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Testing turnaround lags

Piedmont Health District Director Dr. H. Robert Nash expressed concerns Wednesday that a statewide increase in coronavirus testing is prolonging turnaround time for data and diagnostic material, making contact tracing and mitigation of community spread more difficult.

H. Robert Nash

In a Wednesday, July 22, interview, Nash said the health district is averaging 10 new cases per day. He estimated approximately 45% of the cases are related to facility outbreaks, which means 55% comes from community spread.

However, Nash said turnaround time for testing is getting to be problematic in terms of investigation and contact tracing. While the state is pumping out approximately 14,000 tests per day, this increase in testing seems to be overloading the capacity of some laboratories performing the tests. Nash said the effectiveness of contact tracing significantly deteriorates once results go beyond four to seven days from when the test was taken.

“The turnaround time gets longer because what we can’t do today we’ll have to finish tomorrow,” he said. “And tomorrow we’ll get just as many in as we did today that we couldn’t finish … We’re doing a lot of tests, but we’re doing so many tests we’re not getting the data back in a timely enough fashion to really intervene and do the community mitigation that we should be doing.”

Nash said there have been complaints from many district health directors regarding the unacceptably long turnaround time for results and that by the time data is received, it’s often too old to intercept, giving the virus a headstart on contact tracers.

Nash was hopeful, however, that the problem will self-correct in a week or two, as the district has already done broad, in-depth testing of more than 90% of nursing home facilities and most correctional facilities, and the district won’t be retesting that population of positive people again for another eight weeks.

He added Virginia is still holding its own compared to other states in the fight against COVID-19, and the central region of Virginia is doing very well as a whole, with a seven-day moving average of 100.3 new confirmed cases per day. Nash said the region hasn’t seen a lower moving average since April 28, approximately a month before the virus’ peak.

Nash did express further concern regarding the nearing of school reopenings.

“The thing that bothers me in the face of this is schools starting up as early as Aug. 10,” he added.

Nash said earlier announcements by school systems in Richmond and Henrico declaring school would be held online only for the first half of the year set a precedent for others. In fact, Cumberland County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Jones announced earlier Wednesday the school would be switching up tentative reopening plans and instead do remote-based learning for the first nine weeks after reviewing local coronavirus data.

“We’ve worked in consultation with all of the school districts, and they are really having a really hard time with this,” Nash said of the reopening process.

Nash emphasized the importance of masks has not dwindled, and said helping prevent further community spread is one of the best things residents can do to prevent an economic meltdown.

He added some of the coronavirus vaccinations being developed are looking promising, and was hopeful about the future of possible immunizations.

He also said the health district is gearing up for the incoming flu season, and that flu clinics with free flu vaccinations will be set up in every county. He said he expects a huge increase in the amount of residents obtaining a flu shot this year compared to pre-pandemic. 

Most counties in the health district saw coronavirus cases continue to grow over the past week, according to data obtained from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) .

On Wednesday, July 22, VDH reported a total number of 587 coronavirus cases in Buckingham County over the course of the pandemic, up 10 cases from the previous week’s count of 577.

Cumberland County was actually listed as having 60 cases, one case lower than the previous week’s cumulative of 61.

Prince Edward County rose four cases this week, going from 238 as of Wednesday, July 15, to 242 as of July 22.

Lunenburg rose two cases this week, from 42 to 44. Charlotte increased by four cases, from 38 to 42.

Nottoway County saw the biggest increase in cases over the past week, from 135 July 15 to 157 July 22. Amelia County rose from 55 cases to 60.