How Well is VDH Managing COVID-19 Outbreaks?

by Carol J. Bova

The Virginia Department of Health data is now equipped with extensive testing capacity and a small army of contact tracers to squelch outbreaks of COVID-19 in Virginia. Recent data regarding the number of outbreaks raises questions about how well VDH is doing its job.

One concern is the validity of the data that VDH is acting upon. The total number of outbreaks reported by VDH over the course of the epidemic hit 1,010 by the end of day, September 25. The dashboard indicates 23 outbreaks in colleges and universities, accounting for 1,736 cases. But that’s only half the number of cases reported on the dashboard of just four universities in jus the past couple of months.

James Madison University reports 1,474 cases from July 1 to now, including self-reported cases since August 17. UVA’s dashboard  reports 648 cases. Virginia Tech’s dashboard shows 940 cases, and VCU reports 257. Those stats include faculty, staff and contract employees, but only a small number: 58 faculty/staff at UVa and 15 employees at Tech. And they don’t include confirmed cases from Virginia’s 65 other nonprofit colleges, community colleges and universities.

The discrepancy between what VDH is reporting and the universities are reporting raises the question of how well VDH is keeping up with the data… which raises an even bigger question of how well VDH is managing the outbreaks.

At one end of the spectrum, VDH stats indicate that much of the spread of coronavirus cases between Aug. 26 and Sept. 25 was concentrated in the 20-to-29-year-old college age bracket. 

At the other end of the age spectrum, the number of deaths remains concentrated in the 80+ age bracket: 282 deaths from Aug. 26 to Sept. 25. Also, there were 222 deaths in long-term-care facilities.

Obvious questions:

• How involved was VDH in university epidemic-containment plans, and why did those plans fail to prevent student cases?
• With the distribution of new testing equipment and the mandated weekly testing of staff, why were there 47 new long-term care facility outbreaks with 1,403 more cases since August 26?
• Why have Virginia’s correctional facilities reported 10 new outbreaks and 1,685 more cases?
• Is VDH contract tracing having any impact in reducing the spread of COVID-19?

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6 responses to “How Well is VDH Managing COVID-19 Outbreaks?

  1. A huge number of deaths were suddenly recorded in mid-September, the highest being 96 one day. The data was old, spread back over weeks, so the overall recent pattern didn’t change. But my reliance on this data was shaken. If info comes in so slowly in fits and starts, you can’t draw conclusions. Perhaps that is the point.

    • VDH answered my questions about the death report delay saying:
      “The backlog of COVID-19 deaths reported on 9/15 are deaths that occurred from mid-August to late August. … The process which provides deaths certificates from vital records to the COVID-19 surveillance team experienced a 2-week delay and accounts for the backlog. This delay is not expected to occur again moving forward.”

      So the delayed death reports should be in the the posted deaths chart.

      They said also “…we report data by ‘date of death’ and by ‘report date.’ For these backlogged deaths, they would be recorded as their death dates of when they occurred in mid-August, but their ‘report date’ would be in September (the dates that they were reported to us). ”

      So the datasets for deaths should show the actual date of death once they catch up.

  2. It seems obvious why some university containment plans have failed to prevent student outbreaks–college kids often believe themselves to be indestructible and do foolish things, such as have off-campus parties.

    As for the other questions, particularly the last one, it may be a case of something that can’t be proved–the outbreaks might have been worse without the tracing and other measures taken.

    • When we look at confined settings like nursing homes and correctional facilities, we can’t blame foolish youth. By now, there’s enough knowledge of how to prevent large numbers of infections that we shouldn’t be seeing so many more cases. Something’s wrong in the systems.

      There have been some suggestions that university plans were not examined beyond noting that a “plan” existed, and the health dept had no control over them. See Virginia Mercury on Sept 4.

  3. Carol, glad you asked them that. No media thought to. If they are now caught up and that VDH data that is coming in is relatively current, Virginia is doing extremely well three weeks after Labor Day. Compare the trend lines in September to June or July. Down vs. Up. Likewise the positivity score, but I put less stock in that. But the colleges are going to drive up cases, and the outbreaks continue unabated.

    The other good sign is the CDC tracking on “excess deaths,” which is getting closer to showing near normal weekly mortality. Also way down from the peaks.

    In-person classes start in Virginia Beach Tuesday (K-2) and then a week later they start in person for grades 3,4,5. Four days in class, full day. (Some parents have chosen virtual only.)

  4. 17 new outbreaks since yesterday. 3 LTCF, 12 Congregate settings, 1 Healthcare, 1 K-12. Only added 16 more university cases. (Glad I updated my spreadsheet early today. Tableau had been giving a lot of can’t connect to the server error messages the past couple of days.)

    Due to a Tableau issue on the VDH COVID-19 data webpage, the dashboards and visualizations portions will be offline, beginning at 8 PM, on Monday, September 28, 2020. This downtime is required to resolve that issue and complete critical system maintenance. The system will be back up as soon as possible.

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