Q: What is COVID-19?
A: COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by virus that is “novel,” or new, so we have no immunity, no vaccine and no specific treatment. We treat mostly to alleviate symptoms. It’s not like anything we’ve ever seen. Every day and every week we are learning more. VDH publishes an online dashboard at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus, with data and guidance that is updated daily.
Q: What’s the latest on testing?
A: The New River Valley Public Health Task Force has created a mobile testing operation that has offered testing across the region since late March. Testing at community sites protects our public safety and healthcare infrastructure. Thousands have been tested and those numbers continue to climb, focusing on those with symptoms and those having exposure to persons known to be positive. The nasal swab can indicate whether a person has an active infection, but it is only a moment in time. A person who tests negative one day could be positive the next. Only about 4 1/2% of testing in the New River Valley comes back positive for COVID-19. More than 95% of the time, if symptoms are present the illness is caused by something else.
Q: What about antibody testing?
A: The antibody test can indicate the likelihood of a prior infection that is no longer present, but the test is new and we don’t yet know how useful it can be. This virus does not cause a typical antibody response, so the test results can be unreliable. We also must look at clinical history, the potential and timing exposure and the nature, timing and duration of symptoms.
Q: What is the turnaround time for test results to be returned?
A: Initially it was 7 to 10 days; now 1 to 2 days or less.
Q: What is our testing capacity?
A: Initially capacity was limited and challenging, but is steadily improving, based on increased availability of supplies and increased lab capacity.
Q: How can I get tested?
A: Anyone wishing to be tested or to ask questions about testing can call the New River Valley Public Health Task Force call center at 540-267-8240, Monday through Friday from 8am to 8pm, Saturday from 8am to noon and Sunday from noon to 4pm. After hours, leave a message. You will be asked a series of screening questions and if approved, provided an appointment and documentation to bring to the test site.
Q: What about testing in hospitals?
A: Hospitals test patients based upon their condition and recommend treatment. (For example, a patient hospitalized with a cardiac condition is not tested unless COVID is suspected, because this would not be useful in developing their treatment plan.) We test all patients who are scheduled for non-emergency procedures in order to balance their risk in having the procedure. The test result is part of a risk scoring system published by the American College of Surgeons. COVID patients have higher risk factors that potentially affect their recovery, and it’s important to know their COVID status prior to scheduling the procedure.
Q: Is there a way to find the daily number of tests within the New River Health District?
A: This is published on the VDH COVID-19 dashboard at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/. Remember that actual numbers of tests are not as critical as looking at the prevalence of illness in our communities.
Q: How many of those who have contacted COVID 19 been declared recovered or well?
A: The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association provides daily data on COVID-19 patients hospitalized and discharged, at https://www.vhha.com/communications/virginia-hospital-covid-19-data-dashboard.
Q: Social distancing is taking its toll on mental health. Are there services available to help?
A: We have folks that struggle with mental issues, substance abuse and developmental disabilities. This crisis has disrupted our lives, and caused tremendous amounts of stress. Many providers have moved to telehealth, other web-based platforms and phone calls. We still have some clients visiting clinics. Some larger hospitals have made psychiatrists available in the emergency departments. All maintain sufficient inpatient psychiatry capacity. We may have changed some of the ways we do business but services are still available. If you have a need, reach out to your providers. We’re still here and we’re still open, providing services
Q: Are our hospitals prepared to handle a surge if one should occur?
A: Yes, all of the hospitals in the region have increased capacity and are well prepared to handle a surge if it comes. The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association provides daily data on bed availability and ventilator availability at https://www.vhha.com/communications/virginia-hospital-covid-19-data-dashboard.
Q: At this time, we are not able to get routine medical care and screenings. How much longer will that go on? I am concerned that there will be an increase in diseases that are discovered too late for effective treatment, especially if routine cancer screenings are delayed for much longer.
A: Providers are scheduling routine medical care and screenings, in a way that is safe for all involved. Many are using telemedicine. People in a medical emergency should not hesitate to come to emergency rooms and hospitals. People who need care should seek care. Our hospitals are open for business, and working closely with physicians to get the most medically urgent patients in for care. Hospitals have done a good job of protecting patients and can provide care safely.
Q: What is the age distribution of confirmed or presumed cases? Is age a risk factor?
A: Data for numbers of cases and age groups in each health district are on the VDH COVID-19 dashboard at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus. Those over age 60 may have elevated risk, simply due to age.
Q: What is the risk of allowing the Mountain Valley Pipeline to resume construction this year, bringing in a lot of out-of-area workers at a time when residents are advised to stay home?
A: Many pipeline workers have remained in the community. We have other construction projects under way every day. State borders are not closed, workers are traveling back and forth all the time, bringing products and supplies to our grocery stores, home improvement stores and other businesses. Pipelines are in the energy sector and considered an essential service. We ask everyone to respect the public health guidance, limit interactions, wear face coverings and wash hands. Fortunately much of the pipeline work is outside, and risk of transmission is lower. VDH, OSHA and CDC provide consistent guidance for employers and workplaces. See “VDH Interim Guidance for Implementing Safety Practices for Critical Infrastructure Workers (Non-Healthcare) During Widespread Community Transmission in Virginia” at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/vdh-interim-guidance-for-implementing-safety-practices-for-critical-infrastructure-workers-non-healthcare-during-widespread-community-transmission-in-virginia/.)
Q: What about wearing masks or face coverings? Does that primarily protect others?
A: Medical grade masks should be reserved for medical and emergency medical providers. Cloth face coverings are recommended for the general public, whenever they must be out in public. They mainly protect other people, especially where other measures, like hygiene and distance are practiced less effectively. The CDC recommends people wear cloth face coverings when they are in public places such as the grocery store where they will be around other people and it may be difficult to keep distance. Face coverings are not needed for going outside by yourself to take a walk or work in your garden. Cloth face coverings can help protect the people around you. Some people with COVID-19 have no signs or symptoms and do not feel sick, but can still pass the virus on to others. A cloth face covering can help prevent this. Local governments use the hashtag #MyMaskOurHealth to encourage people to share selfies of wearing and making masks and share their story for why they wear them.
Q: What will be the “new normal” for health care, and our lives in general, going forward?
A: With constantly mutating viruses and in an age of international travel, COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. Vaccines are months or years in the future. Even once we have arrested the spread of COVID-19, we will go about our lives in very different ways, with new requirements, habits and cultural expectations and realities for infection control. Our world will be very different.