A nurse with the Rappahannock Area Health District, which oversees health departments in Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, has tested positive for COVID-19.

Another 13 staff members of the local health district have been tested and are quarantined at home while awaiting results, said Allison Balmes–John, spokesperson for the RAHD. In addition, the district is working to identify “every patient the individual has been in contact with, and the same goes for other staff members,” she said. “If they test positive, anyone contacted will receive a phone call.”

Any patients with concerns can contact the health district’s call center at 540/899-4797 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.

Because so many staff members will be quarantined for two weeks, the health district is canceling in-person clinics through May 28. Deep cleaning is being done at health departments in Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Stafford. Since the pandemic began, clients in Caroline and King George had been coming to the city for appointments, Balmes–John said.

Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the local health district, said over the weekend that he wasn’t surprised by the way the novel coronavirus had continued to spread. He was talking about the number of outbreaks in the area which total six to date.

“Since COVID-19 is widespread in our community, it’s remarkable we don’t have evidence of more outbreaks,” he said.

In response to one of his own staff members contracting the virus, he said the health district’s mission is to protect and promote health and well-being, “and this includes the health of our staff and patients. Due to the novel nature of the virus, few people have developed immunity, and therefore we have seen that it can spread very easily.”

When the nurse who tested positive worked in a clinic last week, she wore an N95 respirator with a cloth mask over it, Balmes–John said. She did not identify which clinic or what type of services the nurse provided.

The health district already was facing staffing issues as a result of the pandemic. When local cases started to emerge in March, four nurses and one epidemiologist worked on contact tracing—identifying who’d been close enough to the infected individual for long enough to risk possible exposure. That team has grown to 30 people and includes 17 employees and 13 volunteers with the Medical Reserve Corps.

Stern told local officials in early May that staffers were scrambling to keep up with an increasing caseload. He had hoped the state would provide some help, but instead it announced a hiring freeze.

“Here we are trying to provide at least some core services during COVID-19, then we got a hiring freeze because of state revenue shortfall. How are we supposed to handle this?” he said to the King George Board of Supervisors on May 5. “We’re pulling in as many of our staff as we can.”

But that staff will be out of commission, at least for in-person services, for most of the next two weeks, and that’s why clinic doors will be closed, Balmes–John said.

A spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Health said she wasn’t aware of similar actions being taken in any of the state’s other 34 health districts. Tammie Smith also said she couldn’t say if other health-department workers in the state had contracted COVID-19 because the VDH doesn’t release such data in its effort to protect patient privacy.

Local workers quarantined at home may be able to help with telemedicine visits for maternity patients, family planning and sexually transmitted infections, Balmes–John said. If necessary, patients will be referred to doctors within the community or neighboring health districts.

WIC services will be available over the phone. Environmental health services and requests for vital records will continue, according to a press release.

Balmes–John also stressed that health district staff members are considered essential workers, and those who could work from home have been doing so. In the office, employees maintain social distancing and wear cloth masks during meetings. At clinics, they wear the proper personal protective gear and screen visitors at the door, but patients “might not disclose” all their symptoms or confuse a runny nose or sore threat with allergies, she said.

“This is one of those things where the virus is continuing to circulate,” Balmes–John said, and “in clinic settings, you do have those close contacts.”

In the RAHD, 76 health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state health department website.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

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