With more than 12,000 new infections reported Wednesday morning, soaring COVID-19 cases set a new single-day record in Virginia and brought the rolling seven-day average to the highest peak in the pandemic spanning nearly two years.
The staggering numbers would have been impossible to foresee before a new variant — omicron — emerged to spread the novel coronavirus throughout the world faster than before.
For the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District, infections have increased but not at the surging levels occurring around the state. There were 79 new cases reported Wednesday morning by the Virginia Department of Health bringing the average to about 42 per day. The all-time high was about 119 daily infections set in January.
“We can’t predict or say with certainty that our area will escape the worst of the wave or if we will see a sudden spike in the number of cases throughout Danville and Pittsylvania County,” Linda M. Scarborough, a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Health, told the Register & Bee on Wednesday afternoon.
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She also noted the case numbers only reflect those who have been tested and had results reported. Earlier in the pandemic, local health leaders said many cases likely were going undiagnosed since some people didn’t seek a test when they felt ill.
For Pittsylvania County specifically, the positivity rate has jumped to 30%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A rising positivity rate — a calculation of the positive results against all COVID-19 tests — is generally viewed as a precursor to a surge in cases. Danville’s rate is 14%, the CDC reports. Both are well above the 5% threshold established to determine if the virus is circulating uncontrolled in a community.
“With omicron being the dominant strain, and being more transmissible than delta, we should expect to see additional spread in the community and an upward trend in ER visits for testing,” Chris M. Andrews, an epidemiologist with the local health district, told the newspaper.
As more people become sick with COVID-19, hospitals around the state are filling up again. On Wednesday morning, Virginia facilities were treating about 2,000 patients. While climbing, it’s well below the January peak of about 3,100 daily patients. Hospitalizations often lag infection figures, but the numbers also suggest the omicron variant may not cause severe illnesses compared with previous strains.
“However, there is limited data suggesting omicron may exhibit lower virulence than delta and could result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths — we still need much more information on this,” Andrews explained.
University of Virginia experts warn that although the impacts may not be as bad, the sheer volume of infections could easily push hospitals — already facing severe staffing shortages — to the brink, especially when combined with growing flu cases an other winter ailments.
As of Wednesday, Sovah Health was treating more than 40 COVID-19 patients at its Danville and Martinsville facility, twice as many as last week, according to Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, market chief medical officer for Sovah Health.
“We are disheartened by the current uphill trend in COVID-19 positive cases in our community,” Gunn-Nolan said. “After 652 days of fighting this pandemic, we are still pleading with the same message — get vaccinated, social distance, wear your mask, and practice good hand hygiene.”
Only 50% of Danville residents are fully vaccinated, according to the health department. About 18% of city residents have received a booster dose. In Pittsylvania County, those figures are 47% and 16%, respectively.
An overwhelming majority of these new cases in the state are associated with unvaccinated individuals, the health department reports. The latest data — as of Dec. 18 — shows based on a 100,000 population scale, the rate of infection for unvaccinated Virginians was 814 compared to only 85 for those with the proper doses.
According to the CDC, people considered fully vaccinated — two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna version — are only 35% protected from the omicron variant. However, a booster dose brings the protection level up to about 75%.
While no vaccine is every 100% effective, global health experts agree COVID-19 shots dramatically reduce the risk of severe illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths. In most situations, people with these so-called breakthrough cases only have mild symptoms, if any at all, the state health department reports.
“Omicron appears to be successful at evading immunity following natural infection and vaccination but vaccination is still expected to provide a greater level of protection against severe illness and we are continuing to observe this trend in hospitalization data,” Andrews said. “The combination of being fully vaccinated (with a booster), wearing a mask around others, practicing safe distancing, and washing hands continues to be the best way to protect yourself and loved ones.”
In addition to vaccines and boosters, state and local health officials continue to advise residents to wear masks for indoor public settings and urge caution for New Year’s Eve gatherings.
“It is important to remind those who are eligible to get vaccinated or boosted,” Scarborough said. “As we approach another time this week (New Year’s Eve) when celebrations are common, we continue to advise the public to avoid large crowds, wear a mask if you are around others outside of your household and to wash your hands frequently to help prevent the spread.”