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National Guardsmen get praise for 'quick flash to bang' testing for virus

Virginia National Guard soldiers and airmen assist with a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site run by the Virginia Department of Health Eastern Shore Health District at the Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa, Va., on May 8, 2020.

COTTON PURYEAR/NATIONAL GUARD

By CATHY DYSON | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: May 9, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — Teams of National Guard soldiers rolled into King George County on Friday to test 94 residents and 126 workers at the Heritage Hall nursing home for COVID-19.

Four people had tested positive there earlier this week in the first outbreak of the novel coronavirus at a long-term care facility in the Rappahannock Area Health District. Two residents were hospitalized, and two workers sent home to self-quarantine.

On Friday, guardsmen in fatigues entered the facility, next to King George High School, and set up stations to test the rest of the staff and residents.

"It was quite orderly, and they provided a show of force," said Neiman Young, King George's county administrator, who visited the site to see the operation. "I was very impressed with the manpower they sent down to assist us."

Young, who spent 23 years in the Army, also said he was pleased with how quickly the local health district was able to bring in the guardsmen, whose testing services are in demand across the state.

"It was a quick flash to bang," he said, referencing the time between a grenade's flash and the explosion that follows.

Dr. Donald Stern, acting director of the local health district, told the King George Board of Supervisors on Tuesday he hoped the National Guard teams would be at Heritage Hall by week's end. Three days later, they were– and they completed the exercise with "military precision," Stern said.

King George officials also learned on Tuesday of the dire shortage of supplies and staffing at Heritage Hall, which has been a part of the community for 20 years. Heritage Hall Administrator Joseph Baidoo told At-Large Supervisor Annie Cupka the facility had an "urgent need" for goggles, N95 respiratory masks, gowns and hand sanitizer. He said residents could leave donations at a table on the sidewalk outside the facility.

Cupka also shared with fellow board members that Heritage Hall has the same urgent need for additional staff members and is seeking help.

On Friday, Cupka said she'd heard from residents who had offered gestures, large and small, to help the facility which provides long-term care as well as rehabilitation after surgery or joint replacements. People said they were willing to drive a truck or fly a plane to gather much-needed personal protective equipment from across the state, and they offered to make masks or drop off food and treats for the staff.

"I've said it time and time again," Cupka said. "King George is a community that cares."

Heritage Hall also thanked the community for its support and the 15 National Guardsmen, from the Army and Air Force, who came to the facility to provide testing.

"Armed with better information, we can make better decisions, and if needed, provide earlier interventions which almost always lead to better outcomes," said Jennifer Eddy, spokesperson for Heritage Hall.

Heritage Hall will be given the test results, said local health district spokesperson Allison Balmes –  John. She said it was helpful to complete the exercise in case the district needs to do another one.

To date, there have been two outbreaks at long-term care facilities in the local health district and one at an Aldi store in Spotsylvania County. The outbreaks have involved 17 people: seven at Aldi, six at a small residential facility that didn't want to be named and four at Heritage Hall.

Throughout the local health district, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, 54 health care workers have tested positive for the virus, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Even though COVID-19 cases have been reported since early March, all three outbreaks have come in the last 10 days. Likewise, hospitalizations, which peaked in mid-April when there were between 27 and 35 people being treated at all three local hospitals, had fallen off to the mid-teens but have been rising again.

At least 21 people have been in the hospital with complications from COVID-19 every day since May 1, according to the health district's daily reports. On Friday, the patient count reached 30.

In his presentation to the King George board, Stern wondered if the increase was because "traffic is picking up, and people are out more and more." He said that may have provided "an increased opportunity for the virus to transmit person to person, and we may be seeing a rise in hospitalizations just because of that."

Still, less than 16 percent of those with confirmed cases of the virus have gotten sick enough to need hospital care, according to local district numbers. Of the 707 people with COVID-19 as of Friday, 111 had been hospitalized. Eleven have died.

Also as of Friday, there were 344 cases in Stafford; 233 in Spotsylvania; 55 in Fredericksburg; 38 in King George; and 37 in Caroline. Virginia cases reached 22,342, and 812 people had died.

Elsewhere in the region, there were 239 cases in Culpeper County; 153 in Fauquier County; 43 in Orange County; and 35 in Westmoreland.

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(c)2020 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.)
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