Health departments in Stafford and Spotsylvania counties remain closed in the wake of a COVID-19 outbreak that involves 23 workers of the Rappahannock Area Health District.

The district operates health departments in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford and is responsible for monitoring the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Fredericksburg area. On Monday, the district reported that one of its nurses who had worked in local clinics the previous week had tested positive.

The rate of infection has spread since then, and as of Friday, eight staff members had confirmed cases of COVID-19. Another 15 workers were quarantining because they had some level of exposure, according to the health district’s daily report. No patients had tested positive, as of Friday.

The health district has canceled all its in-person clinical services through Thursday, and deep cleaning was scheduled for Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Stafford health departments. Offices in King George and Caroline weren’t affected because their patients have been sent to other locations for clinics since the pandemic began, said Allison Balmes–John, district spokesperson.

Spotsylvania’s health department will reopen Tuesday, but Stafford’s will remain closed due to lack of staff. The Fredericksburg department re-opened Friday.

The local health district employs 93 nurses, epidemiologists, clinicians and office workers, and more than half the staff already had been diverted to COVID-19 activities, said Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the local health district. About 50 workers do contact tracing, which involves identifying and contacting people who have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus.

As the number of new cases in the district averages 25 to 30 per day, the casework involved “is a huge task,” Stern said. But even in the midst of that work, the staff had been trying to maintain its regular clinics, which offer maternity services, family planning, immunizations and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Then, those monitoring the outbreaks had to investigate their own.

“Now with all these staff members impacted, we’re having to further streamline our services to where we’re basically triaging patients over the phone,” Stern told the Fredericksburg City Council on Wednesday. “Our clinical services have been substantially impacted by this, and hopefully we will be able to return back to modestly streamlined clinical services in a couple weeks once these folks come out of quarantine.”

Vaccinations have been canceled temporarily, but health care workers must continue tracking cases of other communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, Stern said.

“We don’t want to exchange one outbreak for another,” he added.

Stern requested help from the Virginia Department of Health and hopes to get eight additional staff members who can help with investigating cases. Local staff who had been doing contact tracing were not exposed to co-workers with COVID-19 because most had been working, Balmes–John said. They do interviews and check in with patients by phone or email, she said.

The outbreak at the local health district has not been reported on the state website. It only shows the area’s first six outbreaks, which include three businesses (a grocery store, manufacturing plant and agricultural workplace), two long-term care facilities and one day care.

However, the state website shows 89 health care workers in the local health district have tested positive for COVID-19.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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