Health Department Prepared to Deal With COVID Test Results


By Carol Vaughn —

The Eastern Shore Health District has tripled its capacity to do case investigations in anticipation of hundreds of results from recent COVID-19 testing events.

The increased capacity is thanks to staff coming to help from other health districts and regional and state health department offices, said Jon Richardson, chief operating officer of the Eastern Shore Health District.

Additionally, the district now has between 45 and 50 contact tracers to find people who had contact with someone testing positive.

“The idea is, we put together an army and we do our best to reach out to these people and try to keep them home if we can,” Richardson said in an update to the Accomack County Board of Supervisors at a May 6 work session devoted to the pandemic.

“Obviously, we had a pretty big jump in cases over the past few weeks. I think at this point everybody knows that primarily those are related to the poultry plant workers,” Richardson said.

About 55% of the Shore’s cases are poultry workers, and another group are people who either live with or had direct contact with poultry workers — meaning about 2/3 of cases here are linked in some way to the Shore’s two poultry processing facilities, he said.

Richardson said the outbreak at Tyson Foods appeared to have leveled off, while the Perdue Foods outbreak was still growing, “but not as rapidly.”

Perdue as of May 6 had around 175 to 180 cases, all sick people who tested positive for the virus.

Perdue has 1,908 employees at its Accomac plant and Tyson has around 1,300 employees at its Temperanceville plant.

Both plants last week conducted testing of employees.

“They will be identifying…all of these asymptomatic folks, with the idea that, hopefully, they will exclude them from work,” Richardson said, adding, “The real challenge here is the CDC has issued the critical worker guidance…which allows them to return people to work if they are not symptomatic.”

The problem with the facilities’ current protocol of screening employees for fever daily is that that process doesn’t capture asymptomatic COVID carriers.

“That’s the people that we really need to find and exclude from work,” he said.

A CDC team — including an industrial hygienist, three epidemiologists, a lab technician, an outreach specialist, and team leader Dr. John Dreyzehner, director of the CDC Center for Preparedness and Response —  arrived April 29 to assist the health department with contract tracing and inspections at both plants, as well as outreach to Spanish and Haitian Creole speakers.

The industrial hygienist, after inspecting the plants, in her preliminary verbal report had no suggestions for mitigation strategies “above and beyond what they were already practicing,” according to Richardson.”

A full written report will follow.

The Virginia National Guard assisted the health department with testing at Heritage Hall nursing home in Nassawadox and two days of public testing last weekend at Eastern Shore Community College, where 1,407 people were tested.

Of around 220 tested at Heritage Hall, around 94 were positive for COVID-19.

“Probably about half of those folks were asymptomatic,” Richardson said.

Virginia Medical Reserve Corps volunteers, starting last Sunday, are helping supplement staffing at Heritage Hall, after more than 45 employees tested positive and were sent home.

A major goal of the testing at the community college is to find asymptomatic COVID-19 cases.

“The majority of the spread is likely through asymptomatic folks, who are out in the community, who don’t know they are sick, and who are shedding the virus,” Richardson said, adding, “…What we really want to find with this clinic…is can we get a good sample of the population, because up until now, we’ve only really been testing symptomatic people.”

Supervisor Robert Crockett said after the recent testing events, the area likely will see “a big spike in numbers of positive results” within days.

Crockett asked when the health department might be able to project a flattening of the curve in cases here.

“We fully planned on the surge in the numbers from all the testing, and we absolutely intend to message that to our community so it’s very clear, not to create widespread panic and hysteria,” Richardson said, adding, “As far as being in a good position to predict the curve, I would say that we need to get those results back and take a look at that data and really get a better idea and a better sense for how many asymptomatic people are in our population.”

He said that could happen as soon as the end of this week or early next week.


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