Aug 17, 2021 • 18M

August 17, 2021: COVID update from Blue Ridge Health District; Charlottesville planning group reviews Rivanna corridor plan

This installment will take you to at least one side of the Rivanna River

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Sean Tubbs
Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out is for the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Campaign, an initiative that wants you to grow native plants in yards, farms, public spaces and gardens in the northern Piedmont. Native plants provide habitat, food sources for wildlife, ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, and clean water.  Start at the Plant Northern Piedmont Natives Facebook page and tell them Lonnie Murray sent you! 

On today’s show:

  • An update on the Urban Rivanna River Corridor plan

  • Advice and information from the Blue Ridge Health District 

  • Two Albemarle beaches remain open this weekend, and but another is done for the summer

  • Charlottesville is cracking down on boat storage at the Ragged Mountain natural area

This morning, the Virginia Department of Health reports another 2,244 new COVID cases and the seven-day percentage of tests that come back positive is now at 8.5 percent. Six months ago on February 17 that figure was 8.9 percent when the winter surge was beginning to recede. Now the figure has been climbing as the Delta variant of COVID continues to spread. 

Ryan McKay is the director of policy and planning at the Blue Ridge Health District.

“We have been seeing an increasing number of cases on a daily basis really for about the last month or so so this current surge that we’re experiencing has happened somewhat quickly,” McKay said. 

McKay said the end of mandated social distancing and mask wearing means there are more close contacts than before, which adds to the tracing efforts. 

“Those who are testing positive are largely those who are unvaccinated, whether they are those who aren’t currently eligible to receive a vaccine, so children under the age of 12,” McKay said. “Or adults who for whatever reason medically can’t get vaccinated. And then obviously individuals who have not yet received their vaccine. So this Delta variant is much more contagious than we’ve experienced so far.”

McKay said many of the new cases are tracing back to indoor settings, which is why health officials are recommending masks indoors especially for unvaccinated individuals. In the past week, Governor Ralph Northam has mandated facial coverings in Virginia schools, though some systems across the Commonwealth still plan to defy that order. McKay hopes people will do voluntarily in other indoor settings.

“So anytime we’re indoors, individuals regardless of vaccination status, we want to make sure those individuals are wearing masks in indoor settings particularly if it’s a setting where there are a large number of individuals in an enclosed area to really try and minimize or reduce the spread,” McKay said. 

McKay said the Blue Ridge Health District expects cases to continue rising. With that, that means COVID testing is increasing. But, if you get a test at one of their events or facilities, you will not get notified if the result is negative. Here’s Kathryn Goodman, communications and public relations manager for the BRHD. 

“Instead we’re encouraging everybody to sign up for [the University of Virginia’s] MyChart and that’s where they can receive their test results within 12 to 24 hours,” Goodman said. 

People who have positive results will be contacted.

Last Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization for a third dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for certain people who are immunocompromised. Here’s Dr. Denise Bonds, the director of the Blue Ridge Health District. 

“We are now offering third doses to anyone who is moderately or severely immunocompromised,” Dr. Bonds said. “This third dose of vaccine should be 28 days from their second dose of either Pfizer or Moderna and moderately to severely immunocompromised individuals who meet that category might be individuals who had an organ or a stem cell transplant, or who have advanced or untreated HIV infection, individuals who are currently undergoing treatment for cancer, or certain medications that an individual might take that might weaken the immune system.”

Dr. Bonds said the recommendation is to get the same kind of vaccine as the first two doses, but that’s not a requirement. Anyone who got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine should not get one of these doses, and health officials are reviewing a strategy to provide boosters to those individuals. 

To get the third dose, you will need an appointment. Dr. Bonds recommends talking to your doctor. Visit the Blue Ridge Health District site to learn more. Officials do not anticipate supply concerns at this time. 

