Officials plead for community vigilance
ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – New COVID-19 cases continue rising at two Southwest Virginia nursing homes — and now deaths are following.
Area health officials said the results of long term care facility outbreaks — much higher hospitalization and death rates than the general population — offer a clear argument for maintaining both voluntary and mandatory measures to reduce community spread of the virus.
“We need to think about our community,” Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said Monday. “Whether you’re thinking about long-term cares or just the grandparents at home, the people you pass in stores or out and about, we … do know that the elderly seem to have more severe complications at times.”
Valley Health Care in Chilhowie — where an outbreak first reported Aug. 30 now has produced more cases than any “outbreak in progress” statewide — saw its number of associated deaths jump from four or fewer over the weekend to 13 Monday morning.
Chilhowie is in Smyth County, which continues to experience the highest rate of new daily cases per 100,000 people in Southwest Virginia. That rate has dropped some the past couple weeks — the seven-day average was 31.3 Sept. 14 and is 24.7 today — but Southwest Virginia’s combined average is just 12.1.
Accordius Health Care in Abingdon, meanwhile, has 69 cases and six deaths associated with an outbreak first reported Sept. 10.
The data come from a page on the Virginia Department of Health website. New cases and deaths include both resident and staff numbers.
That page shows the dates an outbreak was first reported, the total number of cases reported so far (resident and staff) and the number of deaths. Totals of less than five are noted with an asterisk.
Valley’s total deaths totaled less than five going into the weekend, but that figure went to seven early Monday morning and then to 13 shortly after.
Dr. Karen Shelton directs the Mount Rogers Health District, which serves Smyth, Washington and four other counties. Washington County is home to the Accordius outbreak and another that’s affected 82 people at Bristol Rehab and Memory Care.
She also oversees Grayson County, where Grayson Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has an outbreak first reported Aug. 30 with 75 associated cases and between one and four deaths.
Shelton said the nature of the virus makes it extremely difficult to prevent it from getting into nursing homes once community spread reaches a certain level.
“It can come in silently, asymptomatic,” Shelton said. “Not everyone who gets it is sick.
“We do unfortunately see our worst outcomes when we get COVID into a facility, and unfortunately it is generally recognized late because it can come in and then spread and overtake more than half the facility before you even know it’s there.”
The deaths associated with Valley’s outbreak likely didn’t occur over the weekend. Shelton said deaths could occur several days before they’re reported, or even slightly longer, as death certificates must be received.
Trend worsening as NE Tennessee’s eases
A spate of cases in Northeast Tennessee long term care facilities has begun easing. New case increases began slowing three weeks ago, and new deaths finally declined significantly last week, to just three.
Since Sept. 11, the number of new cases in the three Washington and Smyth county facilities has increased 300 percent, from 97 to 291. In Northeast Tennessee, meanwhile, combined new cases among residents and staff have increased just 48 percent, albeit from a larger baseline of 725 to a current total of 1,073.
Shelton said that increase has happened even with school children learning remotely in those counties, and community spread has stayed at significant levels.
As a result, almost anyone who’s out in the community and doesn’t practice a disciplined approach to social distancing, mask wearing and hygiene could be part of a chain that ultimately contributes to the death of someone who lives or works in a nursing home.
“It’s really hard for people to fathom where that thread goes and how many people are affected by a community with widespread transmission, and that’s where we are right now, especially in Washington County and Smyth County,” Shelton said.
“We want everyone to live their life. We want them to live it smartly, to think about the places they go and the number of people you have impacts on.”
Lisa Smithgall, chief nursing officer at Ballad, agreed.
“I think the most important thing is people not get complacent now that we have stabilized in some areas of our region,” Smithgall said. “Some people can spread this asymptomatically and we want to do everything we can to protect our community.”