DPH Investigating Sussex Increases COVID-19

Data collected by the Delaware Department of Health.

by Terry Rogers


Recently, Delaware Division of Public Health reported that Milford and Georgetown were experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases. Over the weekend, Sussex County’s COVID-19 cases surpassed New Castle with almost 2,000 residents testing positive for the virus. As a result, the agency has stepped up testing in the area and is looking into what may be causing this increase in positive cases. In addition, Governor John Carney issued the thirteenth modification to his State of Emergency declaration requiring all Delawareans to wear face coverings in public settings, including grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, doctors offices and on public transportation starting Tuesday, April 28 at 8 AM. The modification also states that children 12 years or younger are not required to wear a face covering and children under two should not wear one due to suffocation risk.

“We know there are large numbers of people who live and work in close contact with each other in Sussex County,” Jill Fredel, Director of Communications, said. “But that makes it all the more important that we are partnering with community organizations and hospitals to make a community testing plan work. It is equally important that every act as if everyone, including themselves, has COVID-19 and take the necessary precautions not to spread it including social distancing and wearing cloth face coverings when you cannot.”

There is some evidence that the virus may be cropping up in Hispanic and Creole populations and the State of Delaware is addressing this issue by creating a community testing plan that involves a multi-faceted partnership with the Governor’s office, the Department of Health and Social Services, the Division of Public Health, DEMA, the Department of Agriculture, local hospital systems, the poultry industry and more to create more testing sites in Sussex County. They are also increasing outreach and distribution of educational materials about the virus in Sussex County.

In a press conference on Friday, April 24, Dr. Kara Odom Walker, Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services announced that the department had created a new portal called “My Health Community” that would allow residents to view COVID-19 cases based on race and Zip code currently with plans to add additional information as it was available.

“We are seeing an increase of positive cases in Sussex County that is more than twice the number we are seeing in New Castle County,” Dr. Walker said. “We must behave as if we have Coronavirus and nowhere is this more true than in Sussex County. I want to make sure that everyone knows that we are paying attention to everyone across the state, but we must pay close attention to Sussex County.”

Dr. Walker advised older citizens and those with underlying health conditions to stay home 24/7. 

“Do not go out for groceries, for prescriptions,” Dr. Walker said. “We can help you get the food, groceries and prescriptions delivered if you simply call Delaware 211 and we will help you. If you live elsewhere, if you have a vacation home here or have relatives that live in Sussex County, this is not the time to go visit your relatives or vacation home. You may expose yourself and your loved ones to Coronavirus. More importantly, if you are sick with a fever, a cough, body aches or a sore throat, please stay home. Monitor your temperature. Call your primary care doctor who will guide you on whether you need testing. If you do not have a primary care physician, call Delaware 211 and we will help you. Do not be afraid if your test is positive and do not be afraid if your symptoms become severe. We are here to help you through the entire process.”

During the press conference, Governor Carney was asked if he had any information on what was causing Sussex County to have such a high number of cases.

“I’ve said that when we first started paying attention to this and sent representatives from the Department of Health to various poultry plants after the first positive case in Milford was identified that numbers in Sussex could rise,” Governor Carney said. “As you remember, the plant closed down to do massive cleaning and disinfecting. We then had another positive test in a plant in Selbyville, indicating that we had the potential for significant spread, knowing the areas where these individuals lived were very close together, very dense population housing in certain areas. That was when we started reaching out to community organizations as we knew or expected there would be a spread in that community and, recently, we have seen this to be true.” Although Governor Carney stated that the number of positives in the poultry industry were “very high,” he did not have an exact number.

Governor Carney also explained that community testing sites with rapid testing were being set up throughout Sussex County. Not only is the state targeting the poultry industry where a large number of immigrants work, they are also addressing the issue with landscapers, construction companies and other industries where there are a higher number of employees for whom English is a second language.

“It is three-pronged effort,” Fredel said. “It includes testing through the use of rapid test kits and ensuring access to care; guidance on isolation and assistance when it is not possible to isolate safely and education and outreach through the assistance of trusted community partners. Individuals will receive “care kits” with essential materials including hand sanitizer, bandanas, thermometers and educational materials. Educational materials are being translated into Spanish and Haitian Creole to reach those who do not read English as their first language. Working with trusted community partners is key to success when it comes to delivering the messaging.”

DPH recently announced additional testing sites in Georgetown with one opening on April 22 at Del-Tech. Fredel explained that the agency is looking at expanding testing even more and are working with healthcare systems and trusted community partners to stand up locations, either as a permanent site or a pop-up site.

“Any place there is a rapid increase in lab-confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in a particular geographic area is considered a hot-spot,” Fredel explained. “On March 25, the 19963 Zip Code had no cases of the virus. On April 21, the area had between 151-175 lab-confirmed cases. DPH does not collect information on how severe the case reported is, so there is no way to know if the majority of these were mild or severe cases.” As of Saturday, April 25, 61 of the 317 hospitalized people in Delaware hospitals were listed as critically ill.

Anyone who believes they have been exposed to COVID-19 or are experiencing symptoms that include fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle fatigue or digestive symptoms living in the Milford area should call the Bayhealth hotline at 302-310-8477 or email coronavirus@bayhealth.org. A primary care physician referral is not necessary. The hotline is open from 8:15 AM until 6 PM Monday through Friday and on weekends from 10 AM until 2 PM. Those how meet screening criteria will be referred to an off-site drive-thru testing facility.