Later in the evening, Dr. Bonds and other district officials presented to both the Places29-Hydraulic Community Advisory Committee and City Council. Dr. Bonds said she knew that some members of Council are concerned about the ailment known as Long COVID where symptoms seem to remain. She cited a recent paper in Nature. (read the paper)

“They looked at lots and lots of papers and tried to combine all the data to summarize it in a cohesive fashion and what they found was that 80 percent of individuals who have had a confirmed COVID infection continue to have at least one symptom two weeks following their acute infection,” Dr. Bonds said. 

Dr. Bonds said the most reported of those symptoms is fatigue, followed by headache, attention issues, hair loss, and shortness of breath.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she is concerned that many students returning to classes do not have masks designed to prevent airborne transmission of viruses. She also expressed concern that many who have not received a vaccine so far may not do so if they are treated negatively.

‘We in this community are doing the same thing that people around the country are doing, and I’m sure the world, where we’re treating the vaccine hesitant as the vaccine hostile and pushing those people from even considering it or changing behaviors,” Walker said. 

Teletha Howard is leading up the Blue Ridge Health District’s community outreach to people who are vaccine hesitant, including Black community members.

“I’m very honest when I talk to people,” Howard said. “I tell them my story and my story is that I did not get vaccinated as soon as everybody did because I was hesitant. So it took me a while and the reason why I was hesitant was because I wanted to have conversations with more people and with the medical professionals before I was confident in getting the vaccine.”

Walker thanked Howard for the way she is approaching her work. Dr. Bonds said the district is there to provide vaccines when people are ready.

“Everyone needs a different amount of information,” Dr. Bonds said. “Everyone needs different questions answered. And, really, the way to help people who are vaccine hesitant is to help feel them reassured and answer their questions, not to be antagonistic towards them.”

In today’s second Patreon-fueled shout-out: The Rivanna Conservation Alliance is looking for a few good volunteers to help out on Clean Stream Tuesdays, a mile and a half paddle and clean-up to remove trash and debris from popular stretches of the Rivanna River. Trash bags, trash pickers, gloves, and hand sanitizer/wipes will be provided, though volunteers will need to transport themselves to and from the end points. Kayaks for the purpose can be rented from the Rivanna River Company. Visit the Rivanna Conservation Alliance's volunteer page to learn more about upcoming dates.

The rest of today’s show logs information related to water. 

If you have a boat stored at the Ragged Mountain Natural Area, you’ll need to remove it by September 17. That’s when the city of Charlottesville will begin to enforce a ban on doing so that’s codified in the city’s ordinance. Non-motorized boats are allowed on the city-owned reservoir. They just can’t be stored there. 

The swimming beaches at Chris Greene Lake and Mint Springs Valley in Albemarle County will be open this weekend for one last hurrah, but the season is over at Walnut Creek. These places are open Thursday through Sunday. 

A city image of an illegally stored boat on the banks of the Ragged Mountain Natural Area

The Rivanna River serves as the boundary between eastern Charlottesville and the Pantops area of Albemarle County. To the north is the Pen Park within Charlottesville, and the river meanders south to the Sentara Martha Jefferson complex. 

The area has been studied for many years, and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission has been working on a study intended to unify future planning and implementation efforts. Nick Morrison is a planner with the TJPDC who updated the Charlottesville Planning Commission at their meeting on August 10. (TJPDC page on the plan)

“The goal of this phase of this planning project was to develop a vision and an action plan for that urban section of the corridor,” Morrison said. 

Morrison said a vision statement makes the argument that the Rivanna River is one of the community’s “greatest assets.” 

An overview of existing land use categories in the study area (Credit: TJPDC)

On the Charlottesville side, there’s a new apartment building nearing completion on River Road. Planning is moving forward with at least one pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the Rivanna. On the Albemarle side, apartments are planned along State Farm Boulevard and the fate of the State Farm headquarters building remains unknown. Their employees no longer have to report to work to do their duties. 

The idea of the plan is to coordinate infrastructure, and to make sure attention is being paid to the impact on the environment. 

