Gov. John Carney closed all Delaware beaches effective Saturday, March 21, after seeing crowds of people a day earlier who were not keeping enough distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We need everyone to take this situation seriously. We saw too many people on the beaches yesterday and we weren’t seeing the kind of social distancing that we need in order to slow the spread of coronavirus,” he said. “This was a difficult decision, but we need folks to follow the rules to keep all Delawareans safe. Don’t go out in public unnecessarily. Wash your hands and disinfect surfaces frequently. Stay home, especially if you feel sick and even if you have mild symptoms. We will get through this together.”
The beach closures went into effect March 21, and will last until May 15 or until the COVID-19 threat has been eliminated. During this time, he said, the public is prohibited from accessing the beach except to exercise or walk their dogs where dogs are permitted. State parks remain open, with restrictions only on beaches at this time, said Jonathan Starkey, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications. Local officials may choose to enact tighter restrictions, he said. Lewes and Dewey Beach had already closed their beaches before Carney made his announcement.
A visit to a packed beach in Lewes March 20 prompted Carney to doubt that the public is following the social distancing recommendations state officials have issued to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Speaking at Cape Henlopen State Park, Carney said he came to the Sussex County state park to encourage people to get out and exercise. There were plenty of people enjoying the balmy 80-degree weather, but many were not heeding the 6 feet of separation doctors say are needed to prevent germs from spreading.
“We're a little concerned as [we] went out to the beach about the social distancing that was or wasn't taking place there, and we'll have to have further discussion about that,” Carney said. “Part of the reason for coming here today was also to see what the interaction looks like on the beach and here in the park.”
Rehoboth Beach officials have closed the beach and Boardwalk to all activity, including exercise.
Carney declared a state of emergency March 13, limiting crowds to 100 or fewer. However, before St. Patrick's Day, Carney said, too many bars in Wilmington, Newark and Dewey Beach were serving large crowds, so he reduced the public gathering limit to 50 people or fewer.
“We had a flock of people who came into the bars and restaurants over the weekend here at the beaches, in Newark and Wilmington, and it forced our hand,” he said.
Carney said he has been in communication with governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania – a state that has now limited all nonessential activity – and he is considering action consistent with neighboring states.
“We can't have a situation where we're too far out of line and have people coming into Delaware because they're not permitted to do whatever it is in Maryland or Pennsylvania or New Jersey,” Carney said.
Hospitals plan for surge
Terry Murphy, president and chief executive officer for Bayhealth, said healthcare systems from across the state are working together as they prepare for a potential surge of patients.
Bayhealth has limited visiting access to its healthcare facilities, he said, and elective procedures have been reduced to provide more staff for critical care. Murphy said Bayhealth has plans to set up outside areas for COVID-19 patients. “We're very close to setting up tents outside,” he said. “We're preparing for the growth of critical care patients and more space to handle the number of patients who may come to us.”
Murphy said Bayhealth is also looking into its critical care needs, which include ventilators, beds and isolation rooms. “We're looking at all types of spaces we can use,” he said.
At Beebe Healthcare, President and CEO Dr. David Tam said the facility plans to use existing sites for testing or treatment, if the need arises. These include facilities in Millville, Georgetown, Millsboro and Rehoboth as well as the main facility in Lewes.
“We are planning for a surge,” he said. “But we don't necessarily want to open up pop-up tents. What we have is the ability to have these other sites that could be turned into anything from a testing site or even an initial treatment site depending on what kind of clinical issues come up from sick people.”
As for a shortage of medical equipment, Carney said he has a team working to identify existing resources and those healthcare facilities might need to order such as ventilators and other equipment.
As more people are tested, Carney said, the number of positive cases will rise.
“We had limited test kits at the start nationally. We weren't testing as many as we should have, mostly because the supply was scarce,” Carney said. “Now we want to test anyone who is symptomatic and who goes through a primary physician screen.”
In order to be screened, Tam said, a patient must first consult with a physician who would then refer them for testing. “We want to preserve our ability to screen as many people as possible,” he said. “Test kits are still fairly challenging to get, so we want to make sure we test the people who really need the testing right now.”
For those who don't have a primary care physician, Tam said there are hotlines for people to call so a healthcare professional can determine if testing is needed.
On March 23, Delaware had recorded 68 positives, with 44 in New Castle County, six in Kent County and 18 in Sussex County.
Two days earlier, Carney announced community-based testing will begin Monday, March 23, at no cost to patients.
In Sussex County, Beebe will offer two standing health facility test sites – one in Millsboro and one in Frankford. Nanticoke will operate one in Seaford.
Only patients with COVID-19 symptoms who have a physician order or prescription will be tested. Those with no primary care can call the hotline numbers.
“Call your doctor or call the number, and we will take care of you,” said Christina Deidesheimer, director of marketing for Beebe.
Bayhealth's hotline number is 302-310-8477 operating Monday through Friday, 8:15 to 4 p.m., staffed by 15 clinicians including doctors and nurse practitioners who can do a clinical evaluation for patients who should be tested.
Beebe's hotline number is 302-645-3200 staffed noon to 4:30 p.m., Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Beginning Monday, March 23, the line will be staffed seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.