City infection rate is by far the state’s highest, for reasons that are unclear

At 467 cases per 100,000 residents, Harrisonburg has by far the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the state. Shown above are the statewide rate, the other localities with the ten highest rates, plus several other Shenandoah Valley localities. All totals calculated using VDH daily case counts and 2019 estimated populations for each locality.

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

After a sharp increase in local COVID-19 cases over the past week – including an outbreak at the long-term care facility Accordius Health that has infected 81 residents and left 10 dead – Harrisonburg has by far the highest per-capita rate of cases in the state.

As of Monday morning, the Virginia Department of Health reported a total of 252 cases in the city, or about 467 per 100,000 residents. That’s well over four times the statewide rate of 105 cases per 100,000 residents and far above Alexandria, in second place with 265 cases per 100,000.

A total of 93 cases were associated with the outbreak at Accordius Health, with 12 staff members and 81 residents testing positive, according to an April 18 press release. Even without those cases, the city would still have the state’s highest infection rate — an unwanted distinction with no clear explanation.

Central Shenandoah Health District Director Dr. Laura Kornegay pointed to factors such as the community’s density and interconnectedness — or “congregate settings” as she put it — as well as the number of still-open “critical businesses, and living conditions that make social distancing difficult” as potential culprits for Harrisonburg’s high number of confirmed cases.

“In some settings, it is more difficult to adhere to social distancing, and it can also be challenging for individuals to adhere to isolation and quarantine recommendations depending on their home environment and social supports,” Kornegay said in an email. “All of those factors seem to be playing some role in the case counts in this area.”

Far lower rates of infection are reported for other small cities in the region. Charlottesville and Winchester’s per-100,000 case rates are 83 and 89 people, respectively, while Waynesboro and Staunton have rates of less than 40 per 100,000.

Harrisonburg’s 252 cases outnumber the 236 confirmed cases in Richmond, which is more than four times larger. And Harrisonburg’s figure is close to the 281 cases confirmed in Virginia Beach, which has a population more than eight times larger than Harrisonburg’s.

Unprecedented blanket testing follows outbreak at long-term care facility

In the city and across the state, limited testing of people potentially exposed to the coronavirus or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 suggests that the true case counts have been higher than official totals. After the discovery of the first cases at Accordius Health, however, all residents and staff were tested, which is a first for the region, said city spokesman Mike Parks, in an email.

“That’s a huge group of people who otherwise wouldn’t have been tested and we would have taken an educated guess at the true number,” Parks wrote. “Dr. Kornegay pushed to make sure all those people got tested so this situation could be handled as seriously as possible, and her doing so is giving VDH a real look at the true scope of the outbreak there.”

Kornegay told the The Citizen that the increased testing as a result of the Accordius outbreak could mean that the city’s notably high official infection rate is simply closer in line with its actual infection rate. Or maybe not.

“As with a number of questions related to a novel pathogen, there are many questions that we simply don’t have the answer to yet,” she wrote.

Combined city-county rate also far above state average

Monday’s official case count in Rockingham County stood at 106 cases, equivalent to 129 per 100,000 residents. The combined 358 cases in the city and county represent an infection rate of 263 per 100,000 residents. That’s just below the 265 per 100,000 rate in Arlington, which the state’s second-highest concentration of cases after Harrisonburg.

Meanwhile, the combined case rate for Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta County, which have a total population close to the same as Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, stands at just 33 per 100,000.

“We have too many positive cases in our area. Our local population is not doing enough to follow social distancing regulations and to keep themselves, their families and their neighbors safe,” wrote city spokesman Mike Parks in an email. “Why that is the case, I’m not sure, but we discuss how to address it every day. Perhaps we aren’t getting this message out in the right ways and some are missing it. Maybe we have some individuals locally who aren’t taking this seriously enough for some reason. Maybe it’s just bad luck.”

Parks said that after more than a month of working hard to promote social distancing, the city will “continue to try and come up with different ways to reach people.”

That will soon include 5,000 door hangers and 8,000 mailers with social distancing messaging in five languages.

