Right now, Virginia is in a race between two opponents on the opposite ends of the health spectrum: vaccines and virus variants.
The race winner will determine if COVID-19 cases — already growing statewide — will explode to a peak higher than the January surge or eventually fade to a controllable level.
This particular match-up has been predicted for weeks by a COVID-19 model specifically geared to Virginia’s part of the pandemic.
Friday’s report by the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute has dropped an optimistic tone it had in early March when infections were down and vaccines were up.
That hopefulness has turned into a reg-flag warning: Even with accelerated COVID-19 vaccinations, these variants are blunting the progress and threaten to send the state into another surge.
“Unfortunately, case counts are not continuing to decline as vaccination coverage continues to improve,” researchers wrote in Friday’s report. “This does not mean that vaccinations are not working, but rather that other factors are in play, including less social distancing and the B.1.1.7 variant.”
That variant — an altered version of the coronavirus — can increase transmissibility by about 50%, bringing a higher growth rate that can cause more severe disease.
Even with about 30% of state residents having at least one dose of the vaccine, models now show Virginia is heading toward another peak.
The UVa report doesn’t mince words about what could happen: The severity of the peak will be driven largely by behavior. The United Kingdom version of the virus “has become or is very close to becoming the predominant strain in Virginia and the U.S.,” researchers said.
Models show if residents continue to wear masks and not gather in large groups, a smaller peak may occur in late spring. On the flip side in the worst-case scenario, infections could surge to about 115 new daily cases per 100,000 by the end of June. To put that in comparison, January’s peak averaged about 68 cases per 100,000.
Another variant first discovered in October in South Africa is coming onto the radar as a concern. Virginia is one of five states in the southeastern part of the country that has reported more than 20 cases, UVa reports. Together, Virginia and the other states — Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia — account for 59% of the cases of this variant in the nation.
This altered version may be able to slip past vaccines and therapies, the UVa report noted.
In Virginia, daily caseloads have been inching upward after leveling out in March. There are 13 counties experiencing slow growth and other areas are seeing a plateau of cases after falling from record levels at the start of the year.
“Both the B.1.1.7 variant and relaxed behavior are likely responsible for this,” researchers said. “Social distancing and mask use need to continue until a much greater percentage of Virginians are vaccinated.”
Virginia is currently seeing about 1,400 daily cases, up from about 1,300 infections in mid-March. The level hasn’t been this high since early November.