Labor Day weekend, the return of University of Virginia students and the reopening of some public and private schools led to another record month for the Thomas Jefferson Health District as it deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, despite the rising case numbers, officials with the health district said they adapted quickly to those new challenges and continued to meet their goals for testing, contact tracing and case investigations.
“We had all of these new moving parts that we hadn’t really faced yet, and that created some new challenges as far as contact tracing and case investigation, and our messaging to all those communities,” said Ryan McKay, senior policy analyst for the TJHD. “I feel like we did a tremendous job to meet all those challenges.”
McKay said the return of students and school reopenings made case investigations and contact tracing more complex as officials tried to figure out with whom people had been in contact and to help those infected understand the process.
“Making sure that people understand that no one is in trouble or we don’t want a stigma around this,” McKay said. “I think getting that information became a little bit more difficult in September.”
Last month, the district recorded 1,081 new positive cases, 20 new hospitalizations and 20 new deaths, four more than August’s 16 fatalities. Daily case numbers had seemed to stabilize in August when 770 new cases were reported. As of Friday, the district had 3,651 cases.
The health district encompasses Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.
COVID-19 restrictions in Albemarle and Charlottesville remain in effect until Nov. 18. Masks are required in public and restaurants are limited to 50% occupancy indoors.
As in past months, COVID-19 data from September shows the pandemic hasn’t gone away and that adherence to public health precautions, such as wearing a mask, is key to slowing the spread of the virus.
“Wearing a mask is the one thing individuals can do that we have control over that not only can provide a little bit of protection for us, but is the most important thing we can do to support our community,” McKay said. “We can distance — and distancing is part of it — but it’s not going to be the only thing we should do. The masking is critical.”
Charlottesville accounted for 52% of the new cases, with 565, according to an analysis of the health district data. People ages 10 to 29 made up 67% of the new cases. UVa reported 687 new cases among students and staff during September. Case numbers from UVa are included in the health district’s data portal.
McKay said throughout the pandemic, the health district has seen spikes after holidays such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. Following Labor Day and the reopening of schools, “we saw that influx happen relatively quickly, maybe within one or two weeks.”
McKay added that the district saw a similar pattern to what happened in Harrisonburg and Montgomery County after James Madison University and Virginia Tech, respectively, started the semester.
“What we were looking to, though, is that we could contain it to the extent possible and keep our positivity rate down and our incidence rate per 100,000 down in comparison to other school communities,” McKay said. “And make sure that those students — particularly those on Grounds and university students off-Grounds — have access to rooms for isolation and quarantine.”
UVa reported Friday that 29% of its quarantine beds are in use, while 9% of its isolation rooms are occupied. The university currently has 270 active cases, 252 of which are students.
Looking at new cases per 100,000 residents is a relatively new measure that the Virginia Department of Health has publicly provided. McKay said it’s a helpful metric to understand and compare community transmission across localities. Adjusting the cases per 100,000 standardizes the rate.
“I think even with the case incidence rate per 100,000 in Charlottesville or Albemarle, it’s going to be skewed because we’ve had an influx in positive cases related to university students where that may not translate to more cases community-wide,” McKay said. “It just has a bigger impact on our numbers locally.”
Charlottesville’s weekly case incidence rate has remained much higher all month compared with other localities in the district, going from 27.9 to 41.9 over the course of September. Harrisonburg’s case incidence rate was 33.3, while Montgomery County’s rate was 30.9 on Wednesday.
In Albemarle, the weekly rate was 13.5 cases per 100,000. Greene County had the next-highest rate, at 7.9.
UVa students living in university-owned housing are counted in Albemarle’s numbers.
The case incidence rate is one of three key measures the VDH has recommended that schools use in deciding how to reopen.
The district’s weekly average percent of positive cases stayed relatively stable during September, ending the month at 4.6%. For 17 days last month, the rate stayed below 5% and also consecutively declined for seven days, a new record for the district.
McKay said an increase in testing, as well as slower community transmission in other counties within the district, helped to keep the positivity rate lower.
UVa has ramped up its efforts to test students and to provide community testing clinics after boosting its capacity to process more tests a day. On average, there were 644 tests conducted a day during September, according to a Daily Progress analysis.
During September, UVa’s testing of students and employees accounted for 39% of 19,322 tests conducted in the health district.
With any of the data points, McKay said it’s important to look at the different metrics together and any other context, such as a recent outbreak at the Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center and UVa students returning to the area.
Through contact tracing and investigating, McKay said officials can get a good sense of where community transmission is happening and how many cases can be attributed to UVa, though it’s hard to truly quantify.
“It gets a little trickier with Charlottesville just because there’s so much interconnectedness between the university and the city,” McKay said.
He added that, so far, the district hasn’t seen a lot of transmission between UVa and the broader community.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not happening or can’t happen,” he said.
Looking ahead to October, McKay said the district is expecting another month of challenges as it continues to adjust to changing circumstances. He encouraged people to continue to wear masks, keep their distance from other people, avoid large gatherings and wash their hands.
“So it doesn’t take much,” McKay said of contracting the virus. “People need to remain vigilant. Regardless of what’s happening with the university, what’s happening in different businesses, understand what the risks are and the strategies that you can take to minimize that risk. … I think the important thing is if we want those students back in schools with the lowest amount of risk to the extent possible, vigilance is key.”