Andy Mueller

Adhering to state guidelines on social distancing to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Centra Health CEO Andy Mueller speaks to local news media through video chat on March 31 to provide local updates. 

Centra Health reported Tuesday 18 people in Central Virginia have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and four of those people are at Lynchburg General Hospital.

Officials relayed the latest information to local news media Tuesday morning, hours after the Virginia Department of Health updated its latest numbers to show 11 confirmed cases in Lynchburg and the surrounding counties. According to the health department, inside the Central Virginia Health District — which covers Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Campbell and Bedford — there are now five cases in Lynchburg, three in Amherst County, two in Bedford County and one in Campbell County.

Statewide the number of COVID-19 cases rose Tuesday by 23% to 1,250, according to the VDH. Twenty-seven people in the state have died from the virus.

Centra’s news conference Tuesday was the first held over video chat in order to abide by state regulations for social distancing during the pandemic. Centra officials have cited timing as a large factor in case number discrepancies with VDH, since VDH collects results in the evening to release the following morning.

Since last week, about 200 more people in the area have been tested for the disease, according to Centra’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Thomson. About 40% of the tests conducted so far have not yet returned results, since those results take an average of five days to return.

Three of the four patients hospitalized since last week are in the ICU, and the remaining 14 patients are isolating themselves.

Based on projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Centra CEO Andy Mueller said it appears the coronavirus will reach peak case load in Virginia in about mid-May, about a month later than many other parts of the U.S.

Data models show Virginia should be equipped to treat patients with COVID-19 without the need for additional hospital beds, he said, but the need for ICU beds could outweigh what’s available by anywhere from eight to 21%. Data from the institute indicates Virginia could be short by about 166 ICU beds at the pandemic’s peak

“We expect that the peak number of cases and peak demand for hospital services will occur sometime in mid-May, and that we won’t really fully see ourselves exit the first wave of COVID-19 until the end of June,” he said.

Local cases are expected to gradually increase in the next couple of weeks and pick up momentum around the end of April, Mueller said.

Predictions show Virginia will likely experience a peak need for more than 400 ventilators, Mueller said. Centra currently has about 100 and has ordered six more with nearly $1 million from a recent donation from the Centra Foundation, along with five digital portable X-ray machines.

Centra has 20 ICU beds in Lynchburg General Hospital designated for COVID-19 patients, he said, and 36 non-ICU beds segregated from other parts of the hospital that are set up to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

Previously, Mueller said Centra has considered opening treatment beds in its currently closed Dawson Inn, and collaborated with the University of Lynchburg to transform its newest dorm rooms into treatment rooms, should the need arise. But he maintained that Centra’s hospitals have “more than adequate capacity” to handle Lynchburg-area cases.

While he considers Centra to be better off than some other health providers when it comes to personal protective gear for caregivers, reductions in Chinese manufacturing continue to have a “devastating impact” on availability.

Centra is working with the University of Virginia to quickly test patients with acute symptoms, but Mueller said UVa testing capacity is still limited. Norfolk-based Sentara Health and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond are both working on testing methods but neither are widely available, he added.

Thomson said Centra will be implementing testing from diagnostics company Cepheid for the coronavirus in the near future, which can return results in 45 minutes. But the bottleneck in testing wouldn’t come from getting the equipment, Mueller said — it would come from getting part of the limited supply of reagent to run the testing.

“We’ve done our part as a health system to be ready to get up and running once we get everything, now we’re just waiting on everything to arrive,” he said.

Rachel Mahoney covers courts for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5554.

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