By Kevin R. Byrd
Byrd is executive director of the New River Valley Regional Commission.
The New River Valley Regional Commission fosters collaborations across communities, to forge beneficial and impactful outcomes for the region’s residents. As we began to navigate the challenges of a global pandemic, local leaders mobilized quickly and cooperatively. We are seeing the benefits of that collaboration.
In March 2020, before the first COVID-19 case was documented in Virginia, New River Health District Director Dr. Noelle Bissell and Blacksburg Police Chief Anthony Wilson convened the New River Valley Public Health Task Force, composed of partners in health care, emergency services, local governments, state agencies, higher education, human services and the list goes on, with participation and representation across the entire region.
The New River Valley is fortunate to have dedicated and knowledgeable leaders as members of the Task Force, providing our communities with stability and security during the current global pandemic. Over the past six months, the Task Force mobilized to organize and facilitate:
• drive-through COVID-19 testing, the first in the state outside of hard-hit metro areas;
• memorable and safe high school graduation ceremonies for local school divisions;
• working with Virginia Tech/Carilion Fralin Biomedical Research Institute to secure the necessary certifications to run PCR tests, with decreased turnaround times for test results;
• on-site testing to ensure our congregant care population in nursing homes, jails and other facilities are safe;
• the NRV Business Continuity Team a program that provides wraparound services to businesses impacted by a positive case (no other region in the state, perhaps the country, is doing this work);
• securing and providing PPE during a time resources were scarce;
• preventing the spread of illness from compromising our critical health care and public safety infrastructure;
• public information officers from partner organizations hosted a six-week virtual town hall series to share information from a wide range of perspectives;
• public information officers launched a regional wellness communications campaign entitled, “Be Committed. Be Well.”
To date, the Task Force has helped perform more than 31,000 PCR tests, which represents 20 percent of the regional population.
Having participated with the Task Force, I have observed a few undocumented, yet clearly evident, principles: everyone checks their ego at the door, everyone has a role to play, and everyone in the NRV deserves your best effort in order to keep our communities safe. Selfless, collaborative leadership has been the New River Valley way for decades, and now more than ever it is serving us all well during an unprecedented time.
The successful execution of regional approaches, particularly at a time of crisis, are predicated on established relationships with demonstrated trust over a period of time. Many people in the New River Valley may not be aware that local governments and universities have worked together for decades on significant projects. Their relationships go beyond planning for needs and extend to actual joint ownership of infrastructure. Across the region, there is joint ownership for water and wastewater systems, airports, broadband, industrial parks and trails.
Local government elected officials, appointed citizens and higher education leaders that support this level of collaboration come together on a monthly basis at the Regional Commission board meetings. They are tasked with thinking about the big picture of our region and contemplating ways to serve communities in the most cost-effective and impactful way possible. Frequently, it is local government managers (county administrators, city and town managers) that implement these services across the region. This is a group of leaders with extensive trust in each other and they communicate regularly. Since March, this group has met multiple times each week via conference call with Dr. Bissell at the Health District. This frequency of communication has proven highly effective in coordinating the regional use of CARES Act funds to deploy initiatives such as the “Be Committed. Be Well.” outreach and awareness campaign and the Business Continuity Team.
The concerted efforts of leaders exercising their trusted relationships is helping our region rise to the challenge of COVID-19. It is fair to say the high level of collaboration in the region is not found everywhere across this country, or even in the Commonwealth. The commitment to neighboring communities, and a common understanding of working together for the greater good, has served the New River Valley well and will continue to be a natural path forward throughout the pandemic. Certainly, more work remains ahead for the Task Force and the initiatives referenced above. Without a doubt, collaboration will continue to be a guiding principle for the New River Valley.