Our View: Sobering and hopeful news

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Hermitage Northern Virginia is located at 5000 Fairbanks Ave. (Photo/Hermitage Northern Virginia)
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Sometimes a piece of information can be simultaneously devastating and encouraging.

This week, it was shocking to learn that 15 of Alexandria’s 26 deaths to date from COVID-19 were of people in senior living facilities, and 17 of the 26 were of people age 70 and older.

It is difficult to contemplate the despair these senior residents must have felt as they struggled to overcome COVID-19 before succumbing, while isolated from family and friends. It’s difficult to comprehend the sadness currently felt by these families and by their care providers at Alexandria’s senior living facilities and at Inova Alexandria Hospital.

And yet, when these numbers are turned around, there is also encouraging news – though it feels callous to acknowledge it. The flip side is there have “only” been nine COVID-19 deaths of people age 69 and younger in Alexandria, and “only” one death of someone 49 or younger. We put the word “only” in quotation marks, because that’s still nine additional Alexandrians who have passed before their time due to the coronavirus.

But these numbers, and the hospitalization rate per confirmed case by age group in Alexandria, as shown in the Times chart on page 4, reveal that younger people are vastly less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19.

This is encouraging in light of Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D-VA) decision to begin phase one of reopening Virginia’s economy on May 15. Restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care and grooming and entertainment establishments will be allowed to reopen, provided they adhere to strict social distancing and sanitation guidelines.

The demographic data would suggest that younger residents, provided they practice physical distancing and wear masks, should be relatively safe.

But even younger people should remember they are not immune to the novel coronavirus: An Alexandria resident in their 20s has died of COVID-19 – one of only two deaths statewide in that age group – while a second child under the age of 10 was hospitalized this past week due to COVID-19.

Conversely, the data indicates residents age 50 and older should proceed with great caution. The hospitalization rate per diagnosed COVID-19 case rises quickly once a person reaches the 50-59 age group. And Alexandria’s seven deaths to date of 50-somethings, while apparently a statistical anomaly, accounts for 17 percent of the statewide deaths in this age bracket.

We think older Alexandrians, for the most part, would be wise to continue sheltering in place until more widespread testing is available. There have been two positive pieces of testing related news in the last week. At the April 28 city council legislative meeting, Alexandria Health Director Dr. Stephen Haering called for community blood testing, while Mayor Justin Wilson advocated for widespread testing of asymptomatic residents.

We agree with both Haering and Wilson – and have previously backed both measures on these pages. Community blood testing would reveal who has previously had and recovered from COVID-19. This would give us a better sense of the true community infection rate, would provide a pool of plasma donors to potentially treat currently ill patients and would give a sense of how many residents could potentially have immunity to COVID-19.

Widespread testing of residents for COVID-19 would enable us to identify and quarantine positive but asymptomatic residents – thus better controlling the spread of the disease – and would also help us calculate the city’s overall infection rate.

The second piece of good news was the Virginia Health Department’s announcement that it is partnering with the Virginia National Guard to conduct point in time testing at long-term care facilities in Alexandria. This will hopefully help control the spread of coronavirus within those facilities, and also give a better sense of the parameters of infections there.

Along with the sorrow of losing 26 city residents to date to COVID-19, there are increasing rays of hope. But it’s imperative that people proceed cautiously, out of concern for others as much as for themselves.

It bears repeating that mask wearing is an act of love, done primarily to protect others from community spread of COVID-19. If we all wear masks and social distance while interacting with other people, we could potentially save the life of an older resident.

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