“In terms of environmental protection, high-level, looking for approaches to protect any sort of sensitive biological or ecological areas, any sort of improved ongoing coordination between the city and the county, particularly in water quality and conservation,” Morrison said.   

Commissioner Jody Lahendro noted that the report contains dozens of action items. 

“Where do you go from here?” Lahendro asked. “I’m worried about creating yet another report that is just overwhelming with so many action items that are so disconnected that it goes back on a shelf. What’s the implementation for this?”

Sandy Shackelford, the director of planning and transportation for the TJPDC, said that before the plan is finalized, her staff will identify short-term goals as priorities. 

“My thought was that we focus on sort of the foundational action items that are going to be needed to build off of these other ones, so focusing on things like inventorying existing infrastructure or conditions, or systems, or things like that,” Shackelford said. 

Lahendro said he felt the cultural inventory conducted to date does not go far enough to protect certain areas that may have been Monacan sites. 

“You just assume that everybody wants to be able to visit all these cultural sites,” Lahendro said. “I expect there’s some prehistoric sites along this river that we don’t want to have people going with metal detectors ravaging and destroying.”

Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg suggested the plan should take note of desire from many to limit additional parking spaces. He also said the plan should address transit. 

“The only thing that actually about transit is about signage from transit stops, which I think is good, but I think it would make sense to have stuff about connections to the river area both transit and pedestrian and bicyclist,” Stolzenberg said. “I’m also a bit confused by this idea that adding pedestrian facilities means we must add more parking as well.”

The TJPDC is also helping Albemarle County with a study of how to expand transit, with the Pantops area being one of the study areas. (check the August 11 CCE for that story)

Commissioner Liz Russell said language should be more clear about helping community members and visitors learn more about the history of the river, if it’s going to include a section on that topic. She noted the plan already includes examples from how other communities have utilized their riverfronts, such as Greenville, South Carolina and Richmond.

“You know the Richmond case study really I think says very beautifully that ‘helping visitors develop a fuller understanding of different aspects of people’s lives throughout the history of the region will help them understand strong connections and understanding.’ I really think we’re not quite making that point in like why are we talking about the history, and what could that mean in anyone experiencing any of these opportunities within the corridor.”

This is the second phase of the planning process. So far, there’s not a concrete plan for a third, but Shackelford said it would be more to design future infrastructure. 

“If you look at the Richmond plan, they ended up with a master plan where they put things on paper,” Shackleford said.

Shackelford and the draft Rivanna plan refer to the Richmond Riverfront Plan, adopted by that city council in November 2012 and amended nearly five years later. 

A section of the draft plan addresses what the city of Richmond has done with their riverfront planning (Credit: TJPDC) (download the draft plan)

Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell cautioned the plan should not be to create an urban environment such as in Richmond or Greenville. 

“We don’t want to be that developed I don’t think based on the emphasis on protecting the environment, protecting the river, being the prime directive,” Mitchell said. 

Commissioner Stolzenberg said he felt developing along the river in a way that put more eyes on it could be beneficial. 

“If you had apartments or restaurants that kind of fronted the river and had access to it, that would create a positive feedback loop where we would care more about the quality of the river, and more people would be able to use the river,” Stolzenberg said. “That might detract somewhat from the sense of being out in the wilderness but you can get that on the James, right?”

The plan was originally to have been adopted by December 2020 but the pandemic affected the timeline. The Albemarle County Planning Commission has not yet had a presentation on the latest draft.

What do you think about the Rivanna River plan? Let us know in the comments. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about plans, and this newsletter was created in part to keep the plans from being put on shelves and forgotten. I’m not here to say what should happen, but I want to shed light on previous studies, plans, decisions, and all sorts of things about what I’ve seen in my time as a reporter.

Please consider becoming a subscriber through Substack or a Patreon contributor to help ensure I can keep doing this. And definitely share with someone you think might be interested!