Culpeper officials reflect on seven months of a pandemic
By Josh Gully
About seven months after the first Culpeper County resident tested positive for COVID-19, the Board of Supervisors recently received a summary of local occurrences during the pandemic and a forecast of potential matters to unfold.
As of Oct. 14, the county had seen 1,257 confirmed cases, 94 hospitalizations and 18 deaths.
Bill Ooten, the county’s director of emergency services, said that Culpeper’s figures “continue to be low and at a steady pace.” In May, he noted that Culpeper ranked eighth in state in cases per 100,000 residents. In October, he said the county is ranked 23rd in that same category.
“We continue to see a slower rise in numbers compared to other counties and cities,” he said.
Donna Staton, president of Culpeper Medical Center, explained that Culpeper saw “a disproportionate impact of COVID-19 early” as one in 47 of people tested were positive at the peak. In May, the Culpeper Medical Center had its peak of coronavirus-positive patients with six compared to a current average of about two.
Supervisors Chairman Gary Deal said that Culpeper’s current COVID-19 statistics are attributable to the effort and time given by volunteers and community partners. He cited the availability of free testing at a mobile unit.
“We didn’t hesitate, our community partners didn’t hesitate. And I really think our numbers today are a result of that effort,” he said.
Ooten said cases are expected to begin rising again in October with a “third peak” expected sometime after Nov. 1.
One of the most prevalent messages shared by state agencies and research groups, he said, is that modeling “is less useful for forecasting because the number one force driving current and future trends is behavioral response.”
Ooten explained that the state has asked for future COVID-19 models from the Rand Corporation, a non-profit and non-partisan organization that provides objective research that is “widely accepted and circulated by the state amongst emergency management officials throughout every jurisdiction in the commonwealth.”
The study found that people being indoors more as the seasons change could be one factor that “triggers” an increase in cases. Other factors include “distancing fatigue” as people grow tired of regulations, increased interstate travel and the return to school.
“These trigger examples are considered to be likely throughout the commonwealth, not guaranteed for Culpeper County. Each of these examples are again going to be driven in part by our own behavioral response to these scenarios,” Ooten said.
Supervisor Jack Frazier said he does not want to downplay issues related to the coronavirus, but schools’ issues are worse than what COVID-19 will bring. He said social and mental issues of students should have been reflected in the Rand Corporation’s study.
Ooten replied that the purpose of the Rand Corporation study “was strictly to look at just the COVID-19 projections.”
Deal said hopefully schools can eventually resume normal operations because he has heard that online learning “is not working and there is a social need for our kids to have that interaction.”
Staton said that the COVID-19 situation “is not leaving us anytime soon.” She noted that modeling forecasts in the spring were not always correct, but they are the best way to plan for the “what-if” scenarios.
Matters to consider during the fall, Staton said, include schools, adoption of antigen testing, consumer activity, the flu’s impact and potential vaccines.
Ooten noted that the county was recently selected to participate in the Virginia Health Equity Pilot Program that is working with areas that have experienced disproportionate impacts to vulnerable communities. He said via telephone that he is not sure what county demographic was disproportionately affected, but that Culpeper was selected for the program after the state analyzed census information. There have been reports that Culpeper’s Hispanic population was severely affected by the pandemic.
As part of that program, Culpeper received 3,000 face masks and bottles of hand sanitizer that will soon be distributed to residents.