Northampton Supervisors Lay a Course for COVID-19 Response

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By Stefanie Jackson – A Northampton board of supervisors special-called meeting held April 2 – the evening before the release of information on the county’s second known COVID-19 infection – became a weekly event that has overseen and guided the county’s response to the novel coronavirus.

As of the last weekly meeting April 30, one person in Northampton County had died after contracting the coronavirus, but the number of COVID-19 cases had climbed to 140, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“This situation is not over. It’s very important for everyone to keep following the guidelines … minimize travel, minimize your interaction with other folks, and we can keep this effort up and we can beat this thing,” Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski said April 30.

The special-called meetings have been conducted by phone. Members of the public have been allowed to listen to the live meetings by calling a phone number provided by the county administrator’s office. A recording of each meeting is posted online within 24 hours.

County Administration

When Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order 53 took effect March 24, placing temporary restrictions on nonessential retail stores, restaurants, entertainment, and recreation, it slowed or stopped revenue streams across the commonwealth.

In response, Northampton has reduced its spending. Nonessential hiring or purchasing is prohibited without the express approval of the county’s administrator or its finance director, John Chandler.

Kolakowski drafted a letter asking owners of short-term rental properties to temporarily close their businesses, and he shared it with supervisors April 2.

Supervisor John Coker was dissatisfied that the letter gave a suggestion rather than an order. He wanted the document to have more “teeth.” He suggested rental property owners who refuse to comply should lose their business licenses.

Supervisor Betsy Mapp pointed out that some short-term rental properties provide housing for people doing “necessary work,” such as installing fiber-optic cable used to provide broadband internet service.

Supervisors passed a motion that allowed county staff to redraft the letter and make exceptions for short-term rental properties that house workers.

Kolakowski also drafted a letter to the governor, requesting permission over the next six months for Northampton officials to hold meetings electronically for conducting regular county business, such as granting building permits, to prevent the delay of economic growth and development.

Supervisors approved that letter April 2.

During the April 9 meeting, Kolakowski noted Northampton’s first reported coronavirus-related death had occurred on the previous day.

He said county offices were closed to the public, but essential work was continuing.

On April 16, Kolakowski proposed a sick-leave bank for Northampton’s first responders who were exempt from the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which expanded benefits of the Emergency Family and Medical Leave Act.

Employees exempt from the Family First act include EMS and 911 personnel, sheriff’s office and jail employees, and some administrative positions, Kolakowski said.

Northampton had created a sick-leave bank for county employees previously, but it hasn’t been active in years, he added.

The sick-leave bank could be expanded in the future to include all employees, Kolakowski said.

Supervisors voted unanimously in support of his proposal.

Law Enforcement

On April 2, Sheriff David Doughty reported that jail visitations had been suspended, but inmates were allowed one free phone call and two free stamps and envelopes per week.

He said three individuals had been charged with violating the governor’s executive order prohibiting public gatherings of more than 10 people. The charges were brought after the individuals were warned but refused to comply.

Two were issued summonses, and their hearings were scheduled for June. The other person, who had outstanding warrants, was arrested, Doughty said.

All new inmates at the Eastern Shore Regional Jail in Eastville are quarantined for 15 days before they may join the facility’s general population, he said.

The only visitors permitted are lawyers, doctors, and other medical and clinical staff, who must wear masks and gloves and be given temperature checks (temperatures must be below 100.4 degrees).

The facility is frequently sanitized, Doughty said.

He has reported no further violations of the governor’s executive order since April 2.

However, the following week, Doughty observed that people had been congregating at convenience stores and there was “heavy traffic” at Food Lion.

Regarding numerous calls his department had received about recent visitors to the area, Doughty clarified that executive order 55 doesn’t prohibit travel to Virginia from other states.

Campground stays are limited to 14 days, but hotels and AirBnBs are unaffected by the order, he said.

Anyone in Virginia, whether a visitor or resident, is subject to the same restrictions.

Visitors are being advised to self-quarantine for 14 days after arrival, Doughty said.

On April 23, he reported that the jail was at one-third capacity, and no inmate had been released due to COVID-19.

All inmates released to date have served their sentences, but current inmates may contact their attorneys about conditional releases or bond hearings, Doughty said.

Hearings are being held at the Northampton County Courthouse, but individuals may be asked to wait outside in their vehicles until their cases are called, he said.

As of April 30, Doughty said Northampton was receiving new inmates from Accomack due to the capacity of the jail in the latter county.

Two jail employees and two patrol officers are currently self-quarantined; seven staff members that were quarantined have returned to work with no symptoms, Doughty said.

