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Editorial: Why is Southwest Virginia on track to have the state's highest rate of virus infections?

Editorial: Why is Southwest Virginia on track to have the state's highest rate of virus infections?

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For generations, we Americans believed our oceans were sufficient protection against most of the world’s horrors.

We were disabused of that notion on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Likewise, through much of the spring and summer, we in this part of Virginia felt that our relative isolation from the nation’s metropolitan hubs — something we usually find to our economic disadvantage — would prove to be an asset in dealing with the COVID-19 virus.

And for a while, it was.

When Northern Virginia’s virus cases spiked at a rate of 573.6 infections per 100,000 people on May 6, Southwest Virginia (a region the state health department defines as everything from Farmville and Danville to the west) was running just 23.4.

When the Department of Health’s Northwest Region — roughly the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont — peaked on May 18 at 148.3 infections per 100,000, we were at 35.

When Central Virginia —the Richmond area —topped out on May 24 at 234.7 infections per 100,000, we were at 43.3.

Then in mid-June — about two weeks after Memorial Day weekend — our cases started to rise more precipitously, likely a consequence of infections contracted from gatherings over the holiday. We let down our guard and paid for it, and made our neighbors pay for it, too. For a long time we pointed out that three localities had managed to avoid the virus altogether. Then that began to change. Dickenson County finally recorded its first case on June 16, Bland County on June 19 and then Bath County on July 8.

When Eastern Virginia —the Hampton Roads area —hit its peak of 194.6 infections per 1000,000 on July 16, we were up to 121.4. That was nearly triple the rate from before Memorial Day.

Since then, most of those other parts of the state have seen their virus counts decline, while ours have continued to rise (Northwest fell, then rose, then fell again and levelled off but is now rising again, too, just at a slower rate.) Now, we’re headed into another long weekend —normally an opportunity to relax with family and friends, but this year another opportunity to contract and spread the virus. Here’s where we stand today: Southwest Virginia is no longer isolated from the worst infections. On the contrary, today we have the second-highest infection rate in the state, and are likely on a trajectory to have the highest infection rates in the state — if, in fact, we don’t already.

The best tracking data available on the virus is on the VDH’s website, specifically on the Daily Dashboard under “Cases” where the state tracks the number of cases based on the onset of symptoms. That’s a much better guide than paying attention to how many new cases are added to each locality each day— because those numbers merely reflect when cases got logged into the system, not when they actually happened. The only problem with this “onset of symptoms” chart is that, by necessity, it runs more than a week behind. Someone might have gotten sick a week or more ago but are just now getting their test results. The “seven day average” — the best way to understand the data — was computed Wednesday through Aug. 26, but even those numbers might rise as new cases get entered into the system.

Here’s what that data currently shows: Eastern Virginia as of last week had the highest infection rates in the state — 194.6 per 100,000. Southwest Virginia hit 198.3 on Aug. 25 before slipping down to 191.6 on Aug. 26. However, as we noted, it’s quite likely that Aug. 26 average will rise as new test data gets logged into the system. The numbers rose some even as we were doing this research Tuesday and Wednesday so will likely be higher by the time you read this. Let’s step back and look at the big picture: State-leading Eastern Virginia is seeing its rates decline. Ours are rising. If those trends continue, those lines will soon cross.

We can be thankful that our rates remain much lower than what other regions saw earlier in the year. Still, we must ask: Why are we rising while most others are falling?

Some of this is due to college students returning to campus. We have a disproportionate number of colleges and we regret to report that some students are failing their generational challenge to do better than their elders have. Not all of the increase, though, can be laid on students — because we’re seeing rates rise in many localities that don’t have colleges. The Mount Rogers Health District — which covers eight localities from Wythe County to Bristol — reports “multiple outbreaks” in houses of worship, including one church that has recorded more than 40 cases. We try not to blame the victim, but when that many people are getting infected in a single location, it seems reasonable to conclude that somebody — multiple somebodies — simply weren’t being careful enough. How many warnings do health authorities have to give before people adhere to them?

Early on, New York was the epicenter of the virus nationally. Then New York declined, and other states saw their numbers rise. Now it’s our turn —nowhere close to the same level but still way too high. It’s hard for us to appreciate these regional differences because of the way the data is displayed on the state website. We can see what the cumulative rates for each locality are since the beginning of the pandemic but what we really need to see is what the recent rates are. That’s more challenging math. The New York Times has computed some of this and it’s not pretty: It shows Radford currently has the fourth-highest rate of infection in the country — its rate over the past seven days works out to 1,529 cases per 100,000. Harrisonburg ranks 36th highest in the country, with a rate over the past seven days of 506 per 100,000. Both, notably, are home to universities.

We can argue all we want over who we should blame. And, make no mistake, there are some in positions of power who do deserve some blame. We point out yet again: The U.S. and South Korea reported their first virus cases on the same day but their governments reacted quite differently. As a result, South Korea got the virus under control and we have let it get out of hand. Thinking closer to home, perhaps James Madison University (which has more virus cases than any other Virginia college) wouldn’t be shutting down in-person classes if it had required students be screened the way other universities did.

Ultimately, though, if we’re going to beat this thing, we shouldn’t look to politicians, we should look to ourselves. We know what we need to do. Will we?

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