More counties can go mask-free

Published 1:25 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The majority of residents in the Piedmont Health District now have the go-ahead from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to go mask-free following the release of the center’s new COVID-19 Community Level tool.

It was a period of fluctuating coronavirus cases across the health district in the past week. According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), from the period of Monday, Feb. 28, to Monday, March 7, Lunenburg experienced 42 new COVID-19 cases. Prince Edward County saw 49 new cases of the virus. Buckingham County was up by 21 new cases, Cumberland saw nine new cases, and Charlotte County rose by 23 COVID-19 cases over the past seven days.

Though cases have been plummeting in the health district for several weeks, several counties saw their numbers climb over the last seven days. While Cumberland and Charlotte counties both saw a slight reduction in cases this week, Prince Edward, Buckingham and Lunenburg saw their case counts go up.

Charlotte and Lunenburg counties each saw one new death related to the virus this week, Buckingham County experienced five new COVID-related deaths, and Prince Edward and Cumberland reported no new COVID-19 deaths this week.

The state saw similar ups and downs. On Monday, March 7, according to the VDH, the commonwealth reported 2,388 new COVID-19 cases, up tremendously from the comparably miniscule 764 cases reported the previous Monday, Feb. 28. Virginia’s seven-day moving average in cases did, however, drop this week from 1,621 cases Feb. 28 to 1,390 March 7.

On Monday, March 7, Virginia recorded 105 new COVID-related deaths, up from 89 reported the previous Monday. The commonwealth’s seven-day moving average in deaths was down, however, from 89.4 deaths Feb. 28 to 53.9 on March 7.

Despite a week of fluctuating numbers across the district, Monday brought good news for many in the form of lowered COVID-19 community levels for the majority of local counties.

Last week, the CDC released its COVID-19 Community Level tool which uses information such as new hospitalizations for COVID-19, current hospital beds occupied by COVID patients and new cases to determine a county’s COVID-19 level. Those metrics, when added together, tell officials whether a community’s COVID-19 level is low, medium or high. The CDC recommends different prevention steps depending on where on the scale a county falls.

While the CDC recommends everyone stay up to date with vaccination and get tested if showing symptoms of COVID-19, residents of county’s with a high COVID-19 community level are advised to wear a mask while indoors in public. Those in the medium category are advised to talk to their health care provider about whether masking or other precautions are necessary should they have a high risk for severe illness, and citizens of low-level counties are not advised to mask.

When the tool was first unveiled, few local counties fell into the medium category, and no nearby counties were considered at a low community level of COVID-19. As of Monday, however, it seems most residents of Piedmont are able to go mask-free if comfortable. On March 7, the CDC categorized Cumberland and Charlotte counties at the low level, and Prince Edward and Buckingham counties both sat at a medium community level of COVID-19. Lunenburg county was still categorized as high.

On Monday, Piedmont Health District Director Dr. Maria Almond noted per Virginia Department of Labor and Industry (DOLI) rules, masking is required by employees in Virginia workplaces when at a high community level. At either medium or low levels, indoor masking is not required per DOLI, but this does not apply to clinical spaces where masking is still in place.

On February 16, the Virginia Safety and Health Codes Board adopted a proposed revocation of DOLI’s Virginia Standard for Infectious Disease Prevention of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus That Causes COVID-19, 16VAC25-220, and further directed that such proposal be the subject of a 30 day written comment period and public hearing prior to any final vote to revoke the standard.

The forum will be open for thirty 30 days, from Feb.17 to March 19. The link to the public comment forum can be found at https://townhall.virginia.gov/L/ViewNotice.cfm?gnid=2373.

It appears the local hospital census may have contributed heavily to lowered community COVID-19 levels across the district on Monday, as COVID-19 hospitalizations appear to be down considerably this week. On March 7, Centra Health was reporting 40 COVID patients across its Lynchburg, Bedford and Southside hospitals, including five patients in the ICU. Of those five ICU patients, three were actively being vented as of Monday.

Longwood University in Farmville was reporting two active cases in its campus community as of Saturday, March 5. Hampden-Sydney College was reporting one active case and zero individuals quarantining as of its last dashboard update Thursday, March 3.

If you or a family member find yourself in need of a COVID-19 test in the near future, be aware that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued three separate safety communications this week warning against the use of certain at-home COVID-19 tests. The tests have not been authorized or approved for use by the FDA, and the administration is  concerned about the risk of false results when using these unauthorized tests.

These unauthorized tests include Celltrion DiaTrust COVID-19 Ag Rapid Test, which comes in green and white packaging, the SD Biosensor STANDARD Q COVID-19 Ag Home Test, which comes in a white and magenta box, and the ACON Laboratories “Flowflex SARS-CoV-2 Antigen Rapid Test (Self Testing)” which comes in blue packaging.

On Monday, Almond spoke to the CDC’s updated masking guidelines and the gradual return to a new normal that residents are experiencing.

“The Piedmont District continues to move towards a place where COVID no longer dominates our daily decisions,” Almond noted. “As the risk of COVID decreases due to lower numbers of cases, early testing options, improved treatments and wider spread levels of immunity due to a combination of natural infection and vaccination, we have been able to safely pull back on mitigation strategies, including masking. As we reduce the layers of protection, though, vaccination for the most vulnerable, including our seniors and those who are immunocompromised, becomes even more important.

“Our vaccination campaign with the VDH mobile unit continues with 2-3 events weekly throughout our district. Churches, non-profits, food banks, schools and businesses have opened up their doors to host events for the entire community. This has been a widespread effort of neighbors helping neighbors.  I have much faith that the connections that have been forged will continue to strengthen our health as a community.”

Vaccination rates in each county of the health district, as of Monday, were as follows:

Lunenburg: population fully vaccinated: 55.7%, population with booster shot: 26.7%

Prince Edward: population fully vaccinated: 45.5%, population with booster shot: 23.6%

Buckingham: population fully vaccinated: 54.7%, population with booster shot: 26.4%

Cumberland: population fully vaccinated: 50.2%, population with booster shot: 22.4%

Charlotte: population fully vaccinated: 54.4%, population with booster shot: 25.4%