The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the New River Health District has reached its highest level since the winter and spring. Currently, 66 people are hospitalized with the coronavirus, said Noelle Bissell, the district’s health director, during a Sept. 13 meeting with the news media.

“Some of these people are quite ill,” she said. “Our hospitals are at capacity. Their staff are really worn out. They’re tired, and admittedly, they are frustrated because most of the sickest patients are those who are not vaccinated.”

While COVID-19 cases in the district largely have plateaued, “our big concern right now is the impact on our health care settings and that tends to lag behind the cases for several weeks,” Bissell said.

Carilion Clinic announced last week that it recently instituted a temporary diversion for its emergency room at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Emergency room visitors were sent to other area hospitals to relieve the strain on the health system.

This past weekend, the health system set up an outdoor tent adjacent to its emergency department at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Christiansburg to create extra waiting space, a move that is happening at hospitals across the country.

To avoid straining local hospitals, people should not go to the emergency room if they need a COVID-19 test, Bissell said. Also, people with non-urgent medical issues should visit an urgent care or a primary care physician, rather than the hospital.

“We have to recognize that a lot of people tend to use hospitals as their primary care,” Bissell said. “Now is not the time to do that.”

Meanwhile, there are about 100 positive COVID-19 cases a week in K-12 schools in the district, which is .5 percent of the overall school-age population of approximately 20,000 students, Bissell said.

The health district has been conducting extensive contract tracing for these cases, and the results show that children largely are contracting the coronavirus from their own households and outside activities. Often, COVID-19 spreads when children come to school after a household member has symptoms of the coronavirus. When people experience COVID-19 symptoms, they should be tested and that person, along with all others in their household, should quarantine.

“That can make a big difference in the spread,” Bissell said.

Also, mask noncompliance is a reason for some in-school transmission, she said.

In October, the health district will begin visiting schools to administer both the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine. Bissell said she expects flu cases to increase this year because more people are resuming normal activities. She encouraged people to receive a flu vaccine.

As of now, COVID-19 boosters have not been authorized for the general public, though the health district is administering third dose vaccines for those who are immunocompromised.

Bissell said she anticipates that the coronavirus vaccine will be recommended annually, similar to the flu vaccine.

As for the COVID-19 cases throughout the district, Bissell said university students represent a small proportion of total positive cases. Also, there has not been a large increase in cases from Virginia Tech’s football home opener on Sept. 3.

“It was a highly vaccinated population, and it [the game] was outdoors. Those are really key,” she said. “When you get a large group that is highly vaccinated, the circulating number will be lower.”

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