Health and Emergency Medical Services

The Northampton EMS department has been taking additional measures to keep its stations and ambulances clean and sanitized. The department recently obtained an electrostatic sprayer that applies germicide and disinfects surfaces, supplying a secondary level of sanitation, EMS Director Hollye Carpenter said.

EMS employees are provided all necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) and no one is permitted to take laundry home for cleaning. Employees are subjected to temperature checks before beginning their shifts and every six hours on the job.

In an April 9 report, Carpenter addressed the Eastern Shore’s ability to cope with a coronavirus case surge that would require more than the 52 beds available at Riverside Shore Memorial Hospital in Onley.

There were plans to make the Hampton Coliseum available to provide up to 560 beds for patients needing acute care post-hospitalization, but a week later, Carpenter said those plans were no longer necessary.

As of April 13, there were 6,020 Virginia hospital beds available, and only 23% of the state’s ventilators were in use, she said.

During the April 16 meeting, Carpenter noted that local emergency calls had decreased 15%.

Other localities had experienced a 30% decrease in emergency calls, along with increases in cardiac arrests and DOA (dead on arrival) cases, “frankly because of fear to go to the hospital,” she said.

At that time, coronavirus testing on the Eastern Shore was limited. Coronavirus tests were being given to health care providers with COVID-19 symptoms, patients in hospitals and long-term care facilities, residents living in congregate settings such as jails, and people in “outbreak clusters of respiratory disease,” Carpenter said.

Others were assessed by doctors over the phone and instructed to quarantine at home unless their condition was unstable.

A patient in stable condition has vital signs within normal range. Examples of vital signs are temperature, breathing rate, pulse, and blood pressure.

By April 23, supervisors were raising concerns about limits on the numbers of available coronavirus tests and information local health departments could provide about clusters of infection.

“The fact that I couldn’t tell you where I could go out and get tested right now, I mean, that is a real shortfall,” said Supervisor David Fauber. “Testing is key.”

But later during the call, Carpenter said all local doctors, the hospital, and the health department had testing capability, and as far as she knew, testing was available to anyone who needed it – anyone who had symptoms of COVID-19 and met the testing criteria.

Supervisor Coker said that he read the Eastern Shore has four main areas of coronavirus infection, and “I’d like to know where those are, OK, so I can make sure I absolutely avoid them.”

“We certainly pay them a lot of money,” he said of the local health department.

Doughty added that the health department was no longer notifying the sheriff’s office about which individuals had tested positive for COVID-19, due to the volume of cases.

“We only have 12 cases,” Supervisor Betsy Mapp remarked.

Doughty pointed out that the Eastern Shore Health District covers both Accomack and Northampton counties.

“The health department is extremely overwhelmed,” Carpenter said. “It’s not just about the positive cases, it’s about everybody that was in contact with those positive cases.”

There is a lot of work done “behind the scenes” and positive cases “have not peaked yet,” she cautioned.

There was also concern that some Northampton businesses were not following safety practices and social distancing.

Mapp said all employees should wear masks and gloves. Fauber said Mapp’s point “cuts both ways” and customers should wear masks for the workers’ sake.

Nonessential businesses could be allowed to start re-opening as early as May 15, Gov. Northam has recently suggested.

But “just because businesses – some businesses – are going to open up, doesn’t mean everybody can run out and not be safe anymore,” Coker warned during the April 30 call.

“We’re seeing our spike now,” Carpenter added.

Social Services

Northampton County Social Services Director Mozella Francis reported April 23 that by mid-month, her department had already processed more applications for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) than it had in February and March combined.

There was also an increase in Medicaid applications.

Francis said that Child Protective Services and Adult Protective Services are still available 24/7, and social workers are continually visiting homes and checking on clients.

Her crew has been “working overtime” and delivering medications and food pantry donations to senior citizens.

Northampton citizens can also have groceries delivered to their homes for free by the Shore Delivery Corps, Fauber said. His wife, Donna Fauber, is a volunteer for the “underutilized” service.

Mapp said, “It’s in the true spirit of the Eastern Shore that people have jumped to help.”

Coker said, “I am very proud … and very thankful to be living here right now.”

For more information on the Shore Delivery Corps, visit shoredelivery.org or call 757-801-9950.

May 7, one day before Gov. Ralph Northam unveiled Phase One of his plan to re-open Virginia for business, was the first Thursday since April 2 that Northampton did not hold a weekly special-called meeting regarding the county’s response to COVID-19.

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