Against a backdrop of normality – after more than two years of wrestling with a virus now woven into the fabric of everyday life – the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District this week achieved a once unthinkable and sobering milestone: the deaths of 500 residents COVID-19.
Thursday marked the somber moment after two deaths were officially recorded in the Virginia Department of Health’s online database to hit the 500 mark. The first local death from the novel coronavirus occurred on March 25, 2020, when an itinerant music preacher from Gretna – Landon Spradlin, known as “a modern-day Apostle Paul” – died after a brief hospitalization.
“Five hundred deaths is a milestone that none of us wants to reach,” said Dr. Scott Spillmann, director of the local health district, emailed Register & Bee on Friday. “It is a grim reminder of the seriousness of this disease and its potentially dire consequences, particularly for those who have not been fully vaccinated and for those who are not taking all available precautions.”
At 43%, the majority of those who lost their lives to COVID-19 were aged 80 or over. The youngest were two residents in their 20s.
Just a little more – 262 – were men. Along ethnic profiles, 70% of virus deaths were among white residents.
“COVID-19 has not only affected hundreds in our community, but millions worldwide,” said Spillmann. “As with any fatality, we at the Virginia Department of Health and Human Services will remain concerned until we see these deaths as a result of this virus stop.”
Daily deaths have slowed dramatically this year after the overwhelming omicron surge that sent case counts skyrocketing in January. Overall, more than 21,000 Virginians have died from COVID-19.
Deaths often take weeks before finally appearing in a daily dashboard update. That’s because the health department checks death certificates to make sure COVID-19 was actually a cause.
Sovah Health is treating about a dozen COVID-19 patients between facilities in Danville and Martinsville, up from about 15 a week ago.
Danville and Pittsylvania County remain in the middle community level, a category determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s only when a location hits the high level — as Halifax County is currently doing — that masking recommendations are triggered.
It’s not over
“We all desperately want COVID to be over – but it isn’t,” said Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, Sovah Health’s market chief medical officer, told Register & Bee on Friday. “Transfer rates remain high.”
Earlier this year, the CDC moved to the community level to give the pandemic a local boost and break away from the earlier risk of transmission. The change was the first in a series of efforts to provide precautionary relief to Americans while acknowledging the reality that COVID-19 was not going away.
Almost every area of Virginia is ranked high based on transmission risk.
“Safe practices in crowds and indoors still make a difference and we are still subject to a mask mandate at both hospitals,” Gunn-Nolan explained.
“Vaccination can still help and minimize the chance of death from COVID,” she said. “It’s really a big deal.”
Although studies show that vaccines drastically reduce the risk of serious illness and death, the health department is not tracking “details such as whether the deceased was vaccinated against COVID-19 or not,” spokeswoman Linda Scarborough said.
The Dan River Region’s immunization levels reached only half of its residents and fewer than a third of those eligible had received a booster shot, according to the Department of Health.
Scarborough acknowledged problems with vaccine hesitancy, largely due to the spread of untruths.
“Unfortunately, one of the challenges that many of us face today is that misinformation is being communicated so rapidly across social media platforms,” she told Register & Bee.
“Reaching 500 deaths on the ground is a grim reminder of the need to keep fighting,” Gunn-Nolan said.
The hospital still has a mask policy due to the high rate of transmission in the community.
“If you are visiting a loved one in hospital, please remember to put your mask on,” she said. “By doing so, you protect your relatives, other patients and the lives of our employees.”
Although the CDC has scaled back some COVID-19 guidelines, the Virginia Department of Health is still evaluating those changes, Scarborough said.
“If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus or have symptoms, we urge the public to use multiple testing avenues,” she said.
If someone tests positive, they should speak to a healthcare provider and take steps to prevent the virus from spreading.
“We’re in our junior year,” Gunn-Nolan said. “It’s been three long years and we’ve learned so much, but I have to stress that the health team is getting tired.”
She urges anyone who comes to the hospital to have “compassion and support” for the entire team.