College students are not the primary spreaders of the coronavirus. 

It’s the larger New River Valley community that is responsible for the latest uptick in positive COVID-19 cases, said Noelle Bissell, health director of the New River Health District, during a Wednesday virtual meeting with members of the news media. 

During the webinar, she said there is evidence of significant community coronavirus spread in certain parts of the New River Valley, namely Giles and Pulaski counties. In those counties, the spike in coronavirus cases began in October.

But in Montgomery County and Radford, home to Virginia Tech and Radford University, cases spiked when students arrived in August, plateaued, and now are stable, even with recent increased testing for students as they prepare to return home for the holidays, she said.

“We won’t see a decline in cases with college students leaving [for the holidays] unless our community makes a change in behavior,” Bissell said. “Our rising case numbers are coming from our community spread.”

There were just under 300 cases a week in the health district as of Wednesday. COVID-19 cases in the district have been significantly higher for people ages 25 to 59, Bissell said.

Carpooling, large and small social gatherings, and church events are among the activities that are contributing to the spread, Bissell said. She specifically pointed out problems with people carpooling for work.

“When we have people from different households together in the car, you need to wear a mask, you need to put those windows down and ventilate,” she said. “We tend to forget about that when we get in the car.”

As for schools, there has not been significant transmission of the coronavirus between students and staff.

“All of our schools have been open for some in-person instruction for awhile now and are doing quite well,” Bissell said. “They all have mitigation plans in place.”

If there is virus transmission, it’s a result of people contracting the virus outside of school and bringing it there, she said.

The health district also is in close contact with local nursing homes and area hospitals, which are seeing a rising number of coronavirus patients.

“We are emphasizing that our community needs to do their part to cut back on the spread,” said Bissell, reminding people of the importance of hand washing, wearing facial coverings, and physical distancing.

Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam issued new guidelines for Virginia that include charging retail businesses with a misdemeanor if they do not adhere to wearing facial coverings, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning. The Virginia Department of Health enforces the guidelines, and as of Wednesday, no businesses in the New River Valley had been cited, Bissell said. However, the district is investigating complaints and helping businesses understand the rules, she said.

With Thanksgiving approaching, Bissell encouraged people to practice such precautions as wearing a mask indoors while spending time with family from different households and keeping a safe distance while dining inside. People should understand that decisions that they make during the holiday could alter their lives for the next several weeks.

“It’s not where you go, it’s what you do,” Bissell said. “We’re asking that we give each other some extra grace. This is definitely going to be a different, challenging holiday season. It’s a nontraditional year. We’re asking people to be kind and to find creative ways to celebrate with family and friends but also being safe.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone