COVID-19 testing increases in Virginia, but officials still can’t provide testing rate in Harrisonburg

In this photo taken on March 19, 2020 the Sentara RMH website states “Effective Monday, March 16, all routine visiting was being suspended until the transmission of COVID-19 is no longer a threat to our patients, staff and community.”

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

The ability to test for COVID-19 and the accessibility of testing are increasing in Virginia this month, health department officials said Wednesday. 

The Virginia Department of Health held a teleconferenced press briefing Wednesday and reported that capacity has steadily increased over the last few weeks between public health, hospital and commercial labs, said Michael Keatts, the Virginia Department of Health’s Northwest emergency health coordinator.

“In general, we’re in a much better place than we were a month ago,” Keatts said. 

At this point, 6,500 people are being tested per day, and about 1,350 of those are being carried out in public health labs. Keatts said the department has been working to improve accessibility to testing for high risk populations and that the testing criteria has been expanded to include people who do not show symptoms for COVID-19 but are prioritized by clinicians.

A total of 127,938 people in Virginia have been tested for the novel coronavirus as of Wednesday, according to the state health department’s website. Locality-specific results are still not displayed.

Keatts couldn’t say how Harrisonburg’s testing rate compares to the rest of the state but said he was still optimistic about their capability, referring to the community testing carried out in the city this past weekend. 

“When test requests are made, they are able to meet those requests,” Keatts said. 

To help stave off massive outbreaks, such as the one last month at the long-term care Accordius Health facility in Harrisonburg, the health department has ramped up testing at facilities, such as nursing homes and correctional facilities. 

“This type of testing is aimed at all residents and staff to detect all presence of infection and can be used to assist with controlled measures, such as separating those infected,” Keatts said. 

That effort will mean daily testing at nursing homes across Virginia over the next month with the help of teams from the Virginia National Guard. Although this “point of prevalence” testing, as health officials call it, was carried out based on need or requests from nursing homes, the health department is now actively targeting those facilities for surveillance.  

Although he couldn’t recall the specific percentage of such testing being carried out at long term care facilities, Keatts said they do make up a significant portion of the state’s overall testing. 

“Some of these facilities have 75 to 150 of these tests carried out in one day,” Keatts said. 

Denise Toney, the director of the division of consolidated labs, said labs are currently working to implement serological testing to detect antibodies to fight against the novel coronavirus, as well as next generation sequencing technology to monitor different strains of the virus across the commonwealth. 

U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, told reporters via a separate teleconference later that he believes the increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases is related to an increase in testing. However, he also said more testing will be needed before Virginia can scale back social distancing measures and open more businesses and public spaces. 

“We’re going to need exponentially more testing if we’re going to reopen,” Warner said. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order lasts through June 10, although his order to close non-essential businesses and limit public gatherings ends after May 14. 

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