Update from Dr. Molly O’Dell

A communicable disease is one that is spread from one person to another through a variety of ways that include contact with blood and bodily fluids; breathing in an airborne virus or by being bitten by an animal or insect.

COVID-19 is a new disease, so we are still learning about how it spreads and the severity of illness it causes. COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person. It may be possible to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. This, however, is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

To address communicable diseases, there has been an emphasis on communicable disease control for centuries. This is the backbone of public health. There are almost 60 diseases sited in the Code of Virginia that require physicians and laboratories to report to local health departments. All cases of those diseases are assessed by an epidemiologist to determine if the case meets the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) definition. The health department reports each communicable disease through a database to the CDC.

In Virginia, once the health department receives a reportable communicable disease case, we do contact investigations. Contact tracing is a fundamental part of outbreak control and is being used by public health professionals around the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We speak to each patient who tests positive for COVID-19 to determine who they had close contact with during the time that they are infectious. We categorize their risk assessment into low or high risk and reach out to each contact to provide advice on what they should do. Contacts with higher risk may be instructed to self-quarantine at home for up to 14 days while monitoring themselves for symptoms. If contacts become ill with symptoms, they self-isolate and remain in their home for 14 days, away from work, school, or other public places. Quarantine and isolation can be voluntary or mandatory, and the Virginia Department of Health is the only agency that can enforce mandatory quarantine or isolation.

Current COVID-19 testing resources only allow for symptomatic people to be tested because there is a nationwide shortage of testing materials. Anyone who develops symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, shortness of breath) should call their primary care physician for medical advice. Individuals who are concerned can also call the Health Department Call Center: 1-855-949-8378, open Monday- Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. A contact of a COVID-19 case may not be tested unless they develop symptoms and it is advised by their medical provider.

With the rise in local COVID-19 cases, we are getting many questions about what we can do to protect ourselves. Please remember that complying with the Governor’s Stay at Home order, practicing social distance if you have to go out, and practicing good hand hygiene are vitally important to keeping yourselves and your family safe. These recommendations don’t change and become even more important as the disease spreads.

COVID-19 is not stoppable but we will work to reduce the numbers in our communities. I invite you to join me in staying at home, social distancing, and practicing good hygiene. Let’s resolve to take this pandemic seriously and work through this together.

Virginia’s health is in your hands. Do your part, stop the spread.

-Dr. Molly O’Dell

Director of Communicable Disease for the Roanoke City and Allegheny Health Districts 


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