Between Saturday and Sunday, the Fredericksburg area experienced its highest increase in COVID-19 cases in a 24-hour period, to date, and a local health official is joining national leaders in encouraging everyone to wear a mask when they have to be out in public.

While homemade masks, bandannas or scarves won’t prevent germs from entering the wearer’s respiratory tract, they do reduce the chances of people who are contagious—who may not even have symptoms—from spreading the virus to others, said Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the Rappahannock Area Health District.

“Lessening transmission also lessens the germs present in the environment and thus lessens your exposure,” Stern said. “We do not have a vaccine or medications, but what we do have is each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control advocates the public use handmade masks—and save the professional grade ones for front-line workers—as deaths nationwide from the novel coronavirus approach the 10,000 mark. President Donald Trump has suggested the same practice, although he said he probably wouldn’t do so himself.

Stern is putting his money—or in this case, his mask—where his mouth is. He’s wearing a mask in the grocery store, when he has physical therapy as he mends from rotator-cuff surgery three weeks ago and any other time he’s around people in the office.

As of Sunday morning, there were 79 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the local health district with 38 in Stafford County; 23 in Spotsylvania County; eight in both Fredericksburg and King George County; and two in Caroline County.

There was an increase of 11 cases between Saturday and Sunday, the biggest uptick since the first confirmed case was reported locally on March 9.

Of the 79 local patients, 49 have never been hospitalized, according to the health district. Twelve people are still being treated in local hospitals, and another 29 patients have recovered enough to go home. There’s been one confirmed COVID-19 death in the Fredericksburg area, a 63-year-old Spotyslvania man who died March 29.

At least three married couples have tested positive, and some of the people with confirmed cases of the illness had reported travel to hot spots in the United States and beyond.

“But for many cases, the source of exposure to the virus is not known,” said Allison Balmes John, spokesperson for the local health district. “This indicates community transmission of the virus and stresses the importance that community members are following public health guidance of staying home, social distancing and practicing good hygiene.”

Stern said the Fredericksburg area can expect to see double-digit increases overnight until the region reaches its peak in cases, probably around mid-May.

Those who have to go out are encouraged to wear whatever kind of face covering they can find. Just about any alternative will serve as a barrier, Stern said, to keep the aerosolized droplets from sneezes and coughs from reaching others.

On Sunday, Fredericksburg resident Jack Bales went out looking to buy a mask, but to no avail. In recent days, he’s noticed more people wearing masks while out shopping, but it’s still “definitely less than half of all the people I saw,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the percentage of mask-wearers increases in the days to come,” Bales said.

Kathryn Belcher, a real estate broker in Fredericksburg, only leaves her house once a week to get fruit and vegetables, and she definitely planned to wear appropriate face gear during her Monday outing.

Her sister-in-law is a quilter in Ohio and sent Belcher and her husband homemade masks, which they will wash after every wear.

“I will start wearing a mask because I have been asked to do so by the health authorities,” Belcher said. “There are so many great designs available on Facebook for quickly making masks out of all sorts of things.”

Carol Weaver of Stafford said she and her husband have a handful of respirator masks purchased nearly a decade ago. He uses them during household projects to limit lung exposure to airborne particles while painting or spraying for mold in the crawl space.

Even though the homemade masks may not be as effective for the wearer as the high-end masks needed by health care workers and first responders, Weaver hopes people will heed the message of their importance.

“To that end, I hope everyone wears the masks for this critical period,” she said.

Those who are at increased risk themselves or already have lost loved ones to contagious viruses understand the vital need for protective measures.

Janie Darcangelo and her husband, who live in a senior apartment complex in Fredericksburg, both have health conditions and are “taking all the precautions that the CDC recommends.”

“We try not to come near anyone and take the steps instead of the elevator, or when in the hallways, or taking a walk,” she said. “We do not go into a room where people are gathered, even if they are sitting 6 feet apart.”

Anne McCord’s daughter, Hope McFarland, died from a lung disease as a result of the seasonal flu in 2018. When McCord and her twin sister go out, they wear gloves and masks made from bandannas and elastic hair bands.

“I am not sure how safe we are but you have to try,” the Spotsylvania woman said. “After my daughter’s illness, I never believed things could go from bad to the absolute worst, but it has.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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