Why do we know more about a rabid raccoon attack than COVID-19 outbreaks in Virginia?

August 4, 2020 12:01 am

Volunteers wait for patients at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site set up by the health department in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

In March, the nation watched in horror as refrigerated trucks appeared outside hospitals in New York City to handle the overflow of bodies of people who died from COVID-19.

In July, more than four months after the pandemic was declared, Texas and Arizona were among states requesting the morgue trucks and it was hard to see the development, coming as southern and western states saw a surge in cases, as anything except an utter national failure.

Early in the pandemic, encouraged by the response to social distancing requests by governors, I allowed myself to think that we might get a handle on the virus in spite of the absence of any meaningful national leadership. It wouldn’t magically disappear, as the president has suggested, but with ubiquitous, rapid testing, plentiful protective equipment and social distancing rules, I reasoned, we could maybe get to a new normal that brought back a semblance of our former lives.

Instead, cases are surging, people are still arguing about masks, tests are still hard to come by and it’s taking forever to get results. A Mercury reporter’s result, from a precautionary test taken after Richmond protest coverage, took 12 days before it came back negative. A family member’s recent test took more than two weeks to deliver the result, also negative, but not of much utility at that point.

While many of our fellow Virginians and Americans haven’t been very responsible, particularly some younger people, according to Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration, millions of other people across the country and here have held up their end of the bargain: wearing masks, staying home, avoiding large gatherings, etc. The point was to give the nation time to drastically ratchet up its testing capacity and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by a tidal wave of patients.

How then, did it come to pass that we’re proceeding with Phase III at a time when getting COVID-19 test results back can take two weeks or more, Northam’s administration is still being confoundingly tight-lipped about outbreak information and knuckle-draggers are still protesting mask orders and business restrictions as tyranny?

“We’re in a really bad place right now,” said Dr. William Petri, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health at UVA, in an interview last month.

Despite the fact that other countries have shown the way forward, including massive testing and contact tracing, the U.S. virus response is governed by a patchwork of state and local policies — many governors have resisted imposing mask orders, for example — and hamstrung by flabbergasting supply bottlenecks in testing. And while Virginia has fared better than some other states (“Having a physician as a governor maybe worked to our advantage,” Petri said), the Virginia Department of Health still thinks the public isn’t generally entitled to know where, with any specificity, outbreaks are occurring.

In a call with reporters a day after the Northam administration announced new restrictions in Hampton Roads following a surge in cases the state linked to bars and restaurants, Dr. Norman Oliver, the state health commissioner, couldn’t say how many cases stemmed from those venues. Asked if the state or local health districts would put out information on specific outbreaks, such as when they’re tied to restaurants and bars, he demurred.

“To the second question whether we would release data about a large superspreader event for the lack of a better word, I’ll reserve judgment on that,” he said. “I think there may be a situation — there could be — I could envision situations we might be concerned about superspreader kind of events and in the interest of public health, we would want to advise people about that to help them protect themselves from the community by avoiding such events. But offhand, I don’t know that that’s something that would automatically be done with any large event and it’s also hard to tell sometimes like with the events I was just talking about.”

Contrast that response with health officials in Ingham County, Michigan, who have put out lots of communications on an outbreak at an East Lansing bar that was responsible for at least 152 cases. The county also notified the public about an outbreak at a veterinary clinic.

In Virginia, when the Free Lance-Star tried to get more details about a surge in cases in Westmoreland County, it was met with this comically useless answer from the local health director: “Dr. Richard Williams, director of the Three Rivers Health District, wouldn’t say where the outbreaks occurred, except that they’re in the 10-county area that includes the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula.”

Virginia, including in its refusal to release information on poultry plant outbreaks, has too often decided that COVID-19 information should only be doled out on a need-to-know basis.

I was on that same press call with Oliver, and I pressed him on why the state wouldn’t want to be more proactive in telling Virginians where and how people are contracting the virus here.

“The reluctance is because the — it’s not a particular bar that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s any kind of social gathering right? So the fact that you know Bar X is a bar where there were a number of cases doesn’t mean that Bar Y is one that you can go to and not be exposed to COVID-19. The general rule should be if you’re in a place with other people, you should be wearing a mask and … try to maintain physical and social distance. And that’s true whether or not there’s been a case there or there’s never been a case there. You could be the first case.”

While I can understand the doctor’s logic, I would argue that knowing that people got COVID-19 at Bar X might convince others to stay away from Bar Y. (And it bears mentioning that the health department, has in fact, decided that particular bars are a problem, because they’ve moved to shut down some for not following COVID rules.)

I would also contend that basic human psychology too often means a threat doesn’t move from the abstract to the concrete until it menaces someone or something we’re familiar with. Witness all the social media testimonials of people who proclaimed the virus “no joke” or some variation thereof after they or someone else they know contracted COVID-19 (Google “COVID” and “no joke” and you will find a frightening number of stories with essentially the same format and even similar quotes).

The owners of that Michigan bar, by the way, called the outbreak a “rude awakening” for them and other bars and restaurants as they tried to prevent the state from revoking its license.

Last month, I took my first Lyft ride since the pandemic began, getting a ride to the mechanic to pick up my car. The driver, an older woman, and I both wore masks. She seemed amused when I asked if it was OK to roll down the window. Even though it was hot, I said, it was probably better to have fresh air, just in case. I asked if she was worried about the virus, given the close proximity to strangers that came with her job.

“No,” she said. “I don’t know anybody who has it.”

When and if we all know someone who has it, we’ll be in a pretty dire spot from a public health perspective, of course, even worse than the unenviable position we find ourselves in here in the U.S. That’s why it’s important for the Virginia Department of Health and local health districts to be more transparent about where outbreaks are happening.

Scrolling through the news releases from local health districts on the VDH website I came across one from the Lord Fairfax Health District that illustrates just how opaque health officials have been on where COVID-19 is spreading here.

On July 25, 2020, a raccoon involved in an altercation with several barn cats was made available to the health department. The event occurred in a rural area off of White Hall Road in Frederick County. The raccoon tested positive for rabies, according to the Lord Fairfax Health District.

“This raccoon no longer poses a threat,” said Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene, “however, the event offers a reminder that any contact with a raccoon, fox, skunk or bat that could result in exposure to the animal’s saliva should be considered a potential rabies exposure. This applies to humans and domestic animals, and anyone exposed should receive an immediate medical evaluation.”

When we know more specifics about a clash between a rabid raccoon and barn cats in Frederick County than Virginia outbreaks of a pandemic virus that’s taken hundreds of thousands of lives globally, sickened millions and massively disrupted the world’s economy, that’s a big problem.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers and was previously editor of the Virginia Mercury. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Contact him at [email protected]