More than two months after the novel coronavirus spread to the Lynchburg area, testing capacity for COVID-19 still is limited, making it difficult to know the true extent of the pandemic’s effect on the region.
As of Friday, nearly 1.7% of people living in the Hill City and the surrounding counties have been tested for the disease, according to figures released by the Virginia Department of Health.
Health providers in the region largely are restricting tests to patients noticeably ill with COVID-19, meaning an unknown number of people with few or no symptoms are not being counted.
“We really don’t have a good understanding of infection rates because we’ve only been testing based on a limited number of symptoms,” said Haley Evans, the district epidemiologist for the Central Virginia Health District, which includes Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.
To receive a test, residents must show certain symptoms associated with the disease or previously have come in close contact with someone infected by the virus, Evans said.
The current criteria for testing, while still restrictive, have been relaxed in recent weeks as local testing capacity has begun to inch upward.
In the past week, an average of 162 tests were conducted per day, state health department records show. That’s up from an average of 63 tests conducted per day during the final week of April.
“The resources are more available than they were, but they’re certainly not unlimited,” Evans said.
According to Centra Health spokesperson Diane Ludwig, the health system has started providing tests to asymptomatic individuals with the stipulation they must be in a high-risk population, namely those living in long-term care facilities.
With testing still limited, Evans and other local health officials have been closely monitoring the rate of hospitalizations and deaths to get a better handle on the virus’ spread.
The health district also is conducting what are known as point prevalence surveys in communities where traditional testing is more difficult.
The surveys, which are commonly administered in nursing homes and correctional facilities, among other institutions, provide a snapshot of the virus’ presence at a specific time and place.
Virginia, which ranks 45th in testing capacity among U.S. states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to Johns Hopkins University, has missed key testing benchmarks outlined by federal public health officials.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has recommended states test at least 2% of their population every month to accurately map the spread of the virus, according to the Associated Press.
In the last 30 days, about 1.8% of all Virginia residents have undergone testing, according to the state health department. In the Central Virginia Health District, 1.1% of residents have been tested during that same time period.
The number of positive cases in Lynchburg has remained relatively low compared with other areas of the state, including regions of similar size. In all, 182 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the district.
Still, the virus has forced 15 people to be hospitalized and has been connected to three deaths in the district, with one each in Lynchburg and Bedford and Campbell counties.
Evans said her office has focused heavily on contact tracing, a crucial tool in arresting the spread of the virus. The health district now has more than two dozen workers assigned to identifying people who have been exposed to COVID-19.
“In most cases, we have really been able to do aggressive contact tracing,” she said. “We have reached out and made contact with these individuals and placed them under quarantine. Only rarely do people not answer the phone or not respond to messages.”
Dr. Kerry Gateley, the director of the Central Virginia Health District, said the district currently is in the process of bringing on more contact tracers.
Earlier this week, state officials announced they will devote $58 million in federal funding to expand contact tracing. Virginia is planning to hire 1,300 contact tracers in the coming weeks, of which a yet-to-be determined number will work locally.
Rachel Mahoney contributed to this report.
Richard Chumney covers Liberty University for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.