Life with COVID-19: NRV health expert explains long-term perspective on the pandemic

Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 5:28 AM EDT
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CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (WDBJ) - As Virginia reopens even more during Phase Three, the question on many people’s minds is how do we go about our lives safely.

From cashiers hidden behind plexiglass to floor markers in grocery stores telling us which way to walk and where to stand, evidence of COVID-19 is all around us.

“Until we have a vaccine or herd immunity by natural infection, COVID is going to be around,” Dr. Noelle Bissell, the director of the New River Health District, said.

WDBJ7 sat down with Dr. Bissell to break down the best ways to live our lives safely. We asked her whether people need to be afraid of COVID-19.

“No,” she answered. “We need to respect it and we want to treat it seriously, but we don’t want to be panicked and we don’t want to be in fear of it.”

Dr. Bissell described it like going for a swim or driving a car. Drowning and crashing are very real threats, but there are safety measures you can take to mitigate that risk.

“It’s all about balance,” she said.

COVID-19 is the same way. You put on a seat belt when you drive a car, so put on a mask when you go to the store.

“When we look at trying to reduce risk, that’s one thing we can do pretty easily,” Dr. Bissell said while also acknowledging change is hard and there has been confusing data released about the effectiveness of masks.

“It’s not perfect and there will be some spread,” she said.

Her position is it just makes sense.

“If my mask protects you, and I put a mask on, if I cough or sneeze or even talking, that mask is a barrier that’s going to prevent some of those particles from getting out in the air that could potentially affect someone else,” she explained.

However, confusion can lead to judgement and misunderstanding about when and where one should wear a mask.

“We don’t want to blame. We don’t want to shame,” Dr. Bissell said. “If you’re outdoors, you don’t need to wear it. Keep some distance so you’re not on top of each other, but enjoy the fresh air, take advantage of that.”

Indoors there’s a different practice.

“If you’re in your own office or you’re definitely spaced from other people, not so much,” she explained.

But if you’re working or shopping in close quarters, it’s recommended you wear a mask.

“You don’t know if you are infected yet,” Dr. Bissell reminded us. “So doing those measures to help protect other people from that will make a big difference.”

Dr. Bissell urged everyone not to turn the mask debate into something it’s not.

“I want to take it out of any political arena,” she pleaded. “I want to take it out of my individual rights versus the governor’s mandate. And I really want it to be about taking care of each other.”

Taking care of each other also means reopening the country.

“We can’t stay in lockdown forever,” she agreed.

So local leaders are learning how to open up businesses, send kids back to school and welcome back college students safely.

“We do want to get back into a new sense of normal, but I’ve got to do what I can to protect the people around me, my community members, my family members, my teacher and my bus driver.”

We also can’t fear the natural uptick in cases.

“It’s not perfect,” she said. “So yes, there will be transmission, but all these measures to mitigate will keep that transmission at that low level that we need.”

The New River Valley is seeing approximately a 3.9-percent positive rate, but it’s still a low number of cases.

“Like a lot of the state, we are trending up,” she explained. “If you’re going to get herd immunity absent a vaccine, you do need to see some people get infected. You just want to control that.”

“So as people start to navigate this new life with COVID-19, what’s the message that you guys have for everyone?” WDBJ7′s Katey Roshetko asked.

“What we’re doing is just appealing to our community and looking at the things we can do to protect our friends and neighbors and to protect our community itself,” Dr. Bissell said.

This story is part one of five. Tune in Thursdays to WDBJ7 Mornin’ for a look at how industries are adjusting and how the Virginia Department of Health is helping the community navigate life with COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 WDBJ. All rights reserved.

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