In conference call, Sen. Warner hears about successful steps and continued anxiety over COVID-19 in Hburg

File photo by Holly Marcus

By Jacob Lester, contributor

Virginia U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D) sought input from local leaders about effects of COVID-19 in Harrisonburg and at JMU more than a month after the signing of the $2 trillion federal stimulus and recovery legislation, known as the CARES Act. But, as he said he’s heard in other communities, the federal money hasn’t quelled concern the way many in Congress had hoped.

Sen. Mark Warner // file photo

A member of the Opening Up America Again Congressional Group, Warner said he had hoped that after the CARES Act was signed into law, “the extremes of the pressure and stress” would have decreased. Instead, he remarked, “if anything, it has obviously increased” in recent weeks.

“Unfortunately, in Virginia, we’ve not seen our peak yet,” Warner continued. “Harrisonburg city, in particular, has had some challenges.”

Warner spoke by phone April 29 with several business and community leaders in Harrisonburg, including Mayor Deanna Reed and JMU President Jonathan Alger. The virtual meeting was one in a series of calls Warner has been holding with leaders across Virginia to hear how their communities have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the call, Reed spoke about the city’s efforts to support residents and keep them updated through multilingual messaging about COVID-19. Reed told Warner and other participants on the call that the city is focused on “reaching as many people in our community as possible.

Mayor Deanna Reed // file photo

She also expressed gratitude for the Community Development Block Grant funding that will provide the city with more than $300,000 to support affordable housing access.

Another aspect of the city’s response to the pandemic that Reed highlighted was its partnership with JMU and Open Doors, a local shelter organization, to provide a temporary emergency shelter at Godwin Hall for people experiencing homelessness.

Alger described the partnership as an important way to support the community as “an engaged anchor institution.”

JMU planning for fall reopening, with “modifications”

During the call, Alger said that while university operations have been severely disrupted, the university remains focused on its core educational mission.

“Pending guidance from government and public health officials, it is our hope and expectation that we will be on campus this fall with modifications to keep students, faculty, staff, and community safe,” he added.

Alger said that the pandemic prompted the university to shift over 5,000 in-person courses to an online format in less than two weeks. The pandemic, he added, has cost the university $30 million in lost revenue and additional cost for the spring and summer semesters – not including losses suffered by the university’s endowment. In addition to cutting costs, JMU is delaying planned capital projects like the renovation of the Convocation Center.

File photo by Holly Marcus

Hospital president describes focus on preparedness

Being prepared to handle a significant increase in COVID-19 cases has been the focus at Sentara RMH in recent weeks, according to hospital president Doug Moyer, also on the call.

“We’ve spent an immense amount of time, effort, and energy around getting the limited staff and resources we have to handle a surge as is and was potentially predicted.” Moyer reported. “We are still not exactly sure about the numbers to come.”

Adding to the uncertainty, Harrisonburg has had to grapple with an outbreak of COVID-19 at Accordius Health. According to an April 28 statement from the Virginia Department of Health, 21 residents there have died of COVID-19 since the outbreak was first identified more than two weeks ago.

Moyer told Warner that Sentara RMH has sufficient intensive care capacity and ventilator machines. While many hospitals nationwide have struggled to source sufficient PPE, Moyer lauded Sentara’s efforts.

“We are fortunate Sentara has gone to extraordinary lengths to secure PPE,” he said, adding that the hospital has been sterilizing and reusing N-95 masks, and taken a “focused approach” on testing.

“Testing capabilities are critical in terms of the daily functioning of the hospital and how we utilize PPE,” he said.

Earlier this month, the hospital declined to answer numerous questions from The Citizen, including ones about the number of tests it has administered, how its PPE is being allocated to staff and the number of ICU beds and ventilators it has available.

Warner criticizes lack of coordinated nationwide response

During the call, Warner lamented the Trump administration’s resistance to utilizing the Defense Production Act to coordinate the acquisition and distribution of PPE. As a result, he said, states are bidding against each other and driving up prices as a result.

“It’s not a question where we don’t have the federal resources, but whether the administration is going to take responsibility for organizing a national effort,” Warner said. “I just can’t imagine this being worked out on a state by state basis. There has to be a federal coordination.”

He also blamed the administration’s hesitance to cooperate with other countries for limiting the availability of testing.

“Testing is the thing we most need if we’re going to get our economy reopened,” Warner said. 

Saying that data collection is also crucial to understanding the impact of the pandemic, Warner told call participants that he has requested racial and ethnic reporting data for COVID-19 data from Vice President Pence.

“It’s a clear fact the virus is disproportionately affecting African American and Latino communities,” Warner said.

Asked about this disparity locally, Moyer said he had not seen a racial and ethnic breakout of reported cases or testing in Harrisonburg. He said that the hospital is working with the city to offer more testing to vulnerable members of the community.

Senator Warner expressed his appreciation for the bipartisan effort to inject more than $6 trillion in federal aid to the economy in response to the pandemic.

“While people call it ‘stimulus’, I think the reality is less about stimulus and more about trying to keep the economy on life-support.”

File photo by Holly Marcus

Chamber of Commerce gauging lockdown effect on local business

Another call participant, Harrisonburg Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Frank Tamberrino, told Warner about the chamber’s efforts to support the local economy.

“Our biggest concern with our recovery planning initiative is, ‘How do we get back to normal as quick as we can?’” Tamberino said.

The chamber has convened a group of community economic agencies, called the Harrisonburg-Rockingham COVID-19 Business Support Taskforce, “to speak with one voice” about the reopening of the local economy. The group has already allocated $65,000 in small grants to 25 area businesses, using funding provided by several local banks.

In recent weeks, the chamber has also released two surveys to gauge community economic needs, one for business owners and another for consumers. Tamberrino said that preliminary responses from business owners indicate that 70% of respondents reported their businesses have been severely or moderately impacted by the pandemic; 83% said they’ve lost sales.

Warner predicted the pandemic will have a sustained impact on small businesses.

“There’s not going to be the same business volume over the next 6 or 7 months,” he said.

That expectation may also be reflected in responses to a question in the chamber’s survey of business owners about their ability to keep many employees on payroll. 58% of the chamber’s survey respondents said they expect to return to pre-COVID levels of staffing, while 31% will not.

Another of the Chamber of Commerce’s focuses is examining what health and safety protections consumers will need to feel comfortable shopping locally again as the economy reopens.

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