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As COVID case counts rise in Southwest Virginia, contact tracing gets challenging

As COVID case counts rise in Southwest Virginia, contact tracing gets challenging


With hospital cases of COVID-19 increasing by more than a third in just one week, local public health officials warned Tuesday not to be tricked into thinking that the coronavirus will take a holiday.

“Everything that we’ve been asking individuals to do, we are imploring them to do right now. Stay home if you’re sick, contact people if you have COVID, consider downloading the COVIDWISE app,” said Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts. “Most importantly, as hard as it is, continue to physically distance, continue to wear masks and continue to practice hand hygiene.”

Morrow said during her weekly news briefing that 78 residents — up from 51 last week — are now in area hospitals, that case counts and deaths are rising, and that hospitals are nearing 90% capacity in the region.

Against that backdrop, she said, the health department’s contact tracers are having less success in getting through to people who have been exposed.

“They are having an increasingly difficult time trying to get to everybody in a timely manner. Some of our team members have a lot of people they are trying to contact, so we really want to appeal to the public: If you are diagnosed with COVID-19, please start telling your close contacts that they’ve been exposed,” she said.

Morrow said contact tracers try three times to phone someone who is exposed before sending them a letter. They are finding more often that people won’t answer or return their calls, and that they are less willing to quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week redefined the metric for close contacts from being within 6 feet of someone who has the virus for 15 minutes or more, to being that close for a total of 15 minutes during a 24-hour period.

“So people who last week would not be considered a close contact because they have five minutes exposure to someone a few times a day, are now considered a contact. The number of recommendations for people to quarantine is going up. In addition, we have a true increase in the number of cases,” she said. “That constellation of events indicates that our staff who have been working so hard the last few months are working even harder. And I think that’s part of our appeal for people to really help us.”

Some of the contact tracers have area codes outside the region and because of privacy issues, they are limited in what they can say in a message.

The Virginia Department of Health metrics place the state’s Near Southwest region, which includes the Roanoke and New River valleys, as having a high burden of disease, an increasing trend and substantial transmission.

The department reports that emergency department visits for COVID-like illnesses have increased for 36 days, intensive care hospitalizations have risen for 18 days, the percentage of health workers with infections has been up for eight days, and the number of outbreaks has increased for 21 days.

The Roanoke and Alleghany districts currently have 29 outbreaks, with 12 of them in long-term care facilities.

“There are very few long-term care facilities in our region that haven’t had an outbreak,” said Dr. Molly O’Dell, who is leading the pandemic effort.

O’Dell said they were searching for another way to get out their message and developed a jingle that she hopes will be spread widely.

The tune comes from a commercial that the former Evans Drug on Williamson Road aired during her childhood and that remains stuck in her head.

“The kids of the Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir were ecstatic to be able to offer something that may be of use to our community,” she said.

The message ends with “Social distance, wash your hands and wear a mask.”

Morrow and O’Dell were asked about the difficulty in getting people to heed public health messaging when they see Vice President Mike Pence continue to campaign despite having been in close contact with several staffers with infections.

“All I can say is that Dr. O’Dell and I are physicians and we are public health experts and we know what this disease is doing to our communities. We are living it every day,” Morrow said. “I think it’s important for people to listen to those who are the experts in the subject matter. In this situation, we are the experts.”

Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, also gave an update Tuesday. She said much of the spread she is seeing is among people who are not taking precautions, such as coworkers carpooling. She said they should be wearing masks and riding with windows open.

She said people can still socialize — they just need to do it outdoors, and keep it to no more than 10 or 15 people who can keep their distance. If distancing isn’t possible, wear a mask, she said.

The Radford City Council on Monday voted to extend its ban on gatherings of more than 50 people until Dec. 2.

Bissell said the district has four outbreaks in long-term care, four in other congregant living settings and two in higher education. She said the cases in students have remained mostly with students, and the cases in the community are mostly spread among community members without crossover.

She also asked people to push past their COVID fatigue.

“I can talk until I’m blue in the face but I can’t make this go away without my communities’ help,” she said. “We all know it started months ago, and people are tired of it. COVID is not going to get tired. It’s not.”

Staff writer Sam Wall contributed information to this report.

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