A state-sponsored local COVID testing site will be open from Saturday through Thursdays beginning this weekend, part of a Virginia Department of Health effort to increase community testing using more sensitive and accurate tests.
The health department announced last week that it would open nine community testing centers across the state, including one in the Charlottesville area, to provide more access to PCR tests, which are generally more accurate than over-the-counter at-home testing options.
“We are very aware of the high demand for testing in the community right now,” Blue Ridge Health Department spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said at virtual town hall on Monday. “We are trying our best to provide as many testing resources as possible.”
The newest testing center will start swabbing nostrils Saturday near the Food Lion on Pantops, Goodman said.
Because of the increase in demand, all the Blue Ridge Health District testing sites will be open by appointment only. Schedule appointments online vase.vdh.virginia.gov or call the BRHD hotline at (434) 972-6261.
“We are currently experiencing the highest transmission of COVID since the pandemic started,” Ryan McKay, the COVID-19 incidence commander for the health district said in the town hall. “It’s a pretty drastic increase in what we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks. What we anticipate is that it will continue to increase.”
The health district has reported 3,738 new cases so far this month — setting a monthly record 11 days into January. A majority of those new cases are caused by the omicron variant, McKay said. This increase is putting a strain on area hospitals, which have urged people not to visit emergency departments for mild cases of COVID-19 or testing. Sentara Healthcare announced last week that it was postponing elective procedures.
On Monday, the University of Virginia Medical Center admitted 20 new patients with COVID-19, a record for the medical center since it started publicly tracking the data, and the medical center has 106 COVID-19 patients overall.
That increase has ripple effects to other parts of the hospital system, said Dr. Michael Williams, a surgeon at the University of Virginia Medical Center and director of the Center for Health Policy for the university.
“Bottom line; we don’t have the capacity to have those dominoes fall all the way back to the community level,” Williams said.
Williams encouraged people who need a COVID-19 test to seek out other options such as free drive-thru clinics or from their primary care doctor. If you go to the emergency department for a COVID-19 test and that’s the only reason, “you will wait and you will wait and you will wait,” he said.
“[That’s] because there are people who are actually sick with any number of things, including potentially COVID, that are more serious and need to be assessed for that level of illness that we can’t otherwise detect if they’re not there,” he said.
So far, he said people who have come to UVa have received the care they need.
“But I will say that it’s very, very likely — and that many of you may have experienced this — that it’s taken longer than any of us would have liked for you to get that care,” he said.
Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at UVa, said the number of COVID-19 patients is the highest they’ve seen and more than anticipated. Most of the patients he works with are unvaccinated.
Before omicron, hospitals had staffing challenges as healthcare workers burned out from the pandemic. Now, the new variant is infecting healthcare workers, adding to the burden, Bell said. Those who are vaccinated and boosted have not been ending up in the hospital if they get infected, he said.
“We can expect more people to get infected, but if we’re vaccinated and boosted, we can keep people out of the hospital and we can keep the strain off of the healthcare system,” he said.
In addition to getting vaccinated, community members should wear a mask when indoors, social distance and wash their hands, officials said
The health district is encouraging people to use a high-quality, secure fitting mask such as KN95 mask or surgical mask.
Goodman said the district is working to order at least 30,000 KN95 masks to distribute to schools and community members who otherwise might not have access to those masks.