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Fatal outbreaks at Wise, Scott nursing homes not listed on state website

BIG STONE GAP — Details emerged Wednesday of two ongoing outbreaks in nursing homes in Wise and Scott counties totaling more than 290 cases and 23 deaths.

Virginia Department of Health spokesman Robert Parker confirmed Wednesday that outbreaks had been reported at Heritage Hall in Big Stone Gap and Ridgecrest Manor in Duffield, although those outbreaks had not been included on the state’s online dashboard for outbreaks in nursing homes, assisted living and multi-care facilities. The site was introduced Nov. 2 following General Assembly legislation allowing the release of outbreak information about long-term care facilities.

According to LENOWISCO Health District Director Dr. Sue Cantrell, Heritage Hall in Big Stone Gap has seen 190 COVID-19 cases among residents and staff during the pandemic, along with eight hospitalizations and 21 deaths.

Ridgecrest Manor in Duffield has reported 104 COVID-19 cases along with seven hospitalizations and two deaths during the pandemic, Cantrell said. Information was not available Wednesday on the dates when the two outbreaks began. Residents at the facilities are considered Virginia residents for COVID-19 data purposes, Cantrell said, and facility employees who live out of state are counted for facility outbreak purposes but not in Virginia statewide data.

Since the VDH dashboard launched, only two facilities had been listed. Lee Health and Rehabilitation in Pennington Gap has had an outbreak in progress since July 4, with 129 cases and fewer than five deaths reported since that date. Nova Health and Rehabilitation in Weber City has had an outbreak pending closure that started on Sept. 11, with fewer than five cases and fewer than five deaths reported.

Heritage Hall and Ridgecrest were not listed on the VDH dashboard on Wednesday. Cantrell said that, while the VDH updates various data on its COVID-19 dashboards daily or weekly, information will lag real-time counts.

According to the VDH, an outbreak is considered in progress until 28 days — two COVID-19 incubation periods — have passed without the onset of new cases. When 28 days have passed without a new documented case, the outbreak is considered pending closure but has not yet been confirmed closed in the Virginia Outbreak Surveillance System.

Cantrell said the Big Stone Gap and Duffield outbreaks are ongoing and that additional cases may be added to that data. Community spread has been a significant factor in the two outbreaks, she said.

“Staff who work in the facilities may have no symptoms ever, and may be infecting others without ever knowing they are sick,” Cantrell said. “Or they may work and infect others for days before their symptoms appear. This is true for all of us, always and everywhere, which is why precautions are so important in limiting the spread of illness, always and everywhere.”

Cantrell said that Heritage Hall’s sister facility in Grundy, in Buchanan County, has reported 111 cases with two hospitalizations and one death. That facility was listed on the VDH website Wednesday, with the outbreak starting Nov. 9 and with only 35 cases and no deaths.

The Big Stone Gap and Grundy Heritage Hall facilities were listed on Heritage Hall Nursing and Rehabilitation Centers’ webpage (www.heritage-hall.org) Wednesday as not allowing any indoor or outdoor visitation. Heritage Hall’s Wise facility — not listed on the VDH outbreak webpage — was listed by the company as allowing only outdoor visitation by appointment.

“Finally, the impact on older and sicker residents is significant and hopefully is a reminder to all of us to do what we know works,” Cantrell said, “to reduce the spread to all but in particular those at risk of any age. And what we know works is wear a mask, watch your distance (6 feet) and wash your hands. That’s how you protect yourself and others.”

Wise County saw its highest one-day report of COVID-19-related deaths with six, according to Wednesday’s state data report.

The LENOWISCO Health District saw 39 cases and the six deaths for totals of 2,543 and 46 deaths during the pandemic. Wise County had 18 cases and the additional deaths for totals of 1,066 and 23 deaths. The website does not specify if those deaths occurred at a specific facility.

Lee County accounted for 16 cases for 770 and 11 deaths. Scott County added five cases for 644 and 11 deaths.

Norton’s case total was adjusted down by one in Wednesday’s report for 63 cases and no deaths.

The VDH reported that the state had 2,071 new cases and 25 additional deaths in the prior 24 hours for pandemic totals of 208,833 cases and 3,860 deaths.

