By Carol Vaughn —
The Virginia Department of Health on Monday launched a new pandemic metrics dashboard tool, designed to help local government and school officials and others better understand the extent of community transmission of COVID-19.
The online dashboard will be updated weekly to show trends for specific localities and where the virus is spreading.
Health department officials in a press conference said the hope is the additional information will help local and state governments determine when and where more mitigation measures are needed.
“Communities across the commonwealth are facing different challenges as we all continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver in a press release.
“This pandemic dashboard provides data for communities to individualize and tailor response efforts to local needs. A community where cases are surging and hospital beds are filling up, for example, will require different response efforts from those in a community where cases are declining and hospital occupancy is low,” he said.
The pandemic metrics dashboard can be viewed at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/key-measures/pandemic-metrics/
Eight indicators are represented: new cases, PCR test percent positivity, outbreaks, percent of cases among healthcare workers, COVID-like illness, emergency department visits, current intensive care unit hospitalizations, percent of hospital beds occupied, and hospitals reporting personal protective equipment shortage.
An algorithm calculates a composite score for burden — the measure of disease and its impact on the region — and trend — the measure of how each metric has changed over time.
Slowing the virus’ spread requires a combination of individual actions and community-level interventions, according to Dr. Laurie Forlano, deputy commissioner for population health.
Individual actions include things like handwashing, social distancing, and wearing a face covering.
“There may be times when the pace of a pandemic curve or an epidemic curve in a community warrants consideration of additional population-level strategies, such as limiting the size of social gatherings or temporarily limiting the occupancy of certain establishments where we know the disease to be spreading or contributing to community spread,” Forlano said.
She said the ultimate goal of the tool “is to decrease the burden on our health care system while building or enhancing the existing containment capacity we have via testing and tracing capacity.”
A weekly transmission section of the dashboard includes maps showing current pandemic status by region.
Additionally, the new dashboard includes a section called CDC School Metrics, which uses data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to help school officials make decisions.
The CDC released its School Indicators for Dynamic Decision Making to the public for the first time Sept. 15.
The CDC framework uses a 14-day cumulative case incidence rate and a 14-day cumulative percent positivity, which is different than the VDH framework, and sets thresholds.
“On behalf of the commonwealth’s 132 school divisions, I thank the Virginia Department of Health for making this dashboard available as a resource to inform local decision making to help schools navigate how and when to consider in-person, hybrid and virtual instruction,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said in the release.
Virginia health department officials recommend school and government officials work with their local health districts to evaluate and interpret the data.
“VDH recommends that decisions to alter K-12 school programming, including decisions about in-person instruction, school dismissals or closures, be handled at the most local level possible, considering both regional and local epidemiology, community characteristics, and local capacity,” the release stated.
Forlano emphasized the data is intended to guide decisions at the local level, not dictate them.
“We hope communities use the tool to understand the data in their locality and also in surrounding counties or localities, to help understand the potential risk of introduction and/or subsequent transmission in other settings, like schools. We hope it’s used to monitor trends of healthcare capacity. … We hope the tools and the visuals and the trends and the data are used to have collaborative conversations between public health officials, local leaders, and community members,” she said.
Additionally, the hope is those conversations will help inform “really complex decisions” that have to be made at the local level, such as about school programming or large planned events, according to Forlano.
“The tools can help users ask questions of public health officials to better understand nuance behind the data, like large outbreaks in workplaces or nursing homes, and how those things may or may not contribute to trends or increased numbers in a given area,” she said.
One caveat about interpreting the CDC indicators involves a secondary indicator — the percent change in new cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days compared to the previous seven day period. That number can fluctuate significantly from week to week when dealing with localities with a low number of new cases, such as Accomack and Northampton counties.
For example, Accomack currently is shown in the highest risk level for that indicator, with a 62.5% change — but that amounts to a very small increase in cases.
In such cases, “the thresholds that CDC established may be less useful,” according to the website.
Another change on the VDH website involves the level of detail given about outbreaks in the daily dashboard, which can be viewed at https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/coronavirus/covid-19-in-virginia-outbreaks/
Numbers of outbreaks in educational settings now are broken down by whether they occurred in a child care, college or university, or K-12 setting.
As of Thursday, Virginia had reported 43 outbreaks in child care settings, 26 outbreaks in colleges or universities, and 27 in K-12 schools.
Virginia has had 1,816 cases in colleges or universities; 227 in child care settings, and 133 in K-12 schools, with zero deaths reported for all three.
The Eastern Shore Health District has reported 14 outbreaks in all, but no outbreaks in any of the three educational settings.
Four outbreaks on the Shore were in long-term care facilities; nine were in congregate settings, which includes workplaces among other settings; and one was reported in a correctional facility.
The seven-day average number of daily new cases reported in Accomack County is one.
The seven-day average number of daily new cases reported in Northampton County is zero.
Since the pandemic began, Accomack County has had 1,175 cases, 90 hospitalized, and 19 deaths. Northampton County has had 306 cases, 49 hospitalized, and 31 deaths, according to the VDH dashboard.