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Health director urges caution as Phase III begins

By Jimmy LaRoue

Suffolk News-Herald

While COVID-19 cases have trended downward across Virginia, Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner cautioned people to be vigilant in wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands.

“I cannot declare by any means that we’re in a spike of any sorts,” Wagner said at Wednesday’s Suffolk City Council meeting, “but the fact that I’m starting to see a little bit of leveling off, a little bit of increase in the percent positivity, combined with the fact that … we just went to Phase III reopening, this weekend we’ve got a large Fourth of July weekend, makes me concerned.”

Statewide, the seven-day positivity rate is 6.2 percent as of Thursday, down significantly from its peak at 20.8 percent on April 21, but up slightly from its low of 5.8 percent on June 23 and 24.

In Western Tidewater, the seven-day positivity rate is 4.5 percent, down from its peak of 25.3 percent on April 20, but up from a low of 3 percent June 19.

At the start of Phase II, which began June 5 and lasted 26 days, Suffolk had 322 people who had tested positive for COVID-19. On Thursday, the day after Phase III started, the city has 425 positive COVID-19 cases, more than half of the 812 positive cases across the district, which includes Franklin, as well as Southampton and Isle of Wight counties. Across the district, there have been 11 total outbreaks — defined as two or more positive COVID-19 cases at a facility — and 400 cases associated with them. Six of the 11 outbreaks are at long-term care facilities, two are in congregate settings, two at correctional facilities and one in a health care setting.
Wagner praised Suffolk for two successful community testing events, and noted that few people in the city tested positive. Focusing on the downtown testing that took place June 5 because the Virginia Department of Health has more data for that, Wagner said of the 451 people tested, 369 were from Suffolk, and just four people tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the Suffolk residents tested, three of the 323 Black residents tested positive, and one of 39 white residents tested positive.

Wagner said that because the health department used a contractor for the testing at Bennett’s Creek Park on June 10, it did not have more detailed data, other than the five of 333 people who came tested positive for COVID-19.

The positive rates in the testing, with 1.1 percent testing positive downtown and 1.5 percent positive at Bennett’s Creek, came out similar to previous testing events in Franklin.

During two similar testing events in Isle of Wight County last week, 121 people were tested in Smithfield and another 105 were tested in Windsor. Of the 121 in Smithfield, three were confirmed to have the virus, resulting in a 2.5 percent positivity rate. Of the 105 in Windsor, none tested positive.

Wagner said future testing in the district would likely be smaller in scale — pop-up events that would test about 60 to 100 people at a time.

“Next week and the week after, we’re hitting Southampton hard, and then certainly, we’re looking at venues here in Suffolk to hit,” Wagner said, “in sort of high-yield areas that we can come in, maybe not with a large number, but again, 60, 80, 100 people, to really give us an idea of what’s out there in those underserved areas.”

Wagner is hopeful that Phase III will not result in dramatically higher positive COVID-19 cases such as those currently happening in southern and western states such as Florida, Texas and California.

“It’s great, it’s exciting (and) I know everybody’s very excited to be able to expand their horizons a little bit,” Wagner said. “On the public health front, we’re a bit concerned. Obviously, more interaction and larger gatherings means more potential for spread of the disease, so we’ll continue to keep a very close eye on it.”

He noted, though, that the recent protests in the region have not been the cause of any spikes in positive tests. Generally, he said, large gatherings will pose more risk.

Wagner said he is concerned with the flu season later this year colliding with COVID-19, so the health district will be pushing for people to get a flu vaccine this fall.

Wagner said it is becoming more challenging to perform contact tracing on people who have COVID-19.

“The case contact investigations are getting more complex,” Wagner said. “People are out and about. A month ago when we did these, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been home. I’ve been home the last two weeks. I haven’t done anything, OK, thank you very much. I haven’t been in contact with anybody.’

“Now it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I went to a party, I went to a this, I went to a that.’ So they’re getting more complicated. The webs, as I call them, are increasing and overlapping in some cases.”