HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — The first positive test result for COVID-19 in the Shenandoah Valley has been identified in Harrisonburg.
WHSV file image
The City of Harrisonburg, in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, says someone tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as of Thursday afternoon in Harrisonburg.
Just after 5 p.m. on March 12, the city issued a press release saying that they are closely monitoring all the latest information and recommendations connected to COVID-19 after the Virginia Department of Health contacted them to let them know that there had been a presumptive positive test for the virus in the Harrisonburg community.
Details of the positive test
According to the Central Shenandoah Health District, a person in their 60s developed upper respiratory symptoms that progressed over a few days to a pneumonia with high fever.
Sentara RMH Medical Center, in a separate statement, said the patient was evaluated at their hospital.
As the symptoms progressed, the patient was tested for the novel coronavirus by a commercial lab, which sent back a presumptive positive result.
The patient, identified by the Central Shenandoah Health District as Harrisonburg resident, is reported to be doing well and is in isolation.
“The situation with COVID-19 outbreak is rapidly changing, so it is not surprising that we are identifying a case in our area,” said Central Shenandoah Health District Director Dr. Laura Kornegay.
Public health workers will work to investigate all people who had close contact with the patient. Contacts will be asked to stay home away from others for 14 days.
At this point, officials have not identified any locations where the patient traveled or provided any information about where they believe they may have contracted the virus.
"We are working closely with regional and national health experts in monitoring the situation, and have put all City protocols related to the prevention of the spread of communicable diseases into action," the City of Harrisonburg said in a statement. "This includes reassessing some community events and activities. We are in daily contact with the Virginia Department of Health, which is providing guidance on this matter."
"We encourage all residents to follow Virginia Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control guidelines regarding prevention, and to follow only trust sources for future updates and information on this matter," the statement continued.
The presumptive positive result is not yet listed on the Virginia Department of Health website, which still lists 17 cases in total for the commonwealth of Virginia.
Of those 17 cases, six have resulted in hospitalizations, and there have been no deaths.
This marks the first positive case of the virus in the Shenandoah Valley. All previously positive cases in Virginia were either in northern, eastern, or central Virginia.
The situation at Sentara RMH
As of Wednesday, all Sentara hospitals began rolling out changes to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
At Sentara RMH, patients are limited to two visitors at any given time, and family members and friends are not allowed to gather in waiting rooms. For nursing centers, rehabilitation centers, and assisted living villages, patients are limited to two visitors a day. All visitors to those facilities with high senior populations are also being screened on their travel history and current state of health.
Schools in the Shenandoah Valley
Harrisonburg Superintendent Michael Richards announced Thursday afternoon that city schools would close to students on Friday, March 13 and on Friday, March 20.
The day will be used as a staff workday for all city school instructional staff to plan "for the potential of at-home learning in the event schools are not in session."
School officials say, like other districts in our area, they made the decision in conjunction with the Virginia Department of Health, as well as local and federal agencies.
Richards said as of right now, the presumptive positive case in Harrisonburg does not meet CDC requirements to close schools as the patient is not linked to a school.
"It is a very frightening situation. We're facing a pandemic and so I certainly understand the concern, but I also understand that we need to use the guidance of the health officials and experts. That's what we are doing as a school division," Richards said.
Schools in the city have been reminding students and staff to be diligent about hand-washing and other hygiene, as well as keeping facilities stocked with cleaning supplies and frequently disinfecting high-touch surfaces.
As with any illness, school officials encourage parents to keep any child who has a fever or other symptoms home and contact a doctor for further advice.
The superintendent also said "based on guidance from the Virginia Department of Education, we may consider postponing or canceling any field trip within the US that could potentially expose students to the coronavirus. These decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. Student participation in field trips is always at the discretion of the parent or guardian, and students who do not attend a field trip will be provided an educational alternative."
Rockingham County Public School will also close school for students on Friday, March 13 to allow for a teacher workday.
Teachers and staff will use this workday to focus on devising plans for effective distance learning opportunities for students in the event that a long-term closure is recommended by the Virginia Department of Health at a future time. As a precautionary measure, all school events have been canceled for Friday, March 13 through Sunday, March 15.
In an e-mail, the school system plans to reopen as scheduled on Monday, March 16 unless recommended otherwise by the Virginia Department of Health.
