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Virus caseload spikes with surge at prison, three new outbreaks

SoVaNow.com / September 02, 2020
The number of COVID-19 cases in Mecklenburg County spiked between Friday and Tuesday with 61 new cases of the virus confirmed.

Jon Taylor, director of Emergency Services for Mecklenburg County, said almost all of the additional cases are tied to a second outbreak occurring at Baskerville Correctional Center. The state Department of Corrections reports 45 positive cases as of Monday evening — 40 offenders and five employees or contractors.

Currently, there more than 150 positive cases of the virus throughout Mecklenburg County, including the 45 tied to Baskerville Correctional Center, Taylor said. The testing positivity rate is 11.7 per 100,000 — which puts the county at risk for accelerated spread and the need for rigorous testing and tracing programs.

There are also three new outbreaks in the Southside Health District — one at an educational setting, and two at congregate settings, which could include places of business, group homes, or churches. While the Virginia Department of Health does not confirm the locations of outbreak sites, the educational setting appears to be Brunswick Academy in Lawrenceville, which returned to in-person classes on Aug. 18 and has had several staff and students undergo testing for the virus in the last week.

Even with the elevated risk level, the average number of testing encounters occurring throughout the Southside Health District, which includes Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax counties, continues to hover under five percent. There is no information from the Virginia Department of Health to show the extent to which contact tracing is being done anywhere in the state, let alone Mecklenburg County.

Mecklenburg County Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said the school division’s nursing staff has been certified and can now perform contact tracing. This was done to speed up the process by which parents, teachers and staff are notified of potential exposure to the virus.

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia would become the first state to test a new contact tracing app called COVIDWISE. The cell phone app sends alerts to users about potential contacts with persons who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Northam said in his announcement of the app, “We must continue to fight COVID-19 from every possible angle.” He added that COVIDWISE does not compromise the user’s personal information. The notification app is one tool available to people weighing whether there is a need to undergo a COVID-19 test.

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) developed COVIDWISE in partnership with Spring ML using funding from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. The free app is available to download through the Apple Store and the Google Play Store. COVIDWISE is the only app in Virginia which is allowed to use the exposure notifications system (ENS) application programming interface (API) jointly created by Apple and Google. Other countries, including Ireland and Germany, have successfully used this technology in similar apps.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to be identified across the Commonwealth, it is important for people to know whether they have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the disease,” said State Health Commissioner M. Norman Oliver. “COVIDWISE will notify you if you’ve likely been exposed to another app user who anonymously shared a positive COVID-19 test result.

“Knowing your exposure history allows you to self-quarantine effectively, seek timely medical attention, and reduce potential exposure risk. The more Virginians use COVIDWISE, the greater the likelihood that you will receive timely exposure notifications that lead to effective disease prevention.”

COVIDWISE works by using random Bluetooth keys that change every 10 to 20 minutes. iOS and Android devices that have the app installed will anonymously share these random keys if they are within close proximity for at least 15 minutes. Each day, the device downloads a list of all random keys associated with positive COVID-19 results submitted by other app users and checks them against the list of random keys it has encountered in the last 14 days. If there is a match, COVIDWISE may notify the individual, taking into account the date and duration of exposure, and the Bluetooth signal strength which is used to estimate proximity.

Individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be notified by a VDH case investigator and will be given a unique numeric code. This code is entered into the app by the user and serves as verification of a positive report. Others who have downloaded COVIDWISE and have been in close proximity to the individual who reported as being positive will receive this notice: “You have likely been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.” This is your alert to get tested.

The notice includes the estimated number of days since the exposure and provides several options for taking further action, including contacting a primary care physician or local health department, monitoring symptoms, and finding nearby test locations. The Virtual VDH tab within the app also provides links to online resources and relevant phone numbers.

Anyone who downloads the app has the option to choose to receive exposure notifications, and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to share their result anonymously through COVIDWISE. No location data or personal information is ever collected, stored, tracked, or transmitted to VDH as part of the app. Users have the ability to delete the app or turn off exposure notifications at any time.

Widespread use is critical to the success of this effort, and VDH is launching a robust, statewide public information campaign to make sure Virginians are aware of the COVIDWISE app, its privacy protection features, and how it can be used to support public health and help reduce the spread of the virus.

To learn more about COVIDWISE and the download the app, visit http://www.covidwise.org.

(Editor's note: this article originally reported several people at Brunswick Academy tested positive for COVID-19. School officials say one person has been confirmed with the disease.)

Brunswick private school students return to classroom after two-day pause

Brunswick Academy Middle and Upper School students have returned to the classroom after a two-day precautionary period of at-home virtual learning, a step taken after one person at the school tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

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