State plans increased COVID-19 testing

Published 9:09 pm Friday, June 26, 2020

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Virginia aims to test 2 to 4 percent of people for COVID-19 every month, according to the former state health commissioner and the current head of the state’s testing task force.

Dr. Karen Remley said during Gov. Ralph Northam’s Thursday’s COVID-19 briefing that surveillance of COVID-19 is important, especially when there are currently fewer cases of the virus.

The state is setting a goal of between 6,000 and 13,000 tests per day, with a less-than-10 percent positivity rate per region, and would target high risk populations, such as the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, socioeconomically disadvantaged people and people in congregate settings.

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Remley noted that early on in the coronavirus pandemic, the state did not have enough lab capacity to process COVID-19 tests. But, using the model of the Public Health Laboratory Network, she said that network will be able to expand COVID-19 testing, creating a One-Lab Network with the use of CARES Act money and expanding the capabilities of the state’s two large public health laboratories at the Department of Consolidated Laboratory Services in Fairfax. It will also partner, Remley said, with at least three institutions to expand their ability to do testing specifically for public health.

“Our plan is to make sure that the capacity we build for exceeds what we imagine we’ll be seeing through the (University of Virginia) model,” Remley said.

That model estimates that the state has avoided 178,160 positive COVID-19 cases since May 15. If the state experiences better case detection, and businesses and residents adhere to community mitigation strategies, the model indicates that new cases would have peaked during the week of May 17, and daily positive cases will continue to decline.

In the past week, positive COVID-19 cases statewide have averaged about 540 people daily. In the Western Tidewater Health District, which includes Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight County and Southampton County, there have been 52 positive cases total over the past week — 42 of those in Suffolk, nine in Isle of Wight, two in Franklin and one in Southampton.

The state, as of Friday, has given 603,870 COVID-19 tests, with a 7-day positivity rate of 5.8 percent. That is down from a peak of more than 20 percent in April and one of the factors that led Northam to plan for the state to enter Phase III of his reopening plan on July 1.

In particular, testing has ramped up considerably in the past month, as the state health department has performed more than half of the 603,870 COVID-19 tests — 307,557 — from May 26 through Thursday.

“All along we’ve said that increased testing and tracing are critical to keeping this virus in check,” Northam said. “We have been able to ramp up our testing over the past several weeks.”

According to the University of Virginia’s COVID-19 model, the state will need to do at least 10,000 tests per day from June through August — or nearly 1 million tests over the course of the summer, and then increase that to more than 11,000 tests per day from September through December.

Northam, citing the positive COVID-19 trends in the state, also announced he would discontinue his twice-weekly briefings.

In Western Tidewater, there have been 11,334 COVID-19 tests, with a 4.3-percent 7-day positivity rate, which has been on the decline since a 25.5-percent 7-day positivity rate April 20. Combined, 763 people in the district have tested positive for COVID-19.

Less than 3 percent of people who were tested for COVID-19 at a pair of community events earlier this month tested positive for the virus, and that number dropped to 1.3 percent when subtracting the 13 people who came from an unidentified Smithfield business who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Other states are seeing surges now as people move about more, but in Virginia, so far, we are not seeing a surge in cases,” Northam said. “In fact, our numbers are very good. This is entirely thanks to all of you. You have helped by staying home, washing your hands and wearing face coverings. We all need to keep doing all of these things because we don’t want our numbers to go up — especially as we ease restrictions next Wednesday.”

Currently, point prevalence surveys are being done in the state’s long-term care facilities, and testing is being done in prisons and jails,. The state is also doing outbreak containment.

The Virginia Department of Health will also partner with two outpatient providers in each district to test patients for COVID-19 — about 350 tests per week and 1,400 per month — and trace how the disease looks around the state in a process known as sentinel surveillance.

Using a similar method, she said the state would also look at vulnerable populations such as correctional facilities, homeless shelters or low-income housing communities.

“Nobody let your guard down, because it’s going to be a long summer and a long fall for COVID,” Remley said.