“Ultimately, people have to make good decisions about how they distance not only while they are at their essential jobs … but also in how they congregate while home,” he wrote.

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  1. Les Grady

    Actually, with most students gone, the population is lower, making the rate per 100,000 even higher.

  2. Joni Grady

    If we are proud to be a city of refugees and immigrants, we must also take responsibility for helping the strangers in our midst stay safe and informed.

  3. Tiffany

    Of the many cases, do we know how many have been hospitalized?

  4. Hadley H Jenner

    Keep reporting on this! This highlights the role of effecting testing and should encourage us to begin contact tracing as Massachusetts has just initiated. We can certainly do more to prevent this than has been done to this point. Until we do, I’m afraid more shocks and surges in case numbers await us.

  5. Vanessa Redmond

    Has anyone looked in to the working conditions of the poultry plants? That’s something that’s different about Harrisonburg, compared to other regions in the state.

  6. Jennifer

    “Our local population is not doing enough to follow social distancing regulations and to keep themselves, their families and their neighbors safe,” wrote city spokesman Mike Parks in an email.”

    They’ve all been coming to Walmart! The number of people who are bringing the entire family shopping is mind blowing. And people don’t know how to keep their distance.

  7. Ros

    I think there could be a lot more done to enforce social distancing at retail locations. I’ve stopped going to grocery stores in person because of the number of people refusing to keep 6 feet, and because many employees are not wearing masks or gloves (not sure if this is enforced by management or a choice). The exception is the Friendly City Food Co-op, which has put a number of measures in place, and employees are being very cautious. Hardware stores are a big culprit as well, especially now that gardening season is in full swing. Home Depot has made good efforts to enforce social distancing, but even they struggle with enforcement, and all other hardware stores I’ve visited have signs about social distancing, but few or no people are following the guidelines, including employees. The last time I went to Lowe’s (this was several weeks ago, because I decided it wasn’t safe to go again after that) the parking lot was nearly full, and it was impossible to navigate around the store without coming in close contact with people.

  8. I am sure the Hispanic population in Harrisonburg/R’ham far outweighs that in Staunton/Augusta. I wonder if they have a clear understanding of the distancing and other precautions to make? I have no idea if the covid virus is infecting more Hispanics or not (other than the nursing homes) but the large local number makes we worry and wonder.

  9. AnneCallie

    Just curious as to where you find the information on the number of deaths? The VDH website still only has one death attributed to the whole city/county?

    • hburgcitizen

      The information about number of deaths at Accordius was from a VDH press release. Not sure why that doesn’t match the totals reported on the online tracker.

  10. Gio

    What I’m learning from the comments is that it’s not a good idea to go into stores like Wal-mart, Lowe’s, and Home Depot. Huh. I’m shocked. I wish there had been some effort to warn the public.

    Seriously, what are people doing with their lives? I stopped going to places like that at the beginning of March. This isn’t an extended snow day.

    If there are things you can’t live without, you can buy them online and show up in the parking lot and have them loaded right into your trunk. You don’t even need to download an app. Welcome to 2018.

  11. Diana W

    I lived in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County for over 15 years. . .been living away for the last year. Is there a connection between H’burg’s high % of COVID and its high % of non-native English speakers? Are precautions being presented in Spanish and Arabic? Kurdish and Russian? I’m not pointing a blaming finger at immigrants, far from it. I now live in western Maryland and travel frequently to PA, and I haven’t seen ANY information in any language other than English–not even Spanish–a shame. . .

    • hburgcitizen

      Yes, the city has been disseminating social distancing recommendations in multiple languages.

  12. Josh diamond

    What role does the poultry industry have in all this? We are talking here about people’s individual choices, while collectively, the folks who have less ability to get child-care, to work from home, or take time off, are working in tight places in our massive poultry industry….

  13. Candy Foster

    Thank you for for this detailed account about Harrisonburg’s and Rockingham County’s extremely high COVID-19 infection rate. I appreciate the information and the analysis. I am interested in finding ways that we as a community can get the spread of COVID-19 under control.

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