As most college students have returned to the area after their spring semester was cut short, they do so at a time when new COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly from the worst of the pandemic this spring.
Harrisonburg and Rockingham County have reduced their seven-day average of cases from 32.4 and 13.4, respectively, at some of their highest points in April down to 5.3 and 3, respectively, over the week ending Monday. This is a drop in new daily cases of about 84% for Harrisonburg and 78% for Rockingham County.
Public health officials say various reasons contributed to the reduction.
“The decrease in cases in Harrisonburg and Rockingham area was due to several factors, including control of outbreaks related to the poultry industry; control of skilled nursing facility outbreaks; increased testing that allowed for quick isolation of cases and quarantine of contacts; public health outreach with education, PPE and other resources aimed at prevention; phased reopening plans that decreased the number of people in group/congregate settings where viral transmission is more likely, including secondary schools, higher education, retail and other sectors,” Dr. Laura Kornegay, director of the Central Shenandoah Health District, said in a Monday email.
Harrisonburg’s highest single day of new cases was on April 17, when 95 were reported in the city. The next highest day was on April 22 with 54 new cases.
That week between April 17 and April 23 saw the highest seven-day average of new cases of COVID-19 at 32.4 per day in the city.
On Monday, 13 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in the city. The last time the single-day number of cases was that high was nearly two months ago on July 3, when 16 new cases were reported in Harrisonburg, according to Virginia Department of Health data.
James Madison University administrators told the Daily News-Record on Monday that 10 students have tested positive for COVID-19. Nine were tested off-campus and self-reported to the school, while one result came back through the University Health Center.
The first day of classes at JMU is Wednesday, and students were not required to be tested before coming to campus.
The highest count of new cases Rockingham has had in a single day is 23, though it reached that number three times, April 22, April 28 and June 1.
Rockingham’s highest seven-day average was shortly after Harrisonburg’s. Between April 22 and 28, the average number of new cases per day in the county was 13.4.
Harrisonburg City Public Schools and Rockingham County Public Schools closed their doors in mid-March shortly after the city saw its first COVID-19 case on March 12. The day before, JMU suspended in-person classes.
Kornegay said the risk of COVID-19 transmission is highest during gatherings, such as at schools, restaurants and churches, as well as in “congregate living settings,” such as dorms, nursing facilities, high-density housing and prisons.
“So, not having students living in congregate housing on college campuses likely did decrease the number of cases associated with the area in the spring, but we have no way to quantify this effect,” Kornegay said.
In total, there have been 60 deaths in the Central Shenandoah Health District, which covers Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro Lexington and Buena Vista, and the counties of Rockingham, Augusta, Rockbridge, Bath and Highland. Eighty-five percent of those deaths were in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County.
“The number of deaths due to COVID, as well as a significant number of cases early on, in Harrisonburg were attributable to a large outbreak of COVID at Accordius [Health] in Harrisonburg,” Kornegay said.
On April 13, North Carolina-based Accordius released a statement saying that 81 residents of the 97-bed nursing home on South Avenue and about one-third of 35 staff members tested positive for COVID-19.
As of May 10, 22 residents of the facility had died of COVID-19-related complications.
Cumulatively, Rockingham has had 1,000 cases, with 101 hospitalizations and 20 deaths, while Harrisonburg has had 1,143 cases, with 83 hospitalizations and 31 deaths as of Monday.
The locality with the next highest cumulative count in the Central Shenandoah Health District is Augusta, with 346 cases, 17 hospitalizations and four deaths.
Over 255 health care workers in the district have also contracted COVID-19.
Outbreaks at the area’s seven poultry plants contributed to the district’s case numbers, according to Kornegay.
Across the state, over 1,216 COVID-19 cases have been associated with outbreaks in poultry plants, with 48 hospitalizations and 10 deaths.
“As of today, 366 cases are associated with the poultry industry in CSHD, the vast majority of which occurred in the early months of the pandemic,” she said. “The district has worked with all employers in the district to provide infection control recommendations and mitigation strategies that can be used to decrease COVID transmission in workplace settings.”
Kornegay said the number of cases has been drastically reduced by prevention measures.
“The stay at home orders in the spring and other mitigation strategies successfully flattened the epidemic curve in the district, and the [University of Virginia] model estimates that all of these measures, along with improved testing and tracing have allowed CSHD to avoid 33,996 cases since May 15,” she said.