Stafford County has more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 cases in the Fredericksburg area, and its proximity to Northern Virginia may be the reason.

As of Monday, there were 33 confirmed cases in the Rappahannock Area Health District—and 23 of them were for Stafford residents. No other locality in the health district comes close to that. Spotsylvania County has six, and there are two each in Fredericksburg and King George County.

In terms of medical reasons, there’s “no common thread” to say why Stafford cases have increased, said Lisa Henry, marketing director at Mary Washington Healthcare. After checking with the health system’s chief medical officer, she said trying to identify a cause “would be purely conjecture.”

The culprit may be more a matter of location.

“I think Stafford’s higher rate of cases is the function of proximity to Northern Virginia,” said Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the local health district. “There’s a substantial amount of disease in Northern Virginia, and lots of people in Stafford County move back and forth, working in the capital area.”

As for where in the county there are clusters of cases, Stern would say only that, “Stafford County is hot, if you want to use that term. We have community spread in Stafford County, which means it’s all over the county.”

Stafford also is on the fringes of a densely populated region that’s become a hot spot for COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

The Virginia Department of Health colors its map in shades of blue to determine the highest numbers of cases. Northern Virginia, along with James City County, where the state’s first virus case was reported, and Virginia Beach, which also is densely populated, are the deepest blue.

There were 458 cases in four Northern Virginia localities as of Monday. They include Fairfax with 224; Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park with 87, Arlington County with 86, and Loudoun County with 61.

Beyond the Virginia border is Washington, which had 405 confirmed cases on Monday.

Before Stafford residents started working from home—like many in the region and state—they used express lanes on Interstate 95, vans, buses and the Virginia Railway Express to commute to jobs up north.

Even though Stafford and Spotsylvania have similar populations—151,689 people in Stafford compared with 135,715 in Spotsylvania—a larger number head north for jobs from Stafford. Both counties have about 37,700 commuters, according to a 2018 study by Weldon Cooper.

But while a third of Spotsylvania’s commuters work in Prince William, Alexandria, Arlington and D.C., with most of the rest driving to neighboring localities or the Richmond area; 58 percent of Stafford’s residents head north to their jobs.

Of the 23 Stafford cases, there are three cases—for a total of six people—involving those who know each other. There are two married couples and one father and adult child, Stern said. Otherwise, there are no connections that Stern knows of.

Asked if there’s any message for Stafford residents, the acting health director said it’s the same one public health officials have shared from the start. He said people must practice social distancing and stay away from the elderly and those with chronic underlying conditions of the heart, lung, liver and kidneys, as well as those whose immune systems are compromised because of cancer treatments or other drugs.

Stern reminded residents that COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets, transmitted during a sneeze or cough, or from contact with surfaces that harbor the disease.

“I suggest people take a deep breath and understand how this disease is transmitted,” Stern said. “It’s not a monster that’s gonna crawl through the night and somehow get them.”

But it is important for residents to do their part to slow the spread of the disease, said Carol Weaver of Stafford. She was upset that some local businesses and people have not practiced social distancing because they’re bored.

“We all want to enjoy the nice spring weather and we all want to get out of our houses, but everyone needs to be doing their part to reduce the spread of this virus,” she said, hoping that Gov. Ralph Northam’s mandatory stay-at-home order will be enforced. “Hopefully, it is a wake-up call for the many people ignoring it.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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