As more people in Central Virginia begin to get outdoors to enjoy summertime activities, health officials from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) are beginning to notice a rise in COVID-19 cases in the region.
Cali Anderson, an epidemiologist with the VDH, said new cases over this year’s Memorial Day weekend were roughly five times higher in Central Virginia than they were at the same time last year, and new cases are continuing to trend upwards in the Central Virginia Health District.
The Central Virginia Health District consists of Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.
According to VDH data, the Central Virginia Health District has experienced 62,317 total cases, 2,421 hospitalizations and 867 deaths since pandemic began in March 2020.
Currently, VDH data shows roughly 500 new cases per week in the Central Virginia region as of Memorial Day weekend. At the same time last year, there were only roughly 100 new cases per week in the region.
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That number dropped by mid-June 2021, according to Anderson, to 50 new cases per week, the lowest since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, that same drop isn’t predicted by the VDH’s University of Virginia COVID-19 model, which projects case counts of COVID-19 in the health district.
This, according to Anderson, is because of new subvariants of the omicron variant, which caused the highest peak of the pandemic this past January.
Anderson said the current strains of omicron that are prevalent in the Central Virginia region are the BA2 and BA2.12.1 strains, which have caused spikes in large U.S. cities including New York City and Chicago.
Data published recently by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the BA2 and BA2.12.1 strains are responsible for nearly 94% of new cases nationwide.
Anderson said that the VDH’s modeling data on the BA2.12.1 strain could potentially create some of the highest COVID numbers yet if mitigation strategies aren’t followed early enough.
“This strain is even more transmissible than the last omicron variant that we saw in January,” Anderson told The News & Advance.
The current course of the VDH’s model projects that cases of just the BA2 variant could potentially return to January levels, which peaked at roughly 2,700 new cases per week.
If the model takes into account the BA2.12.1 strain, Anderson said at the upper end of the model there is potential for new cases to reach 4,400 per week in Central Virginia alone by late July.
Currently, Centra Health’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that as of June 1, there are 33 people hospitalized in the system — which consists of Lynchburg General, Bedford Memorial and Southside Community hospitals — with COVID, three of whom are in intensive care.
Centra spokesperson Stephanie McBride told The News & Advance that one year ago, on the first day of June 2021, Centra only had 20 people hospitalized across its system, with three in the ICU.
Just five months ago, right before the peak of the omicron variant, on January 1, there were 124 total patients, 18 of whom were in ICU.
Centra’s hospitals briefly had more than 200 hospitalized COVID patients, the all-time high for Centra, in mid-January.
Looking just two months ago, at the beginning of April, McBride said the hospital was nearly at zero patients in its facilities with COVID-19, missing that total by one or two persons at the time.
The jump in just two months from one or two patients to 33 has been a quick rise, and with the high end of the model projecting a nearly 63% increase in cases over the highest peak, another such increase could put significant strains on regional hospitals.
However, Anderson said there is room for optimism in regards to the two strains.
Research has shown the symptoms of the BA2 strain have been found to be milder than that of earlier strains of COVID-19. According to Anderson, early signs of the BA2.12.1 strain show that it may be even milder than the BA2 strain.
But even with two relatively mild strains dominating infections, Anderson said mask-wearing should be re-considered again for people in the Central Virginia Health District.
“We take our masking recommendations off the CDC transmission levels web page,” Anderson said, “and at this point in time, both Appomattox County and Bedford County are in the highest transmission levels, which means masks are recommended for everyone no matter the vaccination status.”
Anderson said that Amherst, Campbell and Lynchburg are currently at medium transmission levels, “which means the immunocompromised, if you’re older, or you get severe illness, you may want to wear a mask as well.”
She noted that at the current rate of infection, soon all of the localities in the district could be in the high transmission level, meaning masks should be worn by everybody.
Testing will be an important step in the process again, noted Anderson. With the availability of at-home tests, it’s never been easier to get access. But with that easy access comes less reliable tests, Anderson said.
The epidemiologist recommends those who rely on an at-home test to determine if they have COVID-19 either follow up with another at-home test up to three days later, or follow up with a more in-depth PCR test, which must be done at a testing site.
In the meantime, health officials are still recommending vaccines, which are readily available through pharmacies, vaccine clinics or at the Health Department in Lynchburg on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Anderson said all individuals 18 and older are recommended to get the first two primary shots, followed up by one booster shot five months after the second primary shot.
Additional boosters are currently recommended for those age 50 and older or the immunocompromised, who may need another booster in addition to the first three shot.
“Demand isn’t where it used to be,” Anderson said, “so we’re not seeing our mass vaccination clinics that we used to have, but the vaccine is still definitely accessible.”
Virginians can access more COVID-19 resources on the health department’s website, vdh.virginia.gov.