

“Usually, most emergencies we deal with, you close the government,” Jinks said. “In this case, it’s my strong opinion the government needs to stay open and available.

“How do we operate if we have 50 percent less staff available to us?” Jink added. “What are our essential services that we want to continue to provide and what are those services that we can curtail? … That is what we are in the process of sorting through.”

To mitigate the spread of the virus among employees, the city is promoting telecommuting and conference calls to reduce face-to-face interactions. They are moving chairs further apart and using bigger rooms to increase social distance. All overnight travel for staff on city business has been canceled unless absolutely necessary.

“There will be a time potentially where we say there’s too much disease in the community and it’s spreading within the community that we would have to close rec centers or cancel special events,” Jinks said. “We’re not there yet, but we’ll just have to see how the disease progresses, how fast it works its way through the populations. This is going to be a day-by-day reassessment.”

Police officers and firefighters will still respond to calls, but they are being brought up to speed on protocols and how to handle various circumstances, Jinks said.

The Alexandria Health Department is encouraging the community to stay updated and informed about new developments on the coronavirus. The City of Alexandria, the Alexandria Health Department, Inova Health System and Alexandria City Public Schools plan to host an online virtual information session about COVID-19 on March 12 from 8 to 9 p.m.

Old Town resident Gina Brandon-Stokely said she will likely participate in the session, citing her children as her main concern. Her youngest daughter attends a childcare center while her son attends Matthew Maury Elementary School and Charles Houston Recreation Center.

“[The school] sends emails often to update us and assure us that [the coronavirus] would be prevented as much as it could be,” Brandon-Stokely said.

ACPS has doubled efforts to keep public spaces clean and are taking other measures recommended by the CDC to prevent the spread of coronavirus, according to a news release. However, the virus doesn’t appear to be affecting many children.

“What we’re seeing both globally and in the United States’ experience thus far is that it’s really not affecting the pediatric population,” Stephen Haering, director of the Alexandria Health Department, said.

At the other end of the spectrum, seniors and those with co-morbid conditions or other healthcare conditions, especially heart and lung diseases, are being negatively impacted more than the general population, Haering said.

Pinnacle Living manages several nursing homes and retirement communities throughout Virginia, including Hermitage Nothern Virginia in Alexandria. The organization’s leadership is taking extra precautions to prevent the infection and spread of the disease in its facilities.

“Ensuring the health, safety and comfort of all of our residents and team members is always our top priority at Hermitage Northern Virginia and all Pinnacle Living communities,” Pinnacle Living CEO Chris Henderson said in a statement. “Our team does a great job dealing with common communicable diseases and has been very successful mitigating exposure during previous influenza and pneumonia seasons.”

“In Alexandria specifically, we are screening visitors as they come in the door. We’re checking temperatures, [and] doing questionnaire work,” Henderson told NPR.

Many businesses and institutions around the city are sending notices to their patrons letting them know that they are taking the situation seriously.

In an email to Little Theatre of Alexandria patrons earlier this week, LTA President Russell Wyland said the theater will have hand sanitizer and wipes available during performances. He also encouraged anyone feeling ill to stay home and promised to reschedule tickets for patrons who cannot make a performance due to sickness.

“As you can imagine, the coronavirus outbreak is a major concern for all area theaters that rely on bringing together audiences, students, and volunteers,” Wyland wrote.

Should coronavirus persist over several months, LTA may suffer, but the virus has not affected ticket sales so far, according to LTA’s Rachel Alberts. Over the last two weekends, performances have been sold out, she said.

Other businesses have not been so lucky.

Owners of Yunnan by Potomac Noodle House have seen a dramatic decrease in their dine-in customers in the past few weeks. They also wrote an open letter to their customers, which is posted on their website and outside the restaurant on North Fairfax Street, stating that they are doing everything possible to keep the restaurant healthy and safe.

Co-owner Zongmin Li said St. Patrick’s Day festivities in Old Town helped boost business on Saturday, but almost half of the tables in the restaurant were empty on Sunday night, which is highly unusual on a weekend.

“I think Chinese restaurants are hit most …” Li said. “People are scared, particularly this week. It seems to spread very fast in the [United States].”

Because the novel coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, Li fears that customers are straying away from restaurants associated with China.

“We have checked with our staff and they and their immediate family members have not travelled internationally for at least six months, and none have travelled to [the] West Coast in recent months,” the letter reads.

On Friday, Mayor Justin Wilson had dinner at Yunnan by Potomac with his family to show support. Wilson posted photos on Twitter of the restaurant and his food in an effort to encourage residents to support local restaurants and businesses during this time.

“Not only are Chinese restaurants feeling an unfair brunt of this, but in general people are kind of more worried about going out to eat in crowded places,” Wilson said. “So I think we are seeing a lot of our small businesses who are very concerned that this is going to have an impact.”

Del Ray resident Chuck Krocker said he appreciated the mayor leading by example in supporting local businesses.

“The mayor has reached out and he’s very communicative to the residents here,” Krocker said. “He’s constantly on Facebook and tweeting from restaurants and things he goes to. He’s done a good job on making people feel comfortable.”

Krocker said that he is washing his hands a lot more and has stopped shaking hands, but he still goes out to eat and to the gym. Over the weekend, he worked out at the Old Town Sport & Health club and was pleasantly surprised to see that there was still a typical number of people there, he said.

“I’m not going to let it dictate my life,” Krocker said. “… My wife and I, we’re in the 60-something category, so we’re at a little bit higher risk, but we’re both very healthy, so not overly concerned other than, you know, it’s out there and you have to take precautions.”

“I anticipate that this is not a sprint, that this is a marathon,” Haering said. “… What we’re trying to do as a health department and a city is mitigate the impact that it has on the community and really emphasize to people that we do have control over these simple hygienic measures, these preventive measures we can all take.”

For more information on the virtual information session on March 12, visit www.alexandriava.gov/Health.

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