Earlier on Thursday, before the announcement of a positive test for the virus in Harrisonburg, several school districts throughout the Shenandoah Valley, including Page Count, and Shenandoah County, announced that they were planning one-day closures in the week ahead for school staff to plan for any potential closures in the future.
The City of Harrisonburg's response
On Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the announcement of the positive case in Harrisonburg, Mayor Deanna Reed announced that the city would be revoking any permits issued for mass outdoor social gatherings until at least April 5.
She said the city encourages all residents to follow CDC guidelines regarding prevention – wash your hands thoroughly, avoid touching your face, and stay home if you are sick.
"Please use the same common sense measures you do during the typical flu season to help keep you and your family well," Mayor Reed stated. "And be sure to only follow trusted sources for future updates and information on this matter. Spreading rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 can only hurt our community."
JMU and its response
On Wednesday, James Madison University, like many other colleges and universities across Virginia and the country, announced that they were suspending in-person classes until at least April 5 and moving classes online.
On Thursday, as changes came down for athletics on the collegiate and professional levels across the U.S., JMU announced that they were suspending all athletic activities for the spring until further notice.
Most students at the university are currently away on spring break, and the university has encouraged them to either stay home or return home.
In recent weeks, JMU ended all of its study abroad programs, and brought students back from Italy, Belgium, Spain, the United Kingdom, and other countries, encouraging the students returning from Italy to self-isolate at home for two weeks upon their return.
The students returning from Italy told WHSV they were not screened for coronavirus anywhere along their trip back to the U.S.
The situation throughout Virginia
As of this afternoon, when Virginia Governor Ralph Northam delivered a press conference on the situation in Virginia, state health officials said they had not yet seen any signs of community spread of the virus in Virginia. All positive cases as of that point were believed to have been transmitted elsewhere.
Each of the cases so far is listed as "presumptive" because while Virginia's state lab returned a positive test result for the virus in each case, they are not listed as confirmed positive cases until they're confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a federal level.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon, Governor Ralph Northam declared a State of Emergency for Virginia.
The state of emergency will help provide ongoing support for vulnerable populations and multi-state coordination by freeing up funding for state support.
Northam also ordered the cancellation of state-sponsored conferences and events for 30 days and urged local governments to do the same. He said state officials have gotten mixed messages from the federal government, so he's urging states to step up in the fight to stop the spread of the virus.
“Our top priority is to make sure Virginians stay safe and healthy, and that our response to this situation leaves no one behind,” said Governor Northam. “From our health department, to our schools, to our hospitals, to our transit systems, Virginia’s agencies and institutions have been thoroughly planning for every scenario. This emergency declaration will ensure we can continue to prepare for and appropriately respond to Virginians’ needs during this time.”
Two additional testing kits arrived at the state Department of Health on Wednesday, bringing total testing capacity to between 500 and 600 patients. Northam said the state believes that's enough for now, but they believe more will be soon available, despite a limited CDC supply chain of testing kits.
According to Dena Potter, Director of Communications with the Virginia Department of General Services, that testing capability is in addition to the number of patients they've already tested in Virginia.
Testing at a state level began on Feb. 29. Potter also said that the approximate number of individuals tested per kit is determined by how many reactions are provided in the kit (some kits are 1,000 reactions and some are 500 reactions).
The state is looking to develop its own test kits and use private labs to do more testing.
Virginia is also looking to other states and could consider "drive-thru" testing of the virus for possible patients.
"Our responsibility to take this seriously and do our part to help limit the spread of this disease," Northam said.
The Virginia Department of Health has also expanded its testing criteria to ensure that anyone who has symptoms and is in a nursing home is top priority and gets immediate testing and asked nursing homes and senior care facilities to update policies for more visitor screening.
What to know about COVID-19
Most people don't suffer much from COVID-19, but it can cause severe illness in the elderly (One of the 2 Fairfax City patients has been identified as being his 80s) and people with existing health problems.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can cause mild to more severe respiratory illness. In a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can cause death, particularly among those who are older or who have chronic medical conditions. Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person. COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
To lower the risk of respiratory germ spread, including COVID-19, the Virginia Department of Health encourages the following effective behaviors:
• Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
• Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Avoid contact with sick people.
• Avoid non-essential travel.
This is a developing story. Stay with WHSV for the latest.