The statewide testing rate for people with nasal swab and antigen tests in Wednesday’s VDH report was 3,229,178 of 8.63 million residents, or 37.42%. For nasal swab testing only, 2,983,430 people have been tested to date, or 34.57%. In the LENOWISCO district, 22,157 of the region’s 86,471 residents have been tested via nasal swab sample for COVID-19, or 25.62%.

testing rates by locality

• Lee County, 6,933 of 23,423, or 29.6%

• Norton, 2,094 of 3,981, or 52.6%

• Wise County, 8,330 of 37,383, or 22.62%

• Scott County, 4,800 of 21,566, or 22.26%

Wednesday’s announcement of the Big Stone and Duffield outbreaks coincided with a two-instance rise in overall pandemic outbreaks for the LENOWISCO district to 35. That brought the total number of long-term care facilities affected to five.

Red Onion State Prison remained at 20 inmate cases and no active staff/contractor cases, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap remained at no inmate cases and one active staff/contractor case. Wise Correctional Center near Coeburn remained at 16 inmate cases and added one case for one active staff case.

The seven-day average rate of positive PCR test results in the LENOWISCO district in Wednesday’s report rose from 15.9% to 16.2%. The statewide positivity rate decreased from 7.4% to 7.1%

According to Wednesday’s VDH pandemic measures dashboard, cases in the far southwest region of Virginia — including the LENOWISCO Health District — were ranked as rising after a 58-day increase in cases. The far southwest region ranking for percent positivity of COVID-19 testing results remained increasing based on a 39-day increase in that measure.

All four school systems in the LENOWISCO district — Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton — were ranked as highest-risk based on the 14-day case incidence rate in the district. Scott County Schools were ranked lower-risk for percent change in seven-day case incidences. Wise and Lee counties and Norton City schools ranked lowest-risk.

Where to be tested

Do you think you might have COVID-19? Local health departments provide free testing.

The LENOWISCO Health Department, which covers Norton and Lee, Wise and Scott counties, posts regular updates on testing sites across the district and offers free COVID-19 tests at its county offices. Those seeking a test must call in advance for an appointment. Contact numbers for the county offices are:

• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011

• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312

• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000

Additional testing and COVID-19 precaution information can be found at the LENOWISCO Health District’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Lenowisco.

The Health Wagon will partner with the Virginia Department of Health to offer 17 sessions of free drive-thru testing at Food City in St. Paul through Dec. 31. Call (276) 328-8850 for an appointment.

In Southwest Virginia, online resources are available to help evaluate whether residents might be infected and where to get a COVID-19 test. The Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDCHECK (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck/) can walk a user through symptoms they may be experiencing and help direct them to their local health department office or other available testing sites.

Local merchants invite you to Buy Different, Buy Early, Buy Local

KINGSPORT — In-person shopping. Online shopping. Curbside pickup.

Those three buying platforms are at the heart of Kingsport’s Buy Different, Buy Early, Buy Local initiative.

The effort is jointly supported by the Kingsport Times News and Kingsport Chamber.

“The name and its meaning ... holiday shopping was going to be different this year by means of in-person, online, etc. due to COVID,” said Billy Kirk, Kingsport Times News advertising director and vice president of advertising sales for parent company Six Rivers Media. “We felt that most local businesses would need to start the holiday shopping season and promotions much earlier than normal ... and not just a Black Friday one-day-only promotion. Finally, we needed to encourage our readers and shoppers to shop and support our local businesses in the area. We all benefit in the area with the community shopping our local businesses ... whether it’s just buying a gift card to a local business, shopping in-person or ordering online for the goods and services to our local businesses.

“We created the Buy Different, Buy Early, Buy Local directory on timesnews.net to help the local businesses in the area promote their holiday hours, specials/offers, and in-person shopping protocol due to COVID. Businesses can go online to timesnews.net to register their business for the Buy Different, Buy Early, Buy Local directory (free of charge to our local businesses in the area) by going to timesnews.net or going directly to the registration form buykingsport.whatsopenhere.com. Now readers can go online to timesnews.net to check out the directory of businesses in the area to see holiday hours, specials, offers and promotions. So, we really encourage our local businesses to go online and get their business registered.”

Bob Feagins, the chamber’s executive director of Communications and Development, said the goal is to support small businesses during the holiday season.

“We’re always promoting small business, especially this year with the effects of COVID,” Feagins said. “A lot of small businesses have struggled, so we’re really encouraging people to support small business owners this Christmas holiday season. We want people to be safe. If you can, you can purchase online or purchase gift cards.”

