Public health official: vaccinations, antibody treatment “saving grace” in nursing homes

BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) – Steadily rising COVID case rates in Southwest Virginia have brought an unwelcome side effect — more outbreaks at places like long-term facilities and schools. 

The latest weekly update from the Virginia Department of Health showed 10 current outbreaks, up from four just a week ago. The four last week had a total of 62 cases.

They’re all still active and with the new facilities — many of which suffered deadly outbreaks last fall and winter — the current case total is 138.

Mount Rogers Health District Population Health Manager Breanne Forbes Hubbard said the trend mirrors what officials saw during the fall and winter surge and doesn’t come as a surprise.

“When there’s a lot of disease transmission in the community, it gets into some of these congregate settings, which leads to outbreaks,” she said.

Southwest Virginia’s “community spread rate” – new weekly cases per 100,000 – spiked a couple of weeks ago, increasing 40% from Sept. 8 to Sept. 15 to reach 631.

It’s since fallen off slightly, to 574, but is more than double the state rate of 266 and has surpassed Northeast Tennessee’s rate, which has dropped recently and is at 523.

Forbes Hubbard said nursing homes and assisted living facilities, even though they have very high resident vaccination rates, still have significant numbers of unvaccinated staff coming in and out. Schools have lower vaccination rates among those eligible, plus kids up to about sixth grade who aren’t eligible yet.

All but two of Southwest Virginia’s 10 current outbreaks are in long-term care facilities, with one at Wise Primary School and one at Mountain View Regional Hospital in Norton.

More than 100 people died in long-term care outbreaks last fall and winter in the region. Forbes Hubbard said as she met with epidemiologists this week, the topic was “how disheartening it is to see these outbreaks again in the nursing homes and the long-term care facilities and assisted living facilities because we worked so hard to try and get those under control.”

Valley Health Care in Smyth County, for instance, has a newly reported outbreak with nine cases so far and no deaths. More than 100 were affected, and more than 20 died in an outbreak last winter.

“The good thing now is that so far, knock on wood, cross my fingers, we’re seeing less hospitalizations and fewer deaths because a lot of those folks are vaccinated and because they’re getting monoclonal antibody treatment,” Forbes Hubbard said of the long term care cases.

COVID outbreaks in congregate facilities like nursing homes and schools are on the rise in Southwest Virginia in the wake of a spike in community spread.

“So those two things are really our saving grace here and they’re saving lives, and we’re so happy to be able to have those options.”

All six new outbreaks were reported in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities.

They include:

  • Abingdon Health and Rehab (5 cases) and English Meadows Senior Living (fewer than 5) in Washington County.
  • Lee Health and Rehab (24 cases and between 1 and 4 deaths) in Lee County.
  • Nova Health and Rehab (12 cases, between 1 and 4 deaths) in Scott County.
  • Valley Health Care (9 cases) in Smyth County.
  • Dogwood Crossing Senior Living and Memory Care (20 cases, 1 to 4 deaths) in Tazewell County.

Virginia does not specify case or death counts when they are less than five. 

Ongoing outbreaks are at Mountain View Regional Hospital (16 cases, 1 to 4 deaths) in Norton, Wise Primary School (8 cases) in Wise County, Kissito Healthcare Assisted Living in Russell County (18 cases, 1 to 4 deaths) and National Healthcare (25 cases), a Bristol nursing home.

Forbes Hubbard said the district’s modeling suggests case rates may have plateaued, but reporting on hospitalizations and deaths lags.

“We anticipate this might be a little bit of a bumpy ride for a while still, but it’s good to see some of those numbers going down, and we hope that we’ve hit a plateau and our case counts are going to drop soon,” she said.

The region invariably seems to run behind Northeast Tennessee.

“We continue to see it with COVID we’re usually a little bit behind them. It usually peaks there first and then comes our way,” Forbes Hubbard said. “I’m not surprised that they’ve gone down a little bit and we’ve gone up because that’s a pattern it usually seems to follow.”

Forbes Hubbard urged people to get vaccinated, and for those who test positive using at-home tests not to treat that news lightly.

“(Some people) are not reporting it, and they’re continuing to go on with their daily lives so we’re really trying to get the messaging out that folks should not do that and that’s really contributing to a lot of community spread because people are positive and not staying home to isolate.

“We would encourage folks that if they’re taking at-home tests and they’re positive to please call their local health department for further guidance.”