Health officials offer few details about COVID-19 test availability in Hburg — but continue to stress social distancing

A Dream Come True Playground, which normally would be a hub of activity on an early spring day, is empty like most public places in the age of social distancing. (Photos by Holly Marcus)

By Andrew Jenner, publisher, with additional reporting by Calvin Pynn, contributor

On Tuesday, March 17, Elliott started having aches and chills. The next day, he got word that someone he’d been in contact with the prior week had just been diagnosed with COVID-19. And then on that Thursday, Elliott (whose name has been changed to protect his and the COVID-19 patient’s privacy) got a call from the Virginia Department of Health.

“[They] wanted to verify my contact with that person. They went through basically a standard list of questions that was somewhat generalized, I’m sure kind of a public health checklist, with a few of the questions being more specific,” Elliott said. “That ranged from first checking on my symptoms and confirming when the contact was and what the contact consisted of – duration, touching, distance, indoor/outdoor, all of those things.”

Despite exhibiting some symptoms of a viral infection and having known contact with a COVID-19 patient a week earlier, Elliott was told he would not be tested unless he developed a fever, a cough and shortness of breath – in which case, he was told to seek immediate medical attention. The health department representative told him to self-quarantine until 14 days after the potential exposure, which ended this past week. He didn’t develop any of the symptoms the health department cautioned him to monitor.

A copy of the letter the Virginia Department of Health sent to Elliott.

In the aftermath of his initial conversation with public health officials, Elliott began telling other people he’d been in contact with that he’d been potentially exposed to COVID-19. Among the first thing they’d say in response: “Are you getting tested?”

“I think the average understanding for people was that if you had contact with a case, you would, of course, be tested. And that is apparently not the case, or at least not my story,” he said. “It was made clear to me that even if the symptoms I was experiencing was COVID-19, unless it rose to a certain level there would be no test at this point.”

While local testing capabilities for COVID-19 are limited (as is the case nationwide), health officials offered few details about it when contacted by The Citizen

A Sentara RMH spokesman referred questions about the number of tests available at the hospital to the Virginia Department of Health, and the health department said it doesn’t track either the number of tests administered locally or the number available.

 “Testing capabilities in commercial labs and [the state lab] have improved over the past week,” said Dr. Laura Kornegay of the Central Shenandoah Health District. “[But] I do not know how many tests are available specifically in the Rockingham area.”

The agency does track testing on statewide level, however. As of press time, the Virginia Health Department reported that a total of 10,609 people in Virginia were tested for COVID-19. South Korea was testing roughly that number each day earlier this month.

In Virginia, 890 cases have been confirmed through positive tests. Of that statewide total on Sunday evening, five have been diagnosed in Harrisonburg, with four additional ones in Rockingham County.

“The health department actively monitors the condition of all COVID-19 patients in isolation, touching base with them at least once per day,” Kornegay said. “The local health department also actively monitors the condition of all COVID-19 cases who are placed in quarantine.”

This comes as President Donald Trump announced Sunday the extension of social distancing guidelines through April 30 as a way to continue to mitigate against the spread of and sharp spikes in COVID-19 cases.

In lieu of concrete data related to testing, The Citizen asked both the hospital and the state health department officials to address questions about whether the lack of testing is complicating local response to COVID-19. 

A Virginia Department of Health spokesman had not yet responded by press time. Sentara RMH spokesman Neil Mowbray pointed to Sentara’s general information page for coronavirus, which includes self-screening guidelines for those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

In a previous interview earlier in the week, health department spokesman Robert Parker also emphasized the importance of social distancing and urged the public to think about testing in a different way.

“It’s a medical test,” Parker said. “There’s a limited capacity, and they need to be reserved for those who need them most.”

That approach to testing was part of Elliott’s conversation with health department officials after they contacted him to verify his potential exposure.

“[The said the tests are] for those who are hospitalized, who could expose healthcare workers to greater harm and are the most vulnerable,” Elliott said. “They basically said what I needed to do was stay home for 14 days from the date of contact. And if I had tested positive, they would likely tell me something very similar. The only difference would be what they would say the folks in my household would need to do. And that’s what would change if I tested positive.”

He said, based on his experience, that others who have been exposed to the virus aren’t being tested “likely because we don’t have tests.” 

“Those people may have the virus or not, but they’re out there, and that’s why you’ve got to stay home — because you might have it,” he said. ”If we’re not testing people, we don’t know. And I know now that I can’t look at that number of positive tests in our area and really read much into it at all, because that’s only people who are hospitalized with severe symptoms.”

The Valley Mall’s parking lot is completely empty on a March weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Other local COVID-19 related news:

  • Amid widespread concern about shortages of protective equipment for healthcare workers across the country, a Sentara RMH official says the hospital its paying close attention to its supply. 

    “We are managing our supply of PPE very carefully, and on a daily basis, to ensure we have enough protective equipment to adequately care for our patients,” said Anthony Bruno, vice president of medical affairs. “We are proactively ordering supplies, employing industry standards for preservation, and evaluating techniques for reuse of certain items so we can ensure our supply is sufficient well into the future.”
  • As reported earlier this month by WHSV News, the Middle River Regional Jail (MRRJ) in Verona began granting early release to some inmates held for nonviolent crimes, in order to relieve crowding at the facility and prepare for the possibility of isolating any inmate that might test positive for COVID-19.
  • On Friday, Rockingham County Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst to The Citizen her office has prepared paperwork to allow for early release for 32 inmates from Rockingham County and Harrisonburg, held at both MRRJ and the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail in Harrisonburg. The orders pertain to inmates held for nonviolent crimes and within 90 days of release. It is unclear how many of that total have already been released to date.

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