Seemingly free of COVID-19 for months, Virginia’s Coffeewood Correctional Center in Culpeper County is reporting its first cases of the contagious respiratory illness.
Other recent health department data measures for testing and ER visits in the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District punctuate the fact that the pandemic continues to be locally felt.
Greg Carter, a spokesman with Virginia Department of Corrections, said on Tuesday evening that a Coffeewood staff member tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this year and has since recovered.
He said there were currently three more positive cases among staff members at the facility, but did not know details about which units they were assigned to in the multi-building medium security prison in Mitchells in southern Culpeper.
The state jail is rated to house nearly 1,200 inmates and is located on 44 fenced-in acres. The average daily population in June at Coffeewood was 895, according to Carter.
He said the statewide system of prisons is following CDC pandemic guidelines for corrections and that an extensive medical and sanitation plan was in place.
Rappahannock Rapidan District Health Director Dr. Wade Kartchner said the district epidemiologist has been in close contact with the medical unit director, warden and operations director at Coffeewood.
“They had a facility-wide testing event on Friday and results are still coming in,” Kartchner said. “To date, they have reported zero new positives.”
According to the VADOC web site, the agency continues to follow CDC guidelines on ventilating housing units to minimize spread of the novel coronavirus. Inmates and staff wear masks and other PPE to keep each other safe, according to the agency. All visitation and volunteer activities in all state prisons were cancelled months ago.
In Virginia, more than 28,500 offenders in state prison facilities have been tested for COVID-19, according to Carter. Some of these tests were administered in response to symptoms, but the vast majority was part of the department’s point prevalence testing of asymptomatic offenders and staff.
This enables the DOC to monitor and treat positive cases sooner, rather than after symptoms develop, and to keep asymptomatic staff and offenders from spreading the virus, Carter said. Inmates at Coffeewood were tested earlier this year, he said, noting health officials could schedule future testings.
Across Virginia, state correctional facilities as of Tuesday reported 124 active cases among staff, 317 cases among offenders on site, and five inmates hospitalized with the illness.
Thirteen inmates in state prisons have died from COVID-19 – the most being four at Buckingham Correctional Center, according to DOC.
“Coronavirus infections anywhere in a confined congregate setting have the potential to spread quickly and are a concern,” Kartchner said of overall implications of the virus spreading in a jail.
The Culpeper area health district that includes Fauquier, Orange, Madison and Rappahannock counties has seen much more testing in recent days and weeks. In fact, the most single-day testing in the district occurred July 17 when 518 tests were administered. Another big day for testing was July 25 with 407 tests administered in the five counties.
Kartchner said increased testing is being done as initial baseline testing events in long-term care facilities and other congregate settings as well as follow-up programs.
“These make up a large percentage of the tests now being performed,” he said.
Testing turnaround is taking longer, Kartchner added.
“Laboratories have a finite capacity so when more testing occurs, some back-ups will be seen,” he said.
Another telling VDH measure in the community is the number of patient visits for COVID-19-like illness to local emergency rooms and urgent care centers.
In the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District, urgent care visits for COVID-19-like illness spiked the week ending July 18 with 83 such visits – or 26 percent of all visits that week to urgent care centers, like MedExpress. VDH provided data for such visits dating back to March, when the pandemic set in locally.
The previous high for urgent care visits for COVID-19 illness in this district was the week ending July 11 with 65 patients seeking care.
Last week in the five counties, 47 people with COVID-19 illness visited urgent care (17 percent of all urgent care visits) and 51 people visited local ERs, 4 percent of total ER visits. Local hospital emergency rooms reported their most visits for COVID-19-like illness the week ending May 23 with 183 such visits followed by 155 visits on May 9 as the second highest and 154 visits the week ending March 21.
District-wide, the current seven-day positivity rate for COVID-19 was 3.6 percent, according to the most recent VDH data. But Kartchner said he didn’t put a lot of stock in that number.
“It is too dependent on population that is being tested,” he said. “If you test where you know there is little disease, you will get a low positivity rate, but it doesn’t help you find where the cases are, nor help you isolate and quarantine those who should be following those guidelines.”
Kartchner encouraged people to keep wearing masks, maintaining six feet distance and to wash hands frequently. He referenced Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement earlier in the day putting back some restrictions in Hampton Roads, where the positivity rate is 10.8 percent and in some cases as high as 18.6 percent.
Many more young people are testing positive, Northam said, in shutting down bars at the beach, prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people and cutting restaurant capacity, again, in half.
Northam said the state’s other four public health regions, including the Northwest Region that includes Culpeper and Northern Virginia, had shown stable case counts and nursing home cases had lessened. The governor also said everything remains on the table in terms of options for curtailing the pandemic in other potentially problematic areas of the state.
“Let’s keep this fight moving forward so we don’t have to backtrack,” Kartchner said.
Said Northam, “Everyone is questioning what tomorrow will bring. I’m worried people are starting to lose hope, but there is a path out of this,” the governor said. “I see hopeful signs ahead … We do have the power to turn this around – you have that power.”
As of Tuesday, the local health district reported 1,799 cumulative COVID-19 cases and 26 deaths. Rappahannock County, with a reported 40 cases, reported its second death this week.
Culpeper County has had 932 cases, with 72 people hospitalized, and 12 killed.
Fauquier has had 568 cases, with 34 hospitalized, and eight people killed.
Orange has seen 202 cases, with 15 people hospitalized, and three killed.
Madison has had 57 cases, five people hospitalized and one killed.