The Fairfax County government is not letting up in its broad-based battle against COVID-19, but officials are targeting efforts to address the high rate of cases in the Hispanic community and the number of deaths in long-term-care facilities.
“We need to stay the course, continue working in the most effective and science-driven approaches and keep learning how we can best respond to the epidemiology of disease in our community,” Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, a medical epidemiologist with the county’s Health Department, told the Board of Supervisors’ Health and Human Services Committee on June 2.
Fairfax County, Virginia’s largest jurisdiction, has the highest number of COVID-19 cases statewide, officials said. As of June 2, the county had recorded 11,341 confirmed cases and 401 COVID-19 deaths, Schwartz said. But officials say those case figures likely represent only about 15 percent of the total, making the true number at least 70,000.
The disease’s impact by far has been hardest on the county’s Hispanic residents. While consisting of only 16.8 percent of the county’s population, Hispanics account for 65.7 percent of its COVID-19 cases. Relative to their population representation, Hispanics were 11.2 times more likely to test positive than non-Hispanic whites, while the black population’s representation was 2.3 times higher than whites’, Schwartz said.
Health officials did not attribute Hispanics’ higher COVID-19 rates to biological factors, instead linking the disease’s infection and transmission rates to that group’s need to continue working, use of shared transportation and public transit, close proximity to others at work, lack of sick leave and unemployment insurance, and crowded living conditions that curbed their ability to self-isolate.
About 12 percent of Hispanic homes in the county are considered overcrowded, while only 4 percent of black homes and 1 percent of white ones are, Schwartz said.
Supervisor Dalia Palchik (D-Providence), who chairs the Health and Human Services Committee, said she and some other board members had been concerned about statistics showing the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on the local Hispanic community.
“While COVID-19 is a health crisis, we must recognize health is tied to the conditions that people live in and the opportunities they have for housing, jobs, transportation, education, health care and more,” Palchik said.
For Hispanics, “the economy didn’t shut down,” said Supervisor James Walkinshaw (D-Braddock). “They kept going to work because they’re doing essential jobs that cannot be done from their home office on a series of Zoom meetings.”
But when it comes to COVID-19 fatalities in the county, the most at-risk group is whites, Schwartz said. One reason for that is more white residents live in long-term-care facilities, where the majority of such deaths have occurred, he said.
Since the pandemic began, long-term-care facilities “significantly” have improved their infection-prevention practices, and case numbers there have been declining since early May, Schwartz said.
Walkinshaw expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of COVID-19 case data that long-term-care facilities have been giving residents’ families. He hoped the General Assembly would force those institutions to divulge such information and in the meantime, he encouraged county health director Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu to ask the facilities’ management to provide the data voluntarily.
Fairfax County has moved out of the pandemic’s containment and mitigation phases, and is preparing to move to the suppression stage.
This not only will include the “social distancing” and facemasks that have become common in recent months, but also widespread testing, contact tracing, monitored isolation and quarantine, investigation and suppression of clusters, and health-system preparedness for a possible surge in cases.
“The virus has not gone away,” Addo-Ayensu said. “We must take steps to prevent an additional resurgence in cases.”
The Health Department redeployed 400 staff members to handle the pandemic and received a boost following the closure of Fairfax County Public Schools in mid-March, which freed up 200 health aides and 65 nurses from the school system, Addo-Ayensu said.
The Health Department recently held testing clinics at Annandale High School and Bailey’s Upper Elementary School, which quickly were overwhelmed by test-seekers.
Supervisor Penelope Gross (D-Mason) called this a “major failure” and slammed health officials for what she said was lack of coordination with her office.
“You need to be able to control the message and control the number of people who are coming,” Gross said. “I’m hot on this and I want to make sure my other colleagues don’t have to have that same heat.”
Addo-Ayensu took responsibility for the difficulties and said she hadn’t realized that, by accepting help from a state testing lab, that the governor would be announcing the clinics, setting off a media frenzy local officials could not contain.
In the future, the Health Department will not use the state lab and instead will rely on its own laboratory and testing capacity, Addo-Ayensu said. The county’s Fire and Rescue Department also has lent a mobile lab for that purpose, she said.
County officials from mid-June through August plan to hire about 400 contact tracers, whose mission will be isolating infected people, finding everyone who has been in contact with them and quarantining those people for 14 days.
While Addo-Ayensu said this would be necessary because COVID-19 incubates over a period of two to 14 days, Supervisor John Foust (D-Dranesville) said he would prefer to see quarantined people tested daily for two weeks instead of insisting that they withdraw from society during that period.
“What is the empirical evidence that people are going to cooperate with this?” Foust asked.