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Senator Mark Warner speaks during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast at the Fredericksburg Hospitality House on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020.

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner heard a “sobering” take on the COVID-19 impact on Fredericksburg-area health care, education and businesses on Friday.

The Virginia Democrat took part in a conference call with area leaders to talk about how the federal government can help the region make it through the pandemic.

Warner told the group he is concerned about potential “enormous failures of minority-owned businesses” later this year. He also said he was looking for local perspectives on how to move forward.

The conference call included University of Mary Washington President Troy Paino, Mary Washington Healthcare President and CEO Mike McDermott and Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Susan Spears.

Paino said the university’s business model was “disrupted to the core” by the pandemic, telling the senator the losses so far amount to more than $6 million. He said there will be more costs in preparing for next school year.

The federal CARES Act funds helped to defray some costs, he added, but Paino hopes there will be more money coming.

One program the university will benefit from is a $3 billion package from the state, with details expected next week.

McDermott said the hospital also has experienced financial hits from the pandemic. Contrary to the belief by some that the hospital has flourished financially with the influx of patients with the virus, the MWH president said the pandemic has proven to “be a very challenging time.”

He said that after infected patients flooded hospitals in New York and Italy, Mary Washington Hospital put a hold on such things as elective surgeries to prepare for a possible wave of sick patients.

The wave peaked in mid-April, with about 30 patients in the hospital on a daily basis. Since then, the count has hovered around 20 patients with the virus, with McDermott calling the situation “very stable.”

Early during the pandemic, he said finding enough tests and protective gear were major hurdles, forcing staff to do “uncomfortable” things, such as reusing masks. McDermott said the supply chain broke down, leaving the hospital short on needed supplies, and things still haven’t returned to normal.

“Trust has been broken with the supply chain,” he said.

McDermott said the hospital lost $14 million in April and expects to see more losses from the subsequent months. He called the loss in revenue and increased expenses “a bad equation.”

Federal authorities are considering other packages to help businesses and governments handle the financial impacts of the pandemic, and Warner wants to learn what leaders in various regions are experiencing and planning.

Spears said Fredericksburg-area businesses are trying to get going again, but some, especially small businesses, “are overwhelmed with some of the expenses” from the state’s requirements to reopen.

She also noted that chambers of commerce across the state are “perplexed” with how to deal with guidelines because the virus impact is all over the map. Some regions, like in the southwest area of the state, have seen little impact compared with others.

Spears also noted that the Black Lives Matter protests are another issue for some area businesses already struggling. Spears said business leaders are looking for the next step forward.

Those in higher education and health care are doing the same thing. Paino said the university is “working hard to prepare for the fall.”

A plan has been developed and there is “optimism,” he said, but he added that there “is a lot of anxiety” with students and parents about returning to classes on campus. He said 30 percent of classes will be moved online and that class sizes are expected to be limited to 30 to 50 percent of normal capacity.

The university is planning for an 8 percent reduction in revenue, but Paino suggested it could be as much as a 25 percent drop.

UMW has instituted furloughs but not layoffs. Paino said he is concerned that layoffs, “in the hundreds,” will be unavoidable if revenue drops too much.

Warner called those details “a sobering presentation” and said he was surprised higher education didn’t get more financial help.

The senator talked about how potential planning for colleges could be handled regionally or through the lead of the “big three” state educational institutions: University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University.

McDermott noted a “hidden impact” caused by “a lot of uncertainty” about the virus: patients are avoiding treatment for other ailments out of fear of the virus.

He said the hospital is safe and he hopes people understand that.

Warner said it sounded like there could be a “need for a public service campaign that hospitals are safe.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

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