Post #1377: COVID-19 and the Town of Vienna, VA

Posted on December 31, 2021


Edit:  The Town has since relented, which I believe is thanks to the efforts of Councilmembers Patel and Springsteen.  The testing center will remain open another month.  Which should get us past the peak of the Omicron wave.  Apparently, what was stated as flatly impossible two days ago turns out to have been a judgement call.  And reasonable judgement has prevailed.

Original post follows:

The facts are these.  There’s a drive-through COVID-19 testing site that operates in a church parking lot in the western part of Vienna, VA.  It has been operating since March 2021.  It appears to be one of the few drive-through testing sites in the nearby area.

Lately, as you might imagine with the rapid spread of Omicron, this site has been quite busy, with cars lining up to be served.  Reportedly, the operators of this site provide about 100 COVID-19 tests per day.  They offer both antigen (rapid) and PCR tests.

And now, as Omicron cases continue to ramp up, and access to testing becomes an increasingly important public health issue, the Town of Vienna is shutting down that drive-through testing station.  Today, last I heard.

It’s a zoning issue.  Because, in the Town of Vienna, God forbid that we let common sense and the worst pandemic in a century get crosswise of the zoning regs.

Those of you not from Vienna probably think I’m making this up.  Because, I mean, seriously, what small-town government would shut down the only local high-volume drive-through testing center, right as Omicron cases are exploding?

But here’s the reporting.

Per the same reporting, Vienna Town officials’ response was more-or-less to shrug it off.  To note that you can get tested somewhere else.  And that hospitalization rates aren’t as high with Omicron, with (I guess) the implication that getting or spreading it doesn’t matter as much.  And that nothing can be done to keep this site open.

But, economist that I am, I have to ask why people were waiting in line to use this testing center, if testing is so readily available?  I wonder if it might be tough to get a test, or less safe to get a test in those settings than via a drive-through testing center.

And, sure enough, if I actually take three minutes to try to find a COVID-19 test at a local Walgreens, I find this:

Maybe that’s my bad luck.  Maybe it’s because tomorrow is a holiday.  And maybe it’s because demand for testing is exceeding capacity.  Which is why people were willing to queue up for the one high-volume drive-through site in the area.

I assume that, as is customary for the Town of Vienna, nobody bothered to get their hands on the numbers or do any quantitative analysis before making the decision.  Best guess, the seeming indifference to any impact is more a matter of wishful thinking than any sort of hard-numbers analysis.

And so, the question that should have been asked, but I’m guessing wasn’t, is the following:  Just how much does 100 tests a day matter, in the overall rate of testing in the Vienna VA area?  Is this soon-to-be shuttered center a drop in the bucket, or does its 100-tests-per-day capacity account for a significant portion of test volume in this area?

Using easily-available data from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and Excel, it’s straightforward to calculate the daily count of COVID-19 tests reported for area residents.   All it really takes is having an interesting in knowing the answer.

While there is no defined catchment area for this testing station, I’m going to take the three local zip codes that most would agree cover “the greater Vienna area” (22180, 22181, 22182).  Together, these ZIPs have about 67,000 residents, or more than four times the population of the Town of Vienna proper.  So, if anything, I’m greatly overstating total relevant test volume, and so understating the role of this one high-volume site.

Source:  Calculated from Commonwealth of Virginia ZIP-level data accessed 12/31/2021.

The answer is that 100 tests a day accounts for between one-third and one-quarter of all COVID-19 tests provided to the “greater Vienna area” population.  (That’s ZIP codes 22180, 22181, 22182, with a total population roughly four times the population of the Town of Vienna itself.) For the past week, total tests counted by the Commonwealth of Virginia have run between 300 and 400 a day.

With this change, Vienna is eliminating test capacity that amounts to about a third of all the test volume being provided to residents of the three-zip-code greater Vienna area. 

That, combined with the observation that people were lining up to use this site, as well as anecdotes about difficulty scheduling a test in other locations, suggests to me that this matters materially.

Reportedly, at least one Town Council member is still working to set up some solution to allow this site to remain open another month.  My guess is, that’s about all it would take to get us well past the Omicron peak.

All I’m trying to get across with this little analysis is that this testing site appears to matter greatly.  My presumption would be that it’s well worthwhile bending the rules, as required, in the interest of public health, to keep this local high-volume testing site open during the peak of the Omicron wave.

Just in case you think that maybe we don’t need testing, here’s the latest count of cases in this three-zip-code area, from the same Commonwealth of Virginia data source.  As of yesterday, we were seeing about 90 new cases per day, for a rate of about 135 new cases / 100K / day.  It’s not the 300+ rate that they’re seeing in DC.  But give it another week or so at the current growth rate and we’ll be close.

Source:  Calculated from Commonwealth of Virginia ZIP-level data accessed 12/31/2021.

Yes, this is still a public health threat in Virginia, even with a reduced hospitalization (and likely, mortality) rate.  Overall impact is the product of case totals times average morbidity per case.  And it looks like we’re going to have a lot of cases.

Front-line professions in our region are having a hard time getting tested:



Responsible, landmark local business in town are voluntarily shutting down:

Now is not a good time to cut out a third of local COVID-19 testing capacity.  Honestly, with as much as the Omicron case counts have been in the news, I’m surprised I even have to say that.