Dr. Kerry Gateley

Dr. Kerry Gateley, health director for the West Piedmont Health District of VDH, talked about steps to take guard against COVID-19 and updated local officials on what is now being categorized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency on March 12 in response to the growing number of people who now have the virus in the state. The following day he ordered all public schools in the state to close for two weeks starting March 16.

Closing schools is one of several drastic measures that states are taking nationwide to stop the spread of COVID-19. While there have been no cases reported in the region so far, many local groups and businesses are already taking precautions.

Multiple events have been canceled recently with many more cancellations expected in the coming days. The fundraising event SML Celebrates RVGives scheduled for March 18 at the Franklin County Family YMCA at Smith Mountain Lake has been canceled. The day-long Roanoke Valley Gives online campaign that the event was supporting will still continue as scheduled. 

The Smith Mountain Lake Lions Club announced the upcoming Reverse Raffle set for March 21 is canceled. The club plans to contact ticket purchasers to reimburse costs. 

Gamefest, the annual fundraiser sponsored by the Smith Mountain Lake Women's Club, was canceled as well as the Jersey Girls of SML's annual yard sale. Both were scheduled to occur in April.

The Smith Mountain Lake Regional Chamber of Commerce announced it would be postponing all chamber events until April 13. Events include an upcoming ribbon cutting set for March 20, a business after hours set for March 19, an education seminar at The Franklin Center set for March 25 and a SML Connects networking event set for March 26. 

Chris Finley, director of the SML Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is closely monitoring the situation and activities planned for later in April will be evaluated in the coming days. He advised the public to stay informed with the latest developments on the virus and continue to follow the advice from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as well as relevant state and local authorities.

Runk & Pratt Senior Living Communities issued a statement on its Facebook page recently to inform the community of its policy on the COVID-19. They are asking visitors to refrain from entering their facilities, including its Smith Mountain Lake location, if they have been ill in the past 30 days or if they have traveled to any areas where they could have had contact with individuals with COVID-19. They are also asking visitors to practice good hand hygiene and wash their hands before entering. 

Andrea Fansler, facility director for the SML YMCA, said day to day functions will continue mostly as usual. She said the facility policy is for individuals to clean equipment after using it, but staff is being more diligent in making sure people adhere to the policy. 

People who are sick are also asked to not come to the gym. "Use common sense and wash your hands," Fansler said.

Bedford County Public Schools has issued a statement that they are in regular contact with the Virginia Department of Health. The school system is monitoring the situation and will make decisions accordingly.

As the community is looking for ways to best combat the virus and protect themselves and others, officials from the Virginia Department of Health hosted a briefing at the Franklin County Government Center on March 11 to provide a better understanding of COVID-19.

At press time, the commonwealth had 30 presumptive cases of COVID-19, but none in southwest Virginia. Dr. Sharon Ortiz-Garcia, an epidemiologist for VDH, explained that presumptive positive cases are treated as if they are confirmed cases, but have not necessarily received test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If we have a presumptive case, we are going to treat it as if it was final confirmation; we are not going to wait on the CDC,” Ortiz-Garcia said. “We are going to basically implement our response in terms of contact tracing and isolating the case and recommending quarantine to any close contacts as if it was a confirmed case.”

Dr. Kerry Gateley, health director for the West Piedmont Health District of VDH, which includes Franklin, Henry and Patrick counties, said the area will “probably” see the illness pop up soon in the area.

Gateley said that now is the time to plan for contingencies and to evaluate gatherings. For government bodies or businesses, he said to gauge by asking questions such as “Do we really need to have that meeting?” or “Is it necessary?”

He added the virus is rising and not slowing down currently.

Gateley said surgical masks are not as helpful as people think because masks need to be fit-tested, and the gaps in fit act as an air tunnel.

“If you are thinking you are going to try prevent the spread of disease by wearing masks alone, unfortunately a particle coughed (out) hits a surface, and we’re starting to see information from China, that it can survive for a while on that surface,” Gateley said.

When asked to define “a while” Gateley said three to four days.

He explained that hand washing is important because a person can touch a surface and then touch their face and infect themselves. The virus is most commonly spread from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, close personal contact (such as caring for or living with an infected person) or touching an object or surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth or eyes before washing your hands. Gateley also advised to not shake hands and practice social distance.

“I know that doesn’t sound powerful, but you can talk to any infection control practitioner in any hospital anywhere and ask them about the effectiveness of washing hands and how readily diseases can spread,” he said. “But actually it’s very important.”

Gateley noted there is a difference between quarantine and isolation. He explained that quarantine is for those who may have had exposure to stay away from others for a period of 14 days, whereas isolation is for infected individuals who are being kept from others, and alerting health care workers to take special precautions.

While Gateley said it is a good idea to restrict gatherings, he noted that the virus is spreading. He said word leaked out that Italy was considering quarantine and people scattered, rendering the quarantine ineffective. He called “dramatic efforts” to contain the virus “logistical nightmares.”

“These big bold measures are difficult to do, very difficult to maintain, logistical nightmares and depending upon the size of your population and a whole lot of other factors, ultimately are probably not going to be possible to impose,” Gateley said.

Gateley said it is up to individuals to take care of themselves, and in doing so taking care of their neighbors.

“If they think there is a reasonable exposure and need to self-quarantine (with the help of VDH), we’re happy to help,” Gateley said. “If everybody will think in that regard we have a pretty good chance of slowing this virus down.”