Amid ‘stunning surge’ in COVID cases, city shifts meetings back online

Paul Helmuth, deputy emergency coordinator for the Harrisonburg Fire Department, describes to city council members Tuesday the spike in cases. In addition to reducing seating in the city council chambers, the city will shift public meetings online for at least the next 30 days.

UPDATE: This story was updated at 9:30 p.m. with new information about the Central Shenandoah Valley Health District’s funding.

By Ryan Alessi, publisher

The city council approved an emergency declaration Tuesday, sending public meetings back online for at least a month and raising the alarm that the community’s sharp increase in COVID-19 cases will further strain an overstretched health care system. 

The council, in what was the city’s last in-person public meeting for a while, unanimously ratified the emergency order that interim city manager Ande Banks proposed earlier Tuesday. The order requires all city public meetings, including Wednesday evening’s planning commission meeting, to shift online to prevent them from becoming spreader events because of the contagious Omicron variant. City leaders said the order is expected to be in place for 30-45 days and applies only to public meetings. It doesn’t limit private gatherings. 

The move comes as Harrisonburg, like the rest of Virginia, struggles with what Banks described as a “stunning surge” of COVID cases. 

Over the last week, the city has seen 844 new COVID cases, 25 additional COVID-related hospitalizations and two deaths from the virus, according to statistics Paul Helmuth, deputy emergency coordinator for the Harrisonburg Fire Department, presented to the council Tuesday. 

Helmuth, in his first city council COVID briefing in six months, said several metrics show this spike is Harrisonburg’s steepest of the pandemic. The percentage of people who tested positive for COVID last week was 43.5%, which is the highest that rate has been. Harrisonburg had 1,383 new cases for every 100,000 residents, well above the 464 reported the previous week of Dec. 26-Jan. 1.

Paul Helmuth’s presentation Tuesday shows the Valley with positivity rates in the high 30% and low 40% range, underscoring the challenge to the regional health care network.

“The biggest concern to me isn’t necessarily the fact that we have this big spike occurring,” Helmuth said. “The concern is: How does this affect our health system?”

As local hospitals are forced to devote additional beds, equipment, resources and personnel to patients with COVID, those facilities have less capacity to treat others with life-threatening health issues, he said. Last Thursday, one regional hospital had to divert ambulances to other hospitals for five hours because it was out of capacity, he said. 

Helmuth underscored that most hospitalizations in the area — and nationally —are among unvaccinated people and pointed to Tuesday’s New York Times article with graphs showing a wide gulf between the percentage of COVID-related hospitalizations among those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t.

If there is a silver lining, Helmuth said it’s that the spike is expected to recede faster than past upticks in cases. It is predicted to peak over the next three weeks and drop by February. 

Meanwhile, COVID testing in the community remains a challenge. 

The Central Shenandoah Valley Health District provides those tests to city residents at events from 9-11 a.m. Mondays and Thursdays at JMU’s University Park at 1090 Devon Lane. Those tests take up to three days for results to come back. But because demand has been so high in recent weeks, many people have been turned away. 

“The last couple times, we’ve run out of tests within 30 minutes of opening,” said Mike Parks, the city’s communications director. 

City Attorney Chris Brown told the council at Tuesday’s meeting that the district was running low on funding for COVID tests and could run out of money for that program in about a week. The council then approved a resolution directing Mayor Deanna Reed to send a letter urging elected officials to support restoring funding. But the district said Wednesday in a statement it was a miscommunication and the district has enough funding for testing, as the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record was first to report on Wednesday afternoon.

An additional complication is that home test kits also remain scarce locally. 

But Helmuth said some people seeking tests sometimes don’t need them. For instance, Helmuth said if a person in a household is sick with COVID and another member of the household develops similar symptoms, “They don’t need to be tested,” he said. “They have COVID.” 

For city leaders, though, the options to stem the fast-moving virus’s spread in the community are limited. Still, council member Chris Jones said it’s essential people be diligent about wearing masks around others and washing their hands. 

“We can argue about the politics that you may believe in COVID or not or the vaccine or not,” he said, “but just to keep Harrisonburg and Rockingham and our nation going, you’ve got to do those two.”

Tuesday’s city council meeting was the last public meeting before the emergency order takes effect Wednesday. The council chambers, normally with a capacity of about 100, held just 20 chairs for the public, all spread 5 feet apart. The city will stream public meetings through its website and allow for public comments through phone and online. 

To determine when to lift the emergency order, Parks said city leaders will consider the total number of COVID-19 cases and the percentage of people in the community who have tested positive for the virus. In addition, they’ll seek feedback from members of the public and those who sit on other city boards, such as the planning commission. 

“We hope to be back in person as soon as possible,” Parks said. 

New location for the voting precinct at JMU?

Harrisonburg’s Electoral Board members and Mark Finks, the city’s director of elections and general registrar, toured five JMU buildings on Tuesday as they search to replace JMU’s Convocation Center as one of the city’s eight voting precincts. 

JMU will be repurposing the space in the Convo, where voting has taken place since 2016. 

The Atlantic Union Bank Center, which replaced the Convo as the home of JMU’s basketball teams, was among the potential replacement sites that election officials toured Tuesday. The other JMU buildings were Festival Conference and Student Center, Godwin Hall, the Student Success Center and UREC. Finks said other campus related sites could be considered, however. 

The precinct not only serves students who live on JMU’s campus but also city residents who live in the surrounding neighborhood. That makes parking a consideration. 

Finks told The Citizen the electoral board hopes to select the new precinct site by its next meeting at 9 a.m. Jan. 24, so that board members can finalize the draft of the city’s new precinct maps as part of the redistricting process. The maps then go to the city council for approval.

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