2020-4-10

Virginia Uses Genetic Technology to Combat COVID-19

~State public health laboratory is one of the first in the nation to do this work~

RICHMOND—Governor Ralph Northam today announced that the Department of General Services’ (DGS) Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services (DCLS) is one of the first public health labs in the nation to use genetic technology to help public health officials better understand and track the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic to strengthen prevention and response efforts.

DCLS is using next-generation sequencing to genetically decode some Virginia samples that contain the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. Looking at this genetic fingerprint can help public health officials track how the virus is changing and provide insights into how it is being transmitted.

“Advances in genetic sequencing allow us to track and analyze COVID-19 better than previous outbreaks,” said Governor Northam. “This innovative technology, combined with the work of our public health laboratory and epidemiologists around the Commonwealth, will help us understand the virus, how it spreads, and how it may change. And that will give us more tools to fight it.”

DCLS is working alongside the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and international public health and university partners using specialized lab equipment and computer software to piece together the genetic makeup of the virus found in COVID-19 patients. DCLS is working collaboratively to create a library that stores the information of not only the positive samples it identifies, but also those tested at private facilities, healthcare systems, and universities in Virginia.

Hidden in the genetic makeup of the virus are clues to its origin. Soon after the virus appeared in China, scientists used sequencing to tease out its genetic information and made that information available to the international public health community. As the virus travels from one person to another, it makes copies of itself and sometimes makes small genetic changes called mutations. Scientists can read these mutations like a road map, tracing how cases are related.

Next-generation sequencing generates enormous amounts of data, which is analyzed by specialized bioinformaticians at DCLS. The lab shares the data with public health officials and uploads it to GISAID, an online repository where genomic data it is openly available to epidemiologists and virologists around the globe. Nextstrain, an online resource for scientists to visually track the genomics of the virus, creates diagrams that favor family trees showing the evolutionary relationships between different samples collected throughout the world.

“This genetic fingerprint gives us tremendous insight into this novel virus, helping us understand where Virginia cases originated and how they are being transmitted in our communities,” said DCLS Director Dr. Denise Toney. “Providing this information in real-time is unbelievably valuable for public health officials as they determine how to reduce the impact of COVID-19 in our communities.”

In Virginia, the sequences uploaded so far show evidence of multiple introductions of the virus into Virginia communities, suggesting that the emergence of COVID-19 is due to multiple distinct events. This is suggested by looking at the similarity of the virus in Virginia to the virus sequences obtained from Asian and European patients. There is also clear indication of person-to-person spread within suspected COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Epidemiologists at the Virginia Department of Health can use these data during investigations of outbreaks in nursing homes and other settings to determine whether all of the cases originated from the same source or multiple sources,” said Virginia State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake.

For more information, visit the DGS website at dgs.virginia.gov, including this Next-Generation Sequencing in Virginia document that explains more about how DCLS is using genetic technology to combat COVID-19 in Virginia.

James “Jimmie” Edward Phelps

June 9, 1927-April 8, 2020

James “Jimmie” Edward Phelps, 92, passed away Wednesday, April 8, 2020 at his home in Hayes, Virginia. He was preceded in death by his parents, Edward Everard and Virginia Kanipe Phelps and his son, Randolph “Randy’ Phelps.

Mr. Phelps is survived by his wife, Peggy Faris Phelps; daughter, Pamela Harrell; step-daughter, Sharon Acree (Bruce); grandchildren, Abbey H. Webb (Jared), Tommy Harrell (Lee), Craig Phelps (Mary Lou), Chad Phelps (Shannon), step-grandsons, Andrew Acree (Nicole) and Scott Acree; great-grandchildren, Madison Phelps, Cameron Phelps, Dallas Phelps, Savannah Phelps, Riley Webb, Regan Webb, Broady Webb and Kristin and Bryson Harrell; sister, Frances “Pam” Darden and a number of nieces and nephews.

He was a member of Grace Anglican Church in Purdy, Virginia where he was on the Vestry and served in many other capacities over the years. Jimmie served his country in the Army Air Corps from August 1944 to January 1947 in World War II. He loved flying his own plane having his private airstrip in his back yard. He loved the Boy Scouts of America and started the Purdy Boy Scouts now known as Troop 232 which exists to this day. He served as Commissioner on the Greensville-Emporia Airport for 38 years. He served actively on the Greensville Rescue Squad as an EMT. Jimmie retired from Johns-Manville Corporation and Georgia-Pacific Corporation with a total service of 47 years. Proficient in both electrical and mechanical work, he became Plant Engineer. He enjoyed traveling and with his wife, Peggy, took many trips to Europe. He was a talented man and had many interests, enjoying flying as well as sailing his boat on the Chesapeake Bay most of all. His dream was to build a home on Sarah Creek where his sailboat was docked near the Yorktown, Virginia Marina. He accomplished this. He loved his Yorkie dog, Joye who stayed by his side during his entire illness.

Graveside services will be private. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests memorial contributions be made to Grace Anglican Church.

Online condolences may be shared with the family at www.owenfh.com.

Becoming Essential: Southside Virginia Community College Graduates Fill Indispensable Roles

Alberta, VA: Across the Commonwealth of Virginia, people are adapting to new routines as a result of social distancing and other precautions aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus. Governor Ralph Northam has asked people to stay at home, and he issued an Executive Order closing non-essential businesses. As a result, many workplaces are empty.

Businesses considered essential are still operating, and Southside Virginia Community College (SVCC) is proud that so many of its graduates are faithfully serving the local community by filling essential roles. These dedicated men and women are keeping supply lines open, medical facilities functioning, and information flowing. They include graduates from SVCC’s health programs, including nurses (RNs and LPNs), nurse aids, paramedics, and phlebotomists. They include truck drivers who bring food to local grocery stores and diesel technicians who keep the trucks running. They include Information Technology (IT) workers who keep channels of communication open and permit work-at-home solutions. They include power line workers who keep the electricity flowing, as well as electricians and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) technicians who respond to emergencies. They also include Administration of Justice graduates, who include law enforcement personnel, correctional facility staff members, and other public safety officers.

To keep the education and training pipeline for these vital positions uninterrupted, SVCC itself has had to adapt. In March, the College began moving all classes to online and other alternative settings. In addition, Governor’s School students and other dually enrolled high school students moved to complete their studies via virtual classes.

“Our SVCC faculty and staff are working with our students transitioning to alternative modes of instruction while maintaining our standards of educational excellence,” said Dr. Quentin R. Johnson, SVCC President. “Be assured, SVCC is open—virtually! Faculty and staff are communicating and assisting students to complete class requirements for our spring semester.  Our student services staff is accommodating all students by phone, internet, text messaging, and our website in order to answer any questions, alleviate concerns, and to assist with summer registration.”

SVCC, an open-door institution that is part of the Virginia Community College System, provides higher education opportunities to a diverse student body. Its 4,200-square-mile service region, the largest community college jurisdiction within Virginia, spans ten counties in south-central Virginia. Seated classes are typically held at two main campuses, five off-campus centers, and numerous other satellite sites. During the current coronavirus crisis, distance learning technologies are being used to provide instruction through the college’s existing and expanded online environment. Registration for summer classes is now open. Visit Southside.edu for more information.

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