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Virginia prepares for next phase of reopening, as Myrtle Beach travelers bring COVID-19 back to Roanoke region

Virginia prepares for next phase of reopening, as Myrtle Beach travelers bring COVID-19 back to Roanoke region

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Virginia will soon enter the next stage of its plan to ease restrictions aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.

But as the governor announced plans for a so-called Phase 3 to start July 1, there was new evidence of what similar steps in other states might bring.

With many beaches now open, people returning to the Roanoke region from summer trips are bringing the virus back with them.

“Myrtle Beach seems to be a hot spot,” said Dr. Molly O’Dell with the Virginia Department of Health, who is leading the pandemic response for the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts.

Twenty-seven people in the four-county area have tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks after returning home from the popular South Carolina tourist spot, O’Dell said Tuesday. Another five cases were listed as probable.

The Health Department is recommending that anyone who has been to Myrtle Beach — which has seen a spike in cases as more people resume their normal lifestyles — self-quarantine for 14 days.

Meanwhile, Phase 3 in Virginia will increase the cap for social gatherings from 50 to 250 people. Restaurants and retail businesses will be able to operate at full capacity. Fitness centers can increase capacity from 30% to 75%, and entertainment venues can open with 50% capacity.

At a news conference Tuesday, Northam said people should still consider home to be safer than going out in public, especially for those more vulnerable to the virus.

Yet more people seem willing to travel to places like Myrtle Beach.

Those coming home with the virus are both young and old, O’Dell said. They include recent high school graduates traveling as groups, attendees of bachelor parties and members of families on traditional summer vacations.

The one thing that many have in common is a growing disregard of the dangers that COVID-19 still presents.

“People have become weary with the instructions on how to avoid being sick, which is most unfortunate,” O’Dell said.

The out-of-state numbers are expected to increase, and health officials are worried that vacationers will return to work and spread the virus further.

People who acquired the virus in Myrtle Beach come from across the district — and beyond, in all likelihood.

When hotels in Horry County, which includes Myrtle Beach, were allowed to start taking reservations again on May 15, there had been 283 COVID-19 cases, according to an Associated Press report. By June 22, that number had climbed to more than 2,000, and infections had doubled in nine days.

And that includes only people who live in the county. Business leaders estimate 20 million people visit the area each year.

In the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts, the numbers have yet to peak.

“We are definitely continuing to see an uphill climb, and I will say the climb is a little steeper,” O’Dell said Tuesday during a weekly teleconference with reporters.

The total number of reported cases in the region rose to 702 last week, compared to 561 the week before. The number of deaths remained at 24.

Statewide, deaths were up by 25 — to 1,645 confirmed and probable — on Tuesday. That’s the most since May 28, when there were 57. The total number of cases rose to 58,994.

Health officials in the Roanoke and Alleghany districts counted seven current outbreaks, which are defined as occurring when two or more infections are linked to an initial case without any other means of exposure.

Four of the outbreaks are in restaurants, two in long-term care facilities and one at a construction site.

Several restaurants in the Roanoke Valley have informed the public on social media that they had workers test positive for the coronavirus. The Northam administration has said it can’t identify businesses with outbreaks by name, citing the state code’s privacy granted to businesses.

So the only way for the public to know which businesses have COVID-19 outbreaks is if the businesses self-identify to the public.

“It all boils down to whether it’s a public health risk,” Northam said when asked Tuesday when the state would find it appropriate to publicly identify a business with an outbreak.

Despite the easing of restrictions, the state is still strongly encouraging teleworking, social distancing and the wearing of face masks.

In Floyd County, four residents of Skyline Nursing and Rehabilitation Center tested positive for the coronavirus after members of the National Guard performed a point prevalence survey at the home recently.

Point prevalence testing refers to testing every person in a designated area of a long-term care facility, whether or not they have symptoms, on the same day or sometimes over two days.

The practice was initiated in April due to the large impact COVID-19 is having at nursing homes and assisted-living complexes.

Last week, Virginia began releasing the names of those facilities where outbreaks have occurred. Previously, the governor had said state law grants the homes the same health care privacy rights as people.

Northam said misinformation and incorrect information in federal data motivated the administration to take another look at whether it could release the names of the facilities.

“Now that there are more cases in these facilities, we can make an exception and release this information without compromising confidentiality,” he said.

Staff writer Amy Friedenberger and The Floyd Press contributed information to this report.

Laurence Hammack covers environmental issues, including the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and business and enterprise stories. He has been a reporter for The Roanoke Times for more than three decades.

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