Central Shenandoah Health District seeing ‘significant community transmission’

COVID-19 case numbers in the Central Shenandoah Health District have increased throughout the past month and reached a single-day high on Saturday, Nov. 28. Screenshots from the Virginia Department of Health COVID-19 dashboard

By Calvin Pynn, contributor

Although not at emergency levels, cases and hospitalizations from COVID-19 have been trending noticeably upward in the Central Shenandoah Health District.

“The district has seen a significant increase in cases and general increases in hospitalizations related to COVID,” said Dr. Laura Kornegay, health director for the district, in an email to The Citizen.

Of the 10 cities and counties in the district, Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have the highest cumulative totals for COVID-19 cases. As of Monday, a total of 3,472 cases have been reported in Harrisonburg, with another 2,270 cases in Rockingham County, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health

Since the JMU spike three months ago, daily case counts have fluctuated at levels comparable to the early months of the pandemic.

A dramatic early September spike in cases at JMU resulted in the temporary cancellation of most in-person classes and accounts for close to half of the total cases reported in the city. In Rockingham County, case numbers rose throughout November and reached their highest-yet level on Saturday, Nov. 28, when 50 positive COVID-19 tests were reported. In Harrisonburg, cases have fluctuated up and down for the past two months, with 37 new cases reported on Saturday.

In Rockingham County, November brought the highest reported case levels since the pandemic began.

Kornegay said that while substantial community transmission is occurring, it’s too soon to see any effect from the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“I can’t explain this rise due to a single event or outbreak. It would be a bit early to see a surge related to Thanksgiving gatherings, as the average incubation period for COVID is five-to-seven days and can be as long as two weeks,” she said. 

Sentara RMH not facing capacity concerns

As of Monday, a cumulative total of 104 Harrisonburg residents and 158 Rockingham County residents had been hospitalized with COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Rockingham County had its highest single-day number of hospitalizations on Nov. 21, with eight people admitted, likely to Sentara RMH.

While the hospital would not confirm the number of COVID-19 patients currently being treated there, citing corporate policy, Vice President of Medical Affairs Anthony Bruno said it remains “well within the capability” of RMH to handle.

“​The hospital continues to closely monitor the number of hospitalized COVID cases we have and the number of beds that are needed for these patients. We are able to adjust the number of beds up or down depending on current needs,” he said, in an email.

Kornegay noted that rising case numbers also impact the area’s hospitals in other ways.

“The staff of hospital systems and other healthcare organizations are affected by community transmission, which challenges staffing numbers when people are away from work for isolation or quarantine periods. As community transmission and cases have increased throughout the commonwealth, the health district, VDH, and the healthcare coalitions throughout the state continue to carefully monitor hospital capacity,” Kornegay said.

Sentara RMH // file photo by Holly Marcus

Contingency plans in place

Bruno said RMH is preparing for what public health officials say could be a “long, dark winter” with COVID-19 cases anticipated to rise. 

“Sentara RMH follows the recommendations of the VDH, CDC, and our own organization, Sentara Healthcare. The hospital has contingency plans in place that we can quickly implement in the event of a significant upsurge of cases in coming weeks or months,” Bruno said.

Those plans go back to protocols first established in the early days of the pandemic.

“While it’s impossible to predict what the coming months will bring in terms of the COVID caseload, our staff remains vigilant and ready to address increasing numbers of patients if that happens in our area,” Bruno said. 

He also said the hospital is better equipped now to handle an outbreak.

“We know much more about the COVID-19 virus now than we did back in March, April and May, so we’re able to treat COVID patients more effectively than we did at the beginning of the pandemic. We remain vigilant and hopeful that we will not need to call on our mass crisis plans, but we have those plans ready to go, and our team has been trained in how to respond in the event of a huge increase in patients,” Bruno said. 

As the VDH and Central Shenandoah Health District continue working with healthcare providers as cases begin rising, Kornegay re-emphasized the same precautions that officials have implored the public to follow for months. 

“We continue to keep our community partners apprised of local conditions, and encourage everyone to continue with the basic prevention messages that we have talked about since the beginning of the pandemic: wash your hands; socially distance, and wear a mask. In addition, during times of high community transmission, we are safer at home,” Kornegay said.

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