Virginia Health Commissioner details 'big takeaways' from new COVID-19 study

Posted at 8:40 AM, Jul 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-30 08:41:00-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia's Health Commissioner said the preliminary results of a joint study with the University of Virginia indicate that 2.4% of adults in the Commonwealth have antibodies to COVID-19.

"The big takeaway from this, of course, is that the overwhelming majority, a very large portion of the population in the Commonwealth is still vulnerable to infection and must continue to take precautionary measures,” said Dr. Norm Oliver, who added the number was around what he was expecting. “I wasn't really that surprised, I would have been more surprised if it was much higher than that. “

Oliver revealed the findings during a tele-briefing on Wednesday discussing testing, contact tracing, and health disparities related to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the project, called the Virginia Coronavirus Serology Project, has enrolled 3,775 participants in the study with the goal of eventually enrolling 5,000.

Oliver added that results also found the preliminary results have also indicated the antibody prevalence in the Latinx community is three times higher.

“That is certainly borne out by the…higher incidents of cases there with case counts significantly higher in that community,” said Oliver. He added the Latinx community accounts for about 40% of Virginia’s cases, despite only accounting for about 10% of the state’s populations.

State Looking to Hire More Contact Tracers

Oliver said that while the state now has 1,547 people working as a part of the state’s contact tracing efforts, they are looking to hire between 300 to 400 more.

Oliver said the reasoning was twofold. One, is to allow Virginia Department of Health (VDH) employees, who normally work in other departments, that had been reassigned to contact tracing efforts to return to their normal roles.

The other is to build up regional strike teams that can be deployed as needed.

“So, right now in Virginia Beach, where cases have markedly increased, it would take too long to hire enough contact tracers to beef up that team,” explained Oliver. “And we don't want to wait. We want to back them up today. So, the way to do that is to have a regional team that can be there for surge capacity.”

Oliver said they are coordinating with the Health Equity Work Group and community stakeholders to hire a diverse and bi-/multi-lingual workforce.

Overall, Oliver said he sees the state’s contact tracing program as “successful”, adding that as of July 27, contact tracers are been in contact with 74% of cases (and they reached nearly 85% of them within 24 hours).

Testing Delays

Oliver said one challenge facing contact tracers at the moment is the increased turnaround time for test results. Oliver said the delay is driven by the case surges across the country leading to more testing and a backlog in commercial labs.

“Most delays in test results are in the commercial labs and they range from seven to 10 days,” said Oliver. “If you spend those 10 days going to work or going out to visit family and friends, then once we find out the result of your test and you find out the result of your test, we now have many more contexts we have to track down.”

Oliver said he thinks there is a twofold approach to addressing the current backlog.

One, is to decrease the number of cases and thereby decrease the demand on testing.

“That means, of course, is that there's a responsibility that we have to continue wearing masks, washing our hands frequently, doing the social distancing, physical distancing, and then that way do our part to decrease the cases,” said Oliver.

Oliver also called for more leadership at the federal level to provide more support and coordination to get faster testing technology, such as antigen or pool testing, into the market.

“Really trying to ramp up the production of those machines at a national level so that they can become available to Virginia and other states that are having this problem with turnaround time,” said Oliver.

New Contact Tracing App to be Unveiled Next Week

Oliver also said that next week, they are planning to launch a new smartphone app, called “COVID Wise”, to help with the contact tracing efforts.

“It will notify users who have been in close proximity to other users who test positive for COVID-19, advising them that they may have been exposed to the disease,” said Oliver.

Oliver said the app will use Apple and Google’s API.

“Every user will decide whether or not to opt in to receive exposure notifications,” added Oliver. “And if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it's up to them whether or not to share that result through ‘COVID Wise’. There is no location data or personal information that's ever collected, stored, or transmitted to VDH as part of the app.”

Oliver said in order for the app to be effective it will have to be widely used by Virginians.

“We're talking hundreds of thousands, millions using the app. We will be launching a major marketing campaign to get folks to download and use the app,” said Oliver. “In Ireland, a similar app has gotten to about 75% participation there among adults. We’re going to shoot to try and get as many as we can here.”