Very recent trends suggest decrease but areas’ case numbers, testing positivity rates remain a concern
MARION, Va. (WJHL) – The raw numbers may not seem that big, but the chief medical official of the Mount Rogers Health District said parts of Southwest Virginia are at “widespread, substantial community transmission of COVID-19.”
The description last Friday from Dr. Karen Shelton seemed to confirm Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s comments Tuesday. Northam said Southwest Virginia had become a hot spot and had the highest percentage of positive COVID tests in the state at 8.1 percent.
Interviewed about outbreaks in area long-term care facilities, Shelton spoke at some length about the data in her health district, which covers six counties and the cities of Bristol and Galax.
With Virginia not under a stay at home order and COVID-19 spreading relatively easily through asymptomatic transmission, Shelton said efforts to trace the origin of infections can be maddeningly difficult.
“We have some people with 30 contacts,” Shelton said, referring to positive tests in which a person has spent 15 minutes within six feet of another during a likely period of being positive.
“We … want everyone to live their life. We want them to live it smartly. To think about the places you go and the number of people you have social impacts on.”
Data used by Virginia health departments show what’s called the “burden” of cases per 100,000 population for Bristol, Washington County and Smyth County to be in the “high” range — above 10.
Wednesday’s report showed those numbers at 26.3 for Smyth, 17.3 for Bristol and 15.8 for Washington County.
The “trend” showed decreases of three days in Smyth County and four days in Bristol and increasing the past six days in Washington County. Virginia considers case and testing trends to be fluctuating unless they have been moving one direction for 14 days or more.
When it comes to testing, Bristol showed the highest positivity rate at 8 percent with Washington County at 6.6 percent. Bristol’s rate, though has been increasing for 11 days while Washington County’s has been decreasing for 13 days.
Shelton mentioned what she called “some mixed messaging about testing.” Indeed, on Wednesday Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Robert Redfield said the agency will soon “clarify” changes it made without notice to its testing guidelines Aug. 24.
Those changes downplayed the need for tests for people who’d been within 6 feet of someone with COVID for at least 15 minutes. People who didn’t have symptoms or underlying health conditions “do not necessarily need a test,” the new guidelines said.
It’s not what Shelton said Friday: “If you are a contact to a case we encourage people to get tested at five to seven days – that’s about the average amount of time that most people will begin to exhibit symptoms or be contagious,” Shelton said.
Wednesday, the CDC appeared to be about to align with that approach, with Redfield saying the clarification “making it very clear asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission is important … (and) if you have been exposed to somebody, you need to be tested and contact traced.”
Shelton even said the district encouraged people who are “not sure if they may have been exposed but they have a level of concern” to get tested.
Shelton said with the rate of transmission “everyone … is basically a low-risk contact.”
That’s especially true in Washington and Smyth counties, she said.
“It is really hard for people to fathom where that spread 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, we are at widespread substantial community transmission, it is going up every day and it is very difficult to slow that spread when people continue to be out and about without concern for their community.”
Since Shelton spoke to News Channel 11, Smyth County has experienced three days of decreased numbers, but that follows a long upward climb. The county remains well above the floor of Virginia’s “high threshold” of 10 cases per 100,000.
Both counties also have been sites of long-term care outbreaks that have left dozens of residents infected and caused several deaths. One, at Valley Health Center in Chilhowie, was first reported Aug. 30 and had a count of 73 combined residents and staff infected as of Wednesday according to the Virginia Department of Health website.
The Rehab Center and Memory Care of Bristol had more than 60 cases as of Wednesday in an outbreak that started Aug. 4.
Shelton said Virginia residents have numerous testing options. People can call their area health department and set up a drive-through appointment. Many primary care physicians offer testing, as does Ballad Health.
Learn more about testing availability from the Virginia Department of Health: COVID-19 TESTING SITES