The Blue Ridge Health District will no longer call families of students who might have been exposed COVID-19 while at school, leaving that effort to schools, district officials said in a Sept. 22 town hall.
School systems — public and private — already have worked to identify and contact students who would be considered close contacts of someone with COVID-19. Prior to the announcement, the health district also contacted families.
“That would be a duplicating effort on our part, and schools have been doing a really good job of communicating the different pieces that we will communicate as well,” said Ryan McKay, the health district’s COVID-19 incident commander.
The town hall was held as the health district is experiencing one of the worst months of the pandemic. The more transmissible delta variant and the relaxing of mask mandates and capacity restrictions have fueled an increase in cases, McKay said.
A the time of the town hall, the health district reported 2,487 new cases, making September 2021 the second-worst of the pandemic. The district is currently adding about 123 new cases, according to the rolling seven-day average. At one point in June, the district was averaging no new cases.
Nelson County had 1,209 cases of the coronavirus and 16 deaths related to the virus as of Sept. 27, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Nelson County Public Schools has reported 31 positive cases of the virus this school year — four of those were reported the week of Sept. 20 to Sept. 24.
During the meeting, district officials encouraged community members to get vaccinated, wear masks and limit large indoor gatherings.
In response to the increase in cases, the health district has started to hire more people to help with case investigations and answering its COVID-19 hotline. Additionally, officials are focusing contact tracing efforts on cases in K-12 schools, daycares, preschools and those who work or live in congregate settings.
Cases among those 19 years old and younger make up 26% of cases reported this month in the health district. Overall, this group makes up about 22% of the cases.
The health district will still investigate cases at schools but will focus on identifying close contacts in the broader community, McKay said. So far this school year, there have been no outbreaks of COVID-19 in school buildings within the health district. Statewide, there are currently 33 outbreaks in K-12 settings.
“This is going to free us up to focus more on getting to the more broader community cases where we think transmission is actually occurring,” McKay said of the change. “So that might be from an adult to a child in the household or in other settings, and then we think this will really minimize the impact on schools, potentially reducing the number of children that have to go into quarantine.”
Close contacts of a COVID-19 case must be quarantined for seven to 14 days if they are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. School systems are responsible for setting more specific policies, though the health district is providing guidance.
In a classroom, students within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student are not counted as close contacts if both individuals were wearing masks correctly and consistently for the entire time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The health district’s new approach will apply to students who are exposed to COVID-19 in the classroom, during extracurricular activities and on the bus.
Because of the surge in cases, the district is seeing more calls to its hotline and more interest in COVID-19 testing.
“We’ve received hundreds of calls to our hotline about testing resources in the district,” BRHD spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said.
The health district is offering at least one testing site in each of its localities per week. The district includes Charlottesville and the counties of Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson.
“We know the sites are getting very busy,” Goodman said, adding that some testing locations are busier than others.
The health district also is working on a process to get people through the drive-thru testing sites faster.
“We’re not running out of tests,” Goodman said. “We’re running out of time.”
For more information about testing, go to vdh.virginia.gov/blue-ridge/covid-19-tjhd-testing-sites, call (434) 972-6261 or email BRhealthdistrict@gmail.com.