The New River Valley Public Health Task Force has released its COVID-19 status report today through a statement by Dr. Noelle Bissell, Director of the New River Health District for the Virginia Department of Health. Her statement follows:
COVID-19 has two story lines in the New River Valley: cases among college students and then cases
in the general community. At this point we need to look at each separately because our investigations
show that the two populations, even though they live and shop in the same places, have not really been
spreading the virus between them. This is because our college students socialize with each other, and
the same goes for our community members. And this is how COVID is transmitted, through that close
We have had community spread in the New River Valley since early summer, coinciding with the
governor’s restrictions being eased and people traveling for vacation. This community spread has
begun to rise. It is not crossover from our students; but instead, it’s coming from smaller gatherings of
friends and families, and gatherings moving indoors as the weather gets colder. Last week I mentioned
carpools as a significant source of COVID sharing. We are also seeing some families traveling on
vacations while their school children are engaged in remote studies, and coming back with COVID.
Our community spread has the potential to become more dangerous than the large student spikes from
earlier this fall. This is because our general community, unlike our student population, is a mix of
generations and contains more vulnerable people. It’s our role in public health to protect those
We are seeing cases rise across the country and around the world. In a pandemic, however, each
community has its own, unique experience. Just because it’s rising everywhere else does not mean we
have to accept the same in our communities. We must remain vigilant about practicing the public health
precautions and not let it wear us down. We can beat COVID if we unite and take care of each other.
In the New River Valley, we have 11 active outbreaks:
• 5 in long-term care facilities
• 4 in congregate settings
• 2 in higher education
Our schools are all engaged in some form of in-person instruction, and we are not seeing transmission
within our schools. All of our schools have mitigation plans in place to protect faculty, staff and
However, the rise in community spread means that more people are encountering workplaces and
other settings where there is a positive case. Testing is an effective tool in our containment and
mitigation efforts when used properly. We ask that, if you or your family have been exposed, you
quarantine and wait 5-7 days before being tested; and continue quarantining at least until your results
come back. Getting tested sooner may give a false negative if the virus hasn’t reached a detectable
level. On the other hand, if you have not had a close contact, have not engaged in risky behavior, and
do not have symptoms, getting tested might give you a false positive.
At this point, we cannot eliminate COVID-19, but we can control it. We know that watching our distance
works. We know that outside activities are preferred to inside. And we know that wearing a mask works
to stop the spread and to lessen the viral load when it does spread. This means that wearing a mask
protects the wearer. Wearing a mask means that, even if you do get COVID-19, it will likely be
asymptomatic or a mild case. Wearing a mask may well keep you and your family out of the hospital.
We all have the power to control our own exposure. It’s not where we go, but what we do. Each
individual and household should be evaluating our risk levels and altering our behavior accordingly. If
we are high-risk, or interact with a high-risk individual, we need to choose lower-risk behavior. If we are
uncomfortable with a proposed plan, we need to choose to not participate.
Just this week, we have run a triple threat with Halloween and Day of the Dead celebrations, plus a
national, high-interest election. Now we also need to begin planning our actions around Thanksgiving.
This year, celebrating Thanksgiving safely requires significant advance behavioral planning.
Although many families are choosing to not travel or gather, other people in our region will be traveling.
Some families must balance the dangers of isolation of the vulnerable with the risks of the pandemic. In
the New River Valley, our college students and their families need to prepare for the students to return
for nearly two months. This takes planning. We ask every household that will be traveling or accepting
travelers to be extra careful for at least two weeks before. This means that next week at the latest,
these households should be engaging in the strictest possible behavior – even quarantining. Then, the
travelers should plan their travel carefully, with food and comfort breaks. If high-risk individuals are
involved, the newly mixed households may want to wear masks indoors and connect with each other in
well ventilated areas, such as outdoors. We need to focus less on the meal because that’s when we
take our masks off. Spread out well if indoors, or dine outside, weather permitting.
Many people are asking about getting tested. Anybody who wants a test can get one, but please
remember that a test is just a single point in time. You can test negative today, but if you were at a risky
gathering last week, you may test positive tomorrow. The safest course is behavioral control.
Please remember to wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands. And please stay home if
you are sick or have had close contact with a known COVID case.
—Dr. Noelle Bissell, Director, New River Public Health District.