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City aims for community COVID-19 testing in June

Community testing for COVID-19 could be coming to Suffolk by early June, city officials confirmed Wednesday.

No sites or dates have yet to be determined, but City Manager Patrick Roberts and Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Spicer told City Council at its virtual meeting Wednesday they have been working with the Western Tidewater Health District to establish one or more testing dates around the first week of June.

The free tests would likely be similar to the pair of testing days recently done in Franklin, where the health district conducted drive-through testing at Paul D. Camp Community College on May 15 and at S.P. Morton Elementary School the following day, with 250 people each day being tested.

Anyone, whether they have symptoms or not, would be allowed to be tested at the upcoming  event, Spicer said.

Roberts said city officials and Virginia Department of Health officials had identified three potential dates in the first week in June as a starting point.

“Depending on the volume of testing availability as well as the volume of demand on this first day would dictate if we have follow-up days,” Roberts said. “Traditionally, they would do it over a two-day period, but they think that they can do at least a few hundred — I hope I don’t have to amend that by too much — when we finalize it. But at least a few hundred tests on that first day, with the potential to ramp up and do more … subject to demand.”

District-wide, there have been 563 reported COVID-19 cases, 57 hospitalizations and 31 deaths. The district encompasses Suffolk, Franklin, Southampton County and Isle of Wight County.

Twenty-five of those deaths have been in Suffolk, which has had 274 positive cases along with 41 hospitalizations.

In the past seven days, there have been 55 new positive cases reported in the city, along with two hospitalizations and five deaths.

“When you get back beyond seven days, possibly back to 14 days, the majority if not all of the cases … have recovered and are probably home doing well, with the exception of a few unfortunate cases,” Spicer said.

There have been 4,169 people tested district-wide, with the seven-day average for positive tests at 6.2 percent. Another 291 people in the district have had the antibody test, which tests for the immune response to COVID-19. Between the two tests, 6.2 percent have tested positive.

State health department records show that no one in the district was tested before March 17, with the first positive case reported later that week. In the past two months, on only 11 days were more than 100 people across the district tested.

Mayor Linda Johnson was critical of the lack of testing in the city and state and said she is convinced the only way to get through the pandemic, and get everyone comfortable, is through testing.

“I think Virginia has done a dismal job of testing,” Johnson said. “I just don’t think we have significant data or testing. I’m glad to hear that the health department is planning on doing something. I just wish it was a little sooner than June.”

She said that with Suffolk having the largest number of hospitalizations and deaths in Western Tidewater, “there should have been a drive-through testing,” and suggested that the city’s downtown Health and Human Services building would make an ideal location for it.

Spicer noted that there are several testing sites in the city, including Lakeview Medical Center on Meade Parkway, Velocity Urgent Care on Centerbrooke, Nowcare Health on Godwin Boulevard and Velocity Urgent Care on Harbour Towne Parkway. Roberts said this is not an all-inclusive list and that people should contact their primary care physician or nearby urgent care facility, as testing has become more widely available.

Sentara Obici Hospital has also performed testing — 1,497 through Monday, with 146 of those, or 9.7 percent, testing positive.

Johnson also wants the state to provide masks for residents. Vice Mayor Leroy Bennett, like the mayor, said there is confusion on whether people have to pay for tests. The state tests would be free.

Johnson, Bennett and Councilman Lue Ward all said they want to see more information about COVID-19 and testing get out to city residents.

“Anything we can do to get our entire community aware and to do the things they need to do to keep themselves and others safe,” Johnson said, “I think we just need to make sure that, if we have to be the loudest person in the room, then that’s what we’ll have to do.”