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Community spread causes rapid rise in local COVID cases

 With record COVID-19 case numbers coming out of the state and post-Christmas coronavirus spikes seen across the health district, a local health official is warning Virginia’s case numbers could double in the next two-to-three weeks. 

From Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, to Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, counties in the Piedmont Health District saw large jumps in cases of the novel coronavirus. 

According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Prince Edward County experienced 80 new cases of COVID-19 in the last week for a cumulative total of 1,145 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Buckingham County skyrocketed 152 cases in one week for a cumulative total of 1,428. 

Cumberland County, which experienced only one new case between Dec. 21 and Dec. 28, jumped 21 new cases this week for a total of 208. 

Charlotte County saw a large increase in its cases this past week, rising 43 cases for a total of 400 since the start of the global health crisis. Lunenburg County rose 22 cases for a total of 355. 

H. Robert Nash

Despite large case spikes seen locally, Piedmont Health District Director Dr. H. Robert Nash said Monday, Jan. 4, the majority of the district’s numbers could not be attributed to local prisons or congregate living facilities but rather community spread. 

Nash said this was true even for Buckingham County, which in the past has seen huge number surges as a result of coronavirus outbreaks at the local detention centers. 

Although the Virginia Department of Corrections was reporting 177 positive inmates and 16 positive staff out of Buckingham Correctional Center (BKCC) on Monday and three staff cases out of Dillwyn Correctional Center (DCC), Nash said none of the 152 cases reported out of Buckingham in the last week were coming from the prison system. 

 These numbers appear to be almost entirely composed of incidences of community spread rather than familial outbreaks.

“Actually, what we’re seeing is rare family spread,” he said.

On Monday, Nash said the district was beginning to see the start of a dramatic case increase expected following the Christmas holiday. But while residents may have expected the holiday surge to come from a slew of family gatherings and holiday parties, Nash said only 2% to 4% of cases seen from Dec. 25 to Jan. 4 were incidences of familial spread.

Nash said community spread cases usually entail random encounters, be it passing by someone in the grocery store to standing in line at the post office.

Last week Nash predicted the state would likely continue to see record numbers of coronavirus cases each week following New Year’s.

So far, that’s been the case. On New Year’s Eve Virginia saw a new record of reported coronavirus cases in a single day at 5,236.

Saturday, Jan. 2, the commonwealth reached a new highest seven-day moving average of 4,168 cases.

But some health officials, including Nash, believe this trend could get far worse in the coming weeks.

“We are now in the beginning of the post-Christmas surge,” he said. “And with staggering numbers of over 5,000 cases a day in Virginia, I think it’s not unrealistic of us to expect 10,000 cases a day within the next two-to-three weeks. I think our staggering numbers right now are probably going to be doubled.”

Nash also addressed a new, mutated strain of the coronavirus known as B.1.1.7. that recently began to be identified across 33 countries and three U.S. states.

“We’re losing our commitment to mask wearing and social distancing, and now, quite frankly, there’s the rumor of the more contagious mutation strain out there,” Nash warned. “If it’s in three states scattered across the country, it’s everywhere. We just haven’t identified it yet.”

Nash emphasized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is fairly confident the current COVID-19 vaccines will work against this new strain, which he estimates could be two to three times more contagious than the original coronavirus.

On Monday, Centra Southside Community Hospital CEO Tom Angelo addressed rumors heard over the weekend that the hospital had begun “full diversion” from its emergency department, with some speculating the hospital was at full bed capacity.

Angelo said there was no validity to these statements.

“Southside currently has bed capacity on all of our units, and we are not in diversion,” he said.

Angelo said while the hospital does sometimes have to go on “full diversion,” it is rare.

He added the emergency department at Southside is always open for business regardless of how full the hospital is.

“If an ED (emergency department) patient needed to be admitted, we would either transfer them to a hospital that had capacity or hold them until a bed (became) available.”