PEARISBURG, Va. — A Virginia Department of Health mobile drive-through coronavirus testing facility will be operational at Giles High School on Wednesday, but not because of any present surges in COVID-19 cases in Giles County.
It will primarily serve as part of a regional training run to better ensure a quick response to any sharp localized surges of the pandemic in the not-so-distant future. Such surges are expected to arrive this summer.
“The test site is being moved around the [New River Valley] to demonstrate the ability to react to outbreaks if necessary, and to provide convenience for our citizens,” said Giles County Administrator Chris McKlarney earlier this week.
“This is not the result of any current increase in cases,” he added.
The New River Valley Public Health Task Force will conduct Wednesday’s drive-through COVID-19 testing site at Giles High School 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Giles High School. The testing site will be closed to the general public, with access to the site limited to higher-risk individuals who have obtained a letter of authorization from the VDH New River Health District.
Authorization and a required appointment for being tested at Wednesday’s session at Giles High School, may be requested by calling the VDH hotline for testing (540-267-8240).
“Testing is important epidemiologically and helps us determine the prevalence of disease in our community,” said Dr. Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, “Because capacity is limited we screen for those at highest risk. As we continue to test, we expect to have more positive cases.”
As of Friday, only four cases of coronavirus had been reported in Giles County, with no hospitalizations and no deaths. But there has been a recent surge of cases in the not-so-distant Roanoke Valley, which encompasses the more densely populated cities of Salem and Roanoke.
In comparison to Giles’ numbers, as of early Friday evening, Roanoke County had reported 53 cases with one hospitalized. The City of Salem had 26 cases with two hospitalized and Roanoke City had reported 80 cases with five patients hospitalized. Montgomery County — which includes region’s most nationally and internationally diverse concentration of residents due to the presence of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg — had reported 56 cases, with seven hospitalized and one death.
In comparison to those micro-metropolitan areas, Giles County is mostly rural along the Route 460 corridor from the Montgomery County line until reaching the Town of Pembroke, with most of the county population living west of the New River Bridge at Ripplemeade. The western section of the county is partly rural, encompassed by Jefferson National Forest lands. The greatest concentrations of residents are clustered in and around the small towns of Pearisburg, Narrows, Rich Creek and Glyn Lynn, all of which are located along Route 460, which more or less follows along the New River to the West Virginia State Line.
The comparatively harsher pandemic picture to the east may seem worlds away to the majority of Giles County residents at present. But this picture could change after current social distancing restrictions are partially lifted in Virginia, which has been tentatively projected to occur on June 10.
Significant numbers of Giles County residents are employed in adjacent Montgomery and Pulaski counties. As of Friday, nine cases had been reported in Pulaski County with two hospitalizations while only three cases with no hospitalizations had been reported for the City of Radford. An increase of commerce, travel and general interaction should inevitably result in an increase of cases across the New River Valley.
McKlarney noted that earlier this week, the Virginia Department of Emergency Management hosted a conference call with researchers from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute to discuss pandemic infection models that have been developed as a decision support tool for public health officials in the Commonwealth.
According to those models, a June 10 restart could result in a surge of cases in Virginia that would peak in mid-August with about 10,000 confirmed case per day — and then begin to drop.
University of Virginia communications indicated that it is unlikely that state officials would allow such a harsh scenario to develop. Infection rates could be mitigated by other tools such as ‘test and treat’ as well as modified social distancing rules that balance with economic realities.
A May 8 restart was also modeled, showing that COVID-19 cases would exceed the Commonwealth’s hospital capacity in June to mid-July. The June 10 restart date was considered preferrable because it pushes that prospect farther down the road, holding out greater hope for some kind of pharmaceutical intervention to become available before the projected surge periods.
Because of the inherent complexity of the UVA models and many shifting variables that can affect these projections down the road, it is difficult to predict exactly what will happen on a county-by-county or town-by-town basis.
McKlarney appears to be hoping for the best while prudently planning for the worst. He thinks people should expect Giles County’s medical infrastructure to be as heavily stressed as the projected statewide scenario.
“I copied the slide presentation ... but the model is broken down by region and we are considered the Near Southwest,” McKlarney said. “If I read it correctly, they estimate that [Giles County] hospital capacity would be exceeded in late July to early August,” he said.
— Contact George Thwaites at email@example.com