Aundrea Wilcox, executive director of the Kingsport Office of Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said it helps the community when money stays in the community.

“Because of the pandemic, however, the current situation (is) grave,” she noted. “Amazon is not backing off. In fact, they have already opened several Amazon 4-Star Stores in quite a few states. It’s just a matter of time before they arrive here. If you want your local retail store to be around in 2021 and beyond, you need to make a commitment to buying local. Shoppers should dedicate 80% of their spending to Buy Local. And, that does not guarantee their favorite local stores will weather the storm that’s brewing ahead. Now is the time for local retailers to develop a customer experience strategy. It’s not about the stuff; it’s about the experience.”

What’s going on downtown this Christmas season?

Robin Cleary, executive director of the Downtown Kingsport Association, said downtown is being promoted as a safe place to shop during the holiday season.

“Merchants are offering online shopping as well as in-person,” Cleary pointed out. “Small Business Saturday is Nov. 28. (Business owners) have all agreed to wear masks in their shops and follow the county mandate. We’ve provided our merchants a gift basket with hand sanitizer and face masks. They’re following all of the COVID protocols.

“Holiday sales are always crucial for small business owners. It is typically 30 to 40% of sales for their year coming from holiday sales. They’ve all experienced a shutdown of some sort. It’s people you know, and you are keeping that money in your community.”

Hawkins cancels parades, but there's still Christmas fun to be had

ROGERSVILLE — As of Wednesday, Church Hill, Rogersville, Surgoinsville, and Bulls Gap had canceled their Christmas parades due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, and Mount Carmel is expected to follow suit Thursday evening.

Rogersville also canceled its Dickens of a Christmas festival that was planned for the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Mount Carmel called off its annual Santa Run, where Santa rides on top of a fire truck and visits every street in the city limits, throwing candy to those who come to greet him.

However, that doesn’t mean these towns have canceled Christmas.

Each community has something special going on, which gives the public an opportunity to get out and get festive without taking a chance on catching the virus.

Rogersville’s Outdoor Christmas Tour of Homes

The Rogersville Heritage Association, which ordinarily organizes an indoor Christmas Tour of Historic Homes, is instead moving the tour outside. Several homeowners will be participating in an exterior decorating contest.

The list of participating homes will be released around the first of December on the RHA Facebook page.

Anyone interested in participating in the Outdoor Christmas Tour of Homes can call (423) 754-6194. Pictures will be posted of the homes, and the RHA will conduct a virtual vote on Facebook to determine the best outdoor Christmas decorations. A winner will be announced Dec. 5.

Rogersville Chamber of Commerce Director Nancy Barker told the Times News on Wednesday that the city’s annual Christmas parade has been canceled.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, on Monday Hawkins County had its highest single-day report of new cases since the pandemic began with 51. In response, Surgoinsville Elementary, Surgoinsville Middle and Volunteer High School shut down.

“We held out as long as we could, but the numbers keep rising,” Barker said. “We talked to the Health Department and they said, ‘We don’t recommend it.’ We had an outbreak at a couple of schools, I know our police department has two cases, Rural Health Consortium has two cases, and it’s just about everywhere you look.”

As for the Dickens of a Christmas festival, Rogersville Heritage Association Director Melissa Nelson said, “We have made this decision to stay within accordance with state and national guidelines. We wish this were not the case, but we value our community and we will be looking for further opportunities.”

Bulls Gap residents compete

Although its parade is canceled, Bulls Gap is still holding the annual decorating contest. Every year a judge who isn’t familiar with the area is invited to tour the town one weekend in December to pick the best outdoor Christmas decorations.

A certificate and prize are awarded to the top three homes.

As for the parade, City Manager Mike Solomon said it made good sense to cancel in light of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.

“The board (of mayor and aldermen) felt like with as many people as we have, and knowing they wouldn’t social distance during the parade, if someone got sick, and God forbid something happened, we’d feel responsible,” Solomon said. “We felt like it made good sense for us to forgo it this year. When the numbers start going crazy, we gotta hunker down and pay attention.”

Mount Carmel Santa visit

It won’t be official until the BMA meets Thursday evening, but City Manager Mike Housewright told the Times News on Wednesday he’s 99% sure the Christmas parade and Santa Run won’t take place this year.

