Youngkin ends school mask mandates – Centra sees record COVID patients

Published 8:15 am Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Virus cases are continuing to soar upward in the Piedmont Health District as local hospitals see an all-time high in COVID patients. Meanwhile, new executive orders from Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin will nullify all current school-based masking mandates.

News of the omicron variant’s impact on Virginia continues to pour in this week following last week’s record-shattering wave of cases in the commonwealth.

Coronavirus cases have more than quintupled in the Piedmont Health District alone since the week before Christmas. According to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), Piedmont saw a total of 1,124 new cases of the virus between Jan. 9 – Jan. 15, 2022, compared to 213 cases the week of Dec. 12 – Dec. 18, 2021.

According to the VDH, between Monday, Jan. 10, and Monday, Jan. 17, Prince Edward County saw 224 new cases of the virus. Buckingham County observed 140 new COVID-19 cases, and Cumberland rose by 78 cases. Charlotte County saw 187 new cases of the virus over the last week, and Lunenburg rose by 167 cases. Charlotte and Lunenburg counties each observed one new COVID-related death this week.

Virginia continued to report high numbers of virus cases this week, though not as large as last week’s record surge. On Jan. 17, the commonwealth observed a total of 10,842 new COVID-19 cases compared to last Monday’s 15,463 cases.

The state’s seven-day moving average rose slightly from 16,861 cases Monday, Jan. 10, to 16,917 cases Jan. 17.

The current widespread surge in coronavirus cases observed across the area has largely impacted area hospital systems.

On Wednesday, Jan. 12, Centra Health announced it had exceeded its prior all-time peak in COVID patients of 131 seen last January. On Wednesday, the hospital reported 154 total patients across Lynchburg General Hospital, Southside Community Hospital and Bedford Memorial Hospital.

By Monday, Jan. 17, that record was shattered again when Centra reported a total of 173 COVID-19 patients in its care, including 18 patients in the ICU, 11 of which were actively being ventilated. Of the 173 COVID patients Centra had on Monday, 56 were fully vaccinated while the remaining 117 were unvaccinated.

Effective Thursday, Jan. 13, Centra began temporarily suspending visitation at its facilities with the exception of clergy, parents of minors, doulas, support personnel and in certain cases of end-of-life care.

Longwood University in Farmville was reporting 43 active cases of the virus in its campus community Sunday, Jan. 16.

Hampden-Sydney College was reporting 10 active cases of the virus as of its last dashboard update Thursday, Jan. 13.

Perhaps the biggest COVID-related news in the state this week came Saturday, Jan. 15, when new Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin officially took office, acting quickly to issue several executive orders, including Executive Order 2.

Aimed at “reaffirming the rights of parents in the upbringing, education and care of their children,” the order essentially nullifies all former school-based mask mandates and allows parents to decide whether their child masks up at school.

On Monday, Piedmont Health District Director Dr. Maria Almond noted schools within the district have been working diligently with parents, staff and boards over the past several weeks to put in place multiple changes in COVID-related guidance from the CDC.

“The Piedmont Health District will work with schools to now integrate these new directives from Executive Order 2 that will allow for parents to opt out from any school-based mask mandate currently in place,” Almond said. “The deadline for instituting those directives is Jan 24.”

Almond said schools are currently balancing the need to keep students in school with challenges of the current significant COVID-19 surge that is straining the local health care system and impacting schools’ abilities to maintain sufficient staffing.

“We are optimistic that the most significant impacts of the surge will begin to improve over the next several weeks, after which we hope that we will be able to decrease the level of our recommended protective strategies,” she added.

Almond said for now, the health district strongly recommends that while the current surge continues, everyone should continue to use well-fitting masks to help reduce the spread of all respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.

“Mask use helps us to keep people at work and children in school,” Almond said. In schools, mask use can limit the number of quarantines required if there is an exposure. Masks help us each continue to do the work needed to keep our community moving forward. But still the most important thing we can do is to get vaccinated and boosted.”

On Monday, Almond highlighted some of the consequences and challenges of going maskless, noting that current CDC guidance includes shortened isolation and quarantine periods which require the strict use of facemasks for days 6-10.

“Without the use of masks, schools must then adhere to 10-day isolation and quarantine periods — at least for those who are choosing not to wear masks,” she said.

Almond said in preparation for the possibility of a nullification of mask mandates based on vaccination numbers and transmission levels, most schools within the district opted to remain with longer isolation and quarantine periods for all students and staff with 10 days of isolation and 10 days of quarantining.

Almond said a CDC K-12 exception for quarantines has allowed schools to limit the numbers of those quarantined. In indoor and outdoor settings, a student who was within 3 to 6 feet of an infected student is not considered a close contact as long as both students wore well-fitting masks the entire time.

“With the reduction of mask-wearing, more quarantines are inevitable,” Almond stated.

“Again I am hopeful that within a month or less, we will be in a better place where we would have naturally been able to reduce some of these mitigation strategies, as we know, for example, that there is less risk of converting to a positive from an in-school contact than an in-home contact exposure. However, we’ll have to advance immediately with less mask-wearing and more stringent CDC guidelines in place — which is challenging and makes it hard to manage the balance of keeping children in school and healthy.”

The Piedmont Health District continues to slowly increase its number of vaccinated and boosted individuals.

Vaccination rates in each county of the health district, as of Monday, were as follows:

Prince Edward: population fully vaccinated: 44.1%, population with booster shot: 20.2%

Buckingham: population fully vaccinated: 51.7%, population with booster shot: 21.1%

Cumberland: population fully vaccinated: 47.5%, population with booster shot: 18.3%

Charlotte: population fully vaccinated: 51.3%, population with booster shot: 20.6%

Lunenburg: population fully vaccinated: 51.4%, population with booster shot: 19%

The Piedmont Health District will offer two additional COVID-19 vaccination clinics next week. The first clinic will be Tuesday, Jan. 18, from 1 – 4 p.m. at the Prince Edward-Farmville Youth Association Gymnasium located at 2750 Layne St., Farmville. The second clinic will be Wednesday, Jan. 19, from 3 – 6 p.m. at Victoria Railroad Park located at 1403 Firehouse Road in Victoria.

The clinics will offer first, second, additional primary and booster doses at no cost to the public. Those coming in for their second, third or booster dose are asked to please bring their vaccine card to confirm the date and type of vaccine received in previous doses.