Delaware prepares for possible COVID-19 resurgence

As coronavirus numbers tick up, a new report offers ways to combat a resurgence of cases without shutting down the state.

Delaware Gov. John Carney

Delaware Gov. John Carney (Office of Gov. John Carney)

Gov. John Carney’s emergency stay-at-home order in mid-March disrupted the school year and forced hundreds of businesses to close. The unprecedented crisis resulted in major upheaval for Delaware’s economy.

Now, as coronavirus numbers tick up, a new report offers ways to combat a possible resurgence of COVID-19 cases in a more targeted way, without causing the turmoil that resulted from shutting down the entire state.

“We need to learn to be able to manage the risk without complete shutdowns, which is one way to control the virus,” Carney said. “We have learned a lot, and some of those things are pretty simple. And they require very small sacrifices by each of us.”

The big concern in the coming months is the combination of flu patients and COVID patients that could overwhelm Delaware hospitals. Coronavirus-related hospitalizations peaked in the state in April at more than 330 patients. Though that was still well below the state’s hospital capacity, the number of flu patients approaches that number some years.

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“So if you combine that with COVID-19 hospitalizations, which right now are at 64, you’re talking about a number that is approaching capacity there and a big concern,” Carney said.

This week, the governor got a report of recommendations on how to better respond to what could be a new wave of coronavirus cases.

The Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee, which was created in June, delivered its final report Wednesday. The committee split into three subgroups focused on health care, business and equity.

Among its recommendations, the group encouraged Carney to relax business restrictions as quickly as possible without risking a resurgence. Bars, restaurants and other businesses that were shuttered mid-March weren’t able to reopen, even on a limited basis, for more than three months.

“Our primary goal, which I think is very much shared across all three groups, is with health in mind, to avoid a complete shutdown of the state again in the unlucky event of a resurgence,” said Katie Wilkinson, chair of the board of directors of the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. She also led the Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee’s business subcommittee.

Wilkinson urged better communication to business leaders about why decisions are made.

“The ongoing demand of business owners [is] for clarification, clarity, consistency and rationale around decisions,” she said. “We’re finding ways to use health stats to help our business owners across the state understand risks, understand the decisions they need to make in order to stay open, serve their clients and continue to function.”

Carney said he is heartbroken hearing stories from restaurant owners who are struggling to maintain businesses that have been in their families for two or three generations.

“Throughout this whole thing, our focus has to be on making sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep businesses alive,” he said. “Almost all have sacrificed; some have sacrificed a lot more than others.”

As the pandemic spread, Delaware hospitals limited services not related to COVID-19 in an effort to focus their workers and reserve space for an influx of coronavirus patients. That forced some patients to put off medical treatment or preventative care. The delay in care could have a negative impact on health outcomes.

The Pandemic Resurgence Advisory Committee’s equity subcommittee recommended ways for the state to better serve Black, Latino and medically vulnerable populations in the future. That includes limiting “health care operations in underserved geographies only when necessary.” For example, the subcommittee advised closing a facility for non-coronavirus services only if its ICU saw a certain percentage increase in patients over a set number of days.

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The subcommittee also called for the state to expand emergency assistance funds for low-income workers affected by the pandemic. That includes extending rental subsidies and providing landlords incentives to offer rental assistance to those who need it.

“No one should be out of their home due to COVID-19, no one should be foreclosed or face eviction,” said Eugene Young, head of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, who led the equity subcommittee.

Young said making testing readily available to residents in all communities will be key to tracking the virus in the colder months. In September, residents of Wilmington’s Riverside section objected to the state’s plans to limit the availability of mobile testing sites.

Dr. Nancy Fan, who chairs the Delaware Health Care Commission, agreed with Young’s call for better testing.

“The most immediate action item, hopefully that we can get started right away with, is that nimble, small working group of stakeholders that can help us respond quickly in all aspects if there is a resurgence,” Fan said. “As far as testing, it’s that ongoing quest to improve testing, make testing broader.”

Young said it’s also important to make sure those working to track the spread of the virus be representative of the community in which they are working.

“We have people that are from these areas in Sussex County, Kent County and New Castle County that can be able to bridge some of these gaps,” he said.

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