Fluvanna Sheriff Eric Hess, wife Ellen, detail life with COVID-19

Sheriff urges citizens to stay home to avoid “horrible illness”

By Tricia Johnson, correspondent

Ellen Hess, the wife of Fluvanna County Sheriff Eric Hess, is battling Covid-19 at home. The experience leaves her concerned for her community, and gives the sheriff a personal understanding of the seriousness of this pandemic.

Eric Hess to date has remained well; he has no symptoms of the infection and has not been tested for it. The couple is practicing strict isolation from each other, living in separate parts of the home they share. The two do not speak face-to-face but rather use their cell phones to communicate.

The only time since Ellen Hess became ill that they have shared the same space was during a desperate late-night trip to the University of Virginia hospital. Ellen Hess, who was experiencing difficulty breathing, rode in the back of their SUV; Eric Hess drove, and both of them wore masks and gloves. “I thought I was going to have to pull over and give her CPR,” the sheriff said. “When it is a loved one that is in distress, you have to pull on all of your strength just to make sure you do things the right way.”

Ellen Hess is a nurse liaison with the Envoy at the Village, a Fork Union-based long term health care facility that recently made the news because of the COVID-19 outbreak there. The exact number of positive cases attached to the nursing home, including residents and staff, has not been released by the Virginia Department of Health. The Thomas Jefferson Health District, however, announced April 13 that Fluvanna County had 62 positive cases of COVID-19, stating, “This significant increase in numbers is due to an outbreak in a long-term care facility.” The agency had previously identified 17 positive cases in Fluvanna.

Ellen Hess, who tested positive for the virus April 7, is still quite ill 10 days later. While some symptoms, like her breathing, have improved, she still has a fever and cough, and a troubling new symptom her doctors are struggling to manage – dangerously elevated blood pressure. Despite the uncertainty surrounding the course of her illness, her biggest concern is for others. She is very worried that her husband will become ill despite the care they are taking to prevent it, and she is heartbroken for the residents at the Envoy who, because of their age and underlying illnesses, are at a higher risk for a worse outcome. “I’ve worked at Envoy for seven years, so for the most part I admitted almost every patient that is there now. I know their stories and their families and their grandchildren; I can close my eyes and see their faces,” she said.

She is also concerned about her community at large. “This is not the flu,” she emphasized. “I want people to be careful and I do want people to know that the inconvenience you are experiencing now, you would do 50 times over if you knew someone you loved wouldn’t get this sick.”

Eric Hess, meanwhile, continues his role as sheriff from a distance, while being the only caregiver for his wife. “I have to stay home,” the sheriff stated bluntly. “I cannot run the risk of carrying the virus to others, and I need to be here to help take care of my wife.” He spoke about the urgent need to observe social distancing. “Why would I endanger my deputies by going to work?” he asked. “Why would I invite my friends over to sit around the fire pit in the evening? I see my neighbor across the field and we wave at each other.” He added, “It would be totally irresponsible for me to go to work and expose people there even though I don’t have any symptoms. If people follow the guidelines just like I am doing, at some point we will overcome this.”

While he remains at home, technology is allowing the sheriff to stay plugged in to every detail of each call his deputies respond to. “I can monitor every call for service by radio, and later when the deputies get back to the office, their cars automatically download the videos, and once the deputies download the videos from their body cameras, I can see everything,” he said. The sheriff added that his office has Zoom conferences for command staff, and that he is in constant communication by text and email.

The county is seeing fewer calls for service right now, and the sheriff is largely pleased with how Fluvanna residents are complying with the governor’s emergency orders. “We have had a few calls and we have just had conversations with the ones that aren’t following the order,” he said. “We haven’t issued any summonses yet. If we have to go back multiple times we might have to do something. We really prefer to educate people about the social distancing.”

His deputies are making more frequent sweeps of closed businesses to ensure they are secure, and are handling other calls by phone only when possible. “If it is a vandalism call, for instance, we will take the report by phone and a deputy would go by later to take pictures,” Eric Hess said. “If we do have to physically respond to a call, we try to get the caller to come out of their house and we observe social distancing. The deputies wear personal protective equipment – masks and gloves – on those calls.”

The sheriff said that his office currently has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment, and expressed appreciation to the county for working to procure the equipment as needed. He is also grateful for the sheriff’s office chaplain, whom he credits with helping him and his deputies cope with the new challenges they face as law enforcement officers.

Eric Hess also takes comfort in how Fluvanna residents are responding to the needs of their friends and neighbors. “The donations to the food bank have been wonderful,” he said. “The Rotary is doing a food drive, and EW Thomas Grocery Store has managed a lot of donations for MACAA.” He also emphasized the need for better awareness around mental health during isolation. “I have my farm and I have projects I can work on that help me lower my stress,” he said. “I am glad that Region Ten is also stepping up to the plate and making their services more available to anyone who might need some help.”

Both Eric and Ellen Hess are grateful to the community for its show of love and support as they cope with Ellen Hess’s illness and the sheriff’s isolation. “So many people have sent well-wishes and prayers and food,” Hess said. “I think Ellen will tell you I am a horrible cook,” he said with a laugh.

“Everybody has been so kind bringing us delicious food and warm wishes and dropping things off on the porch,” Ellen Hess said. “I have gotten messages from people – from childhood friends to strangers – and each one has restored my faith in goodness,” she said.

Through it all, even though they have to stay apart, they both are thinking of each other. “I am so proud of Eric for shouldering the job of taking care of me,” Ellen Hess said. “I know it isn’t easy, having a loved one so sick, and I appreciate him more than ever.”

Eric Hess admires his wife’s strength. “She is tough,” he said. “She steps right up to the plate when she has to do something and she keeps me in line, too. I keep encouraging Ellen; I tell her we will get through this. It is a tough time but we will come out better people – stronger and smarter,” he said.

“I know when this dirty dust settles, that this experience will ignite some new sense of humanity in all of us,” Ellen Hess said. “It is better to really know how valuable your people are, and how valuable hugging your friend or seeing your family members is.”

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