However, that doesn’t mean Santa isn’t coming to town. A new event called Mount Carmel Presents Santa at the Stage is scheduled for Dec. 12 from 1-3 p.m.

“We’re going to close off part of Main Street and have Santa up on the stage,” Housewright said. “People can drive by, wave at Santa, drop off their wish list to Santa, and we’ll have a way that he can safely dispense candy to the kids. Santa will be gloved up and he’ll drop candy down a magic candy cane, and it will come out the other end so that nobody touches it except the recipient.”

Church Hill’s Christmas Tour

Church Hill’s New Canton Plantation owners Hunter and Amanda Jackson have organized a Christmas Lights Challenge, calling on everyone in eastern Hawkins County and other nearby communities to put a little extra effort into their outdoor Christmas light decorations for a good cause.

Homeowners are asked to contribute $20 and business owners $30 to be considered in judging for the best decorated house and business of the year. All funds will go to the Of One Accord ministry.

For more information or to register your home or business for the contest, visit www.newcantonplantation.com.

On Tuesday Church Hill Mayor Dennis Deal announced the city Christmas parade was canceled due to the spike in COVID cases.

“I think it’s in the best interest of the city to do that,” Deal said. “Not having a parade is disappointing, but I think all the surrounding municipalities canceled theirs. I don’t know anyone around here that’s having one because of the virus. People will be disappointed, but we’ve canceled about everything we’ve had this year.”

Surgoinsville Parade canceled

Surgoinsville Mayor Merrell Graham told the Times News that he and Fire Chief Shane Suthers had decided to cancel the town’s Christmas parade.

In light of the surge in new COVID cases, and the fact that all other Hawkins County cities had canceled theirs as well, Graham said he feels that’s the right decision.

COVID-19 in NET: Region's daily cases push past 360

Northeast Tennessee’s new COVID-19 cases climbed above 360 Wednesday as the region’s pandemic total surpassed 19,600 and the state saw daily cases rise by more than 2,600.

Six new COVID-19 deaths were reported in the region, bringing the area’s total to 352. One death each was reported in Hawkins, Washington, Carter and Greene counties while Sullivan County had two deaths.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, 53 new deaths and 4,472 additional cases brought the state’s pandemic totals to 4,048 deaths (3,749 confirmed as COVID-19 and 299 probable) and 325,201 cases (301,901 confirmed as COVID-19 and 23,300 probable). Of the pandemic total statewide cases, 279,931 (86%) were listed as “inactive/recovered.”

The new case numbers were based on 23,974 new test results statewide, since the day before, with a positive rate of 17.12% — a 3.9% increase from Tuesday.

Ballad Health’s Wednesday daily COVID-19 scorecard reported a seven-day test positivity rate of 18% for the system’s 21-county coverage area.

Other numbers from Ballad on Wednesday included:

• 46 COVID-19 deaths in the system’s service area over the last seven days;

• 246 COVID-19 patients hospitalized; 41 in intensive care; 29 on ventilators;

• 32,073 total cases and 576 total deaths in the system’s service area since March 1.

Each of Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties had new cases reported Wednesday, according to the TDH, for a total of 364 additional cases — more than triple Tuesday’s 111 reported cases. Cases by county: 110 in Sullivan; 72 in Washington; 72 in Greene; 54 in Carter; 26 in Hawkins; 20 in Unicoi; nine in Johnson; and one in Hancock.

Total cases in Northeast Tennessee reached 19,617 Wednesday. By county: 5,504 in Sullivan; 5,197 in Washington; 2,663 in Greene; 2,363 in Carter; 1,696 in Hawkins; 1,346 in Johnson; 713 in Unicoi; and 135 in Hancock.

Active cases in Northeast Tennessee, by county: 741 in Sullivan; 670 in Washington; 352 in Carter; 386 in Greene; 245 in Hawkins; 124 in Unicoi; 68 in Johnson; and seven in Hancock.

With 53 deaths reported statewide on the TDH COVID-19 dashboard, cases were listed in the age group breakdown as: 24 in the 81+ group; 14 in the 71-80 group; seven in the 61-70 group; four in the 51-60 group; one in the 41-50 group; two in the 31-40 group; and one in the 11-20 age group.

Tennessee’s Integrated Traffic Analysis Network (TITAN), reported that 299 people killed in Tennessee traffic crashes last year were not wearing a seat belt. This represents approximately 29 percent of the state’s total traffic fatalities in 2018.