Health Director: Returning College Students Help Fuel COVID-19 Increases in New River Valley

Aug 25, 2020

COVID-19 cases in the New River Valley have jumped in the past week, fueled partly by the return of college students to Radford University and Virginia Tech.

And Doctor Noelle Bissell, the director of the New River Health District, expects the numbers to go higher.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the district increased from 700 on August 21st to 857 on Tuesday, according the Virgnia Department of Health's COVID-19 dashboard.  Cases in the City of Radford more than doubled in the same period, jumping from 91 to 188.

Credit CDC

Bissell told reporters Tuesday that the cases being diagnosed  now reflect behavior that took place a week or two ago.  She said that student conduct seems to be improving and that increases aren't solely coming from student cases, though she could not provide an exact breakdown of student vs. non-student cases.  "Obviously there’s a lot of focus on the students, but our students are a part of our community.  And we’re trying to engage everyone that our individual behaviors will collectively affect the trajectory of COVID in our region."

Bissell stressed that individual actions by everyone in the community will help keep COVID-19 under better control. “We can’t hold our college students to a different standard," Bissell said. "So my recommendation to our community members is if you have been at a gathering where you’re concerned about an exposure, you shouldn’t be going out and dining in a restaurant.  You shouldn’t be going out to the store when you could use technology."  Bissell said the health department's top priority is to protect high-risk populations in the New River Valley, like those living in nursing homes and other congregate care settings.  Students tend to keep to their peers, Bissell said, and they're conscious of the potential danger of interacting with at-risk populations.

Bissell said most of the students who have tested positive have minimal or no symptoms and are at less risk for serious complications.

Enforcing Restrictions on Gatherings

Many communities that are home to colleges and universities have enacted restrictions on gatherings that are much tougher than the statewide limit of 250 people.  And many schools have suspended students who violated the rules.

Bissell, whose New River Health District includes Radford University and Virginia Tech, says it’s clear that social gatherings are a breeding ground for COVID-19.  Whether organized by students or non-students, it's safest to avoid them altogether.  But she warned against overly strict enforcement of outdoor gatherings.  “If a group is gathering and you have a limit of 15 and you see 20 people, I don’t want strict enforcement of that because what it does is it pushes them inside where no one sees them and transmission is higher.”

Bissell said her district has received complaints about student gatherings in both Radford and Blacksburg.  But she also said student conduct does seem to be improving.

More Active Cases But Fewer Outbreaks in Roanoke Region

The number of active cases in the Roanoke region increased in the past week, according to Dr. Molly O'Dell.  O'Dell is the director of the Roanoke City-Alleghany Health District, which includes the Roanoke Valley and parts of the Alleghany Highlands, and joined Bissell on Tuesday's call with reporters.

O'Dell said there were 226 active cases as of Tuesday morning, up from 150 the previous Tuesday.  A case is considered active when it's within the two-week quarantine period.

The district is experiencing five current outbreaks, the lowest number of outbreaks in months according to O'Dell.  One of those outbreaks is in a higher education setting and has accounted for 14 cases of COVID-19.  O'Dell did not name the institution but, on its website Tuesday afternoon, Roanoke College reported 15 students and two employees had tested positive.