City’s trend of COVID cases improving, but officials remain concerned about vulnerable populations

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor, with additional reporting from the Virginia Department of Health by Andrew Jenner, publisher

Editor’s note, April 30, 2020: the article has been updated after the city moved one of its mobile COVID-19 testing sites from Harris Gardens to the Northeast neighborhood.

Harrisonburg could be seeing “the light at the end of the tunnel” in the rate of COVID-19 infections, the deputy emergency coordinator reported to city council Tuesday. 

 Paul Helmuth, who has been monitoring the virus since January, said in a presentation at Tuesday’s meeting that since peaking on April 17 with 25 new cases reported that day, the city has had “a continued downward trend in our cases.” That figure was down to six new confirmed cases on Sunday.

“It at least appears that we’re having a positive impact,” Helmuth said. 

As of Tuesday, Harrisonburg had about 400 total confirmed cases in the city and more than 200 in Rockingham County. Of those, he said 360 cases are still “active” in Harrisonburg and 190 in the county, although officials don’t have a comprehensive picture of how many people might have recovered from the virus.

A copy of the slide Paul Helmuth used in the course of his presentation to Harrisonburg’s City Council on April 28.

Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, said in the meeting that “the testing volume in this area has been high,” with Harrisonburg and Rockingham County accounting for 59 percent of the tests done in the entire district, which includes Augusta, Rockbridge, Bath, and Highland Counties.

Helmuth cautioned that pandemics tend to come in three waves, excluding the possibility of a vaccine being introduced between waves. 

“The longer that we social distance and do the current measures, the farther out it pushes that next wave,” he said.

The outbreak at long-term care facility Accordius Health might be improving as well. Kornegay said 86 of the facility’s residents have tested positive for COVID-19, showing a 96 percent infection rate. About 20 staff members tested positive as well. The Virginia Medical Reserve Corps stepped in to help fill staffing gaps while many employees were quarantined at home.

Helmuth said 21 people from the facility have died of COVID-19 during the outbreak. 

But now, “they do feel patients are starting to recover, and patients are starting to return to normal,” Helmuth said. “They’re actually in the recovery phase of the outbreak. They are actually having more and more of their staff return to work.”

This slide shows the spike that included the cases from the Accordius Health facility.

VDH “evaluating” whether to release locality-level testing data

On Tuesday morning, the number of COVID-19 cases in Harrisonburg confirmed by the Virginia Department of Health stood at 406, equivalent to 751 cases per 100,000 residents. That’s second only to Richmond County (a rural Northern Neck locality unrelated to the City of Richmond) whose official infection rate now stands at 1,534 cases per 100,000 residents.

Meanwhile, just 11 cases have been reported in Staunton — a rate of 44 per 100,000 residents.

Given the limited availability of testing in the state, and the fact that many who test positive for COVID-19 are asymptomatic, the actual infection rates could be much higher than the official numbers. But while the health department reports a statewide total for number of people tested —  82,753 as of Tuesday morning – it does not publicize testing totals by locality. Only case counts and deaths are reported by locality. 

That makes it impossible to know whether the pandemic has truly hit Harrisonburg close to 20 times harder than Staunton, or the degree to which differences in testing prevalence can explain the dramatic differences in infection rates in the two cities. For instance, the outbreak at Accordius Health led to blanket testing of residents and staff

But after repeated inquiries from The Citizen, the health department said in an email statement Tuesday that it will “be evaluating [its] ability to provide locality counts in the future.”

         The statement reiterated reasons why access to locality-level testing numbers would be helpful in understanding the uneven spread of COVID-19 across Virginia:

In some cases, there are concerted and focused testing efforts that [VDH] initiates which may in turn, result in more reported positive cases that may have not been discovered otherwise. If an outbreak occurs in a large congregate setting, such as a skilled nursing home or correctional facility, [we] may conduct point prevalence survey testing in which all occupants and staff are tested; sometimes in the hundreds. In such instances, even those that were without symptoms may show positive test results and this can be for the majority of the occupants – again resulting in a surge or large number of new positive cases.

The department didn’t provide details about when the agency might make locality-level testing data available.

Equity amidst the pandemic

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Kornegay said the health district is trying to gather data on the virus through a “health equity lens.” 

While “more robust” data is still in the works, Latinos account for about 37% of confirmed cases in Harrisonburg, where Latinos make up about 20% of the population, and 32% of cases in Rockingham County, where they represent 7.3% of the population

Kornegay said health officials will be meeting in the coming days “to really do strategic targeting in neighborhoods that need our help, be it prevention, testing, or education.”

Information about the neighborhoods in Harrisonburg most at risk would be available soon, she said. 

“We want to know where those spots are with residents who are already prone to diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other factors … that can make COVID-19 worse,” Council Member Chris Jones said.

Vice-Mayor Sal Romero said, in Fairfax, the statistics show Latinos are three times more likely to get infected with COVID-19.

“I know in Harrisonburg, there’s probably a correlation as well with getting infected and if you come from a minority background, immigrant background, or if you’re African American,” Romero said. “I continue to want to have that information available.”

Romero said he was concerned about how consistently poultry plants are implementing protective measures for their workers.

Helmuth announced that the city, in partnership with Sentara Rockingham Memorial Hospital, would provide a limited number of free COVID-19 tests this Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. One hundred tests will be split between two mobile testing stations – one in the Northeast neighborhood at the Simms Center parking lot, and one at the Mosby Court neighborhood off of Lee Highway. One person per household from those neighborhoods can get tested if they are presenting a symptom of the virus. Test results should be available within 48 hours, Helmuth said.

A press release from the city said the aim is to increase “the amount of testing available in diverse communities.”

“We are glad that we’re partnering with Sentara to get this done,” Mayor Deanna Reed said.

Progress on the city budget

The council also held a public hearing on the city budget in Tuesday’s meeting. 

Ten residents called in to offer comments. Four spoke in favor of repurposing the Heritage Oaks Golf Course – some because it has cost the city money since it opened in 2001, others because they want non-golfers to have access to the space for recreation or stormwater management. One caller spoke in favor of keeping the golf course because it draws tourists to the city. 

“This is a very hot topic,” Reed responded. “A lot of people feel very passionate about it … there’s two sides to every topic. And as city council members, it is our job to listen to both sides.” 

She referenced another city amenity that was shut down – the pool in her childhood neighborhood on Kelley Street, which was closed in the 1980s, and is now the site of the Immanuel Mennonite Church. 

“That was hurtful to us and it still hurts to this day, even though it’s now sacred ground,” Reed said.

Other callers advocated for city funds for the nonprofit organizations they represented, whether they had or had not been included in the staff’s drafted budget. 

Jones said the council was still working on that portion of the budget, and he hoped to fund some of the requests that were not included in the draft published on the city’s website.

Also in the meeting: 

  • The council unanimously approved the Harrisonburg School Board’s change order to suspend construction on the new high school. Council member George Hirschmann was absent from the meeting.
  • City Manager Eric Campbell announced the hiring of the new director of the Harrisonburg Rockingham Emergency Communications Center, Courtney Doberstein, who is a “more than 20-year veteran” of 911 telecommunications from Wisconsin.

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