Even with COVID-19 vaccine efforts accelerating and moving into the next phase in some parts of the state, University of Virginia health experts say prevention efforts in the next several weeks will have a much larger impact on the trajectory of the pandemic.
In Halifax County, 240 cases of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus have been reported since the calendar flipped to 2021. In just 10 days, the county has recorded 17% of all COVID-19 cases dating back to March.
In neighboring areas, the numbers are even worse.
Danville and Pittsylvania County combined have added a staggering 997 virus cases so far this month.
The trend is happening all across Virginia. In fact, the state set another single-day record for cases Saturday with 5,798 new infections reported.
At least on the local level, the spread is blamed on people gathering without taking precautions, including wearing masks.
“The spike in cases is due to community spread,” Brookie Crawford, a spokesperson with the Virginia Department of Health, wrote in an email last week to The Gazette.
“The primary community spread is gatherings of people in a variety of settings who are not practicing the prevention basics, in particular the 3 Ws.”
Those 3 Ws are washing hands, wearing a mask and watching distance from others. The other sometimes-overlooked prevention method has been preached since early in the pandemic: simply stay home.
This increase was predicted as many people gathering with family and friends for holiday celebrations. The virus spreads quickly in large groups. Some people many not even be aware they have the illness — meaning they are asymptomatic or just haven’t started having symptoms — and are unknowingly spreading it to others.
The latest report from UVa. indicates cases will continue climbing through February. For Halifax County, it estimates the peak could happen the last week in February with about 262 cases a week.
An even larger surge could bring about 405 cases a week in early March. Alternately, if additional steps are taken to control the pandemic, those numbers could be drastically lower, according to UVa.
Friday’s report also suggests these numbers are lower than reality. The reason: the holidays are still impacting state data. Current data is what the UVa. COVID-19 model uses to project future cases.
As an example, cases surged prior to Thanksgiving, paused over the holiday and surged again after.
Researchers noted it likely would be next week before the forecast can accurately show what Virginia can expect. This week’s figures are thought to be an underrepresentation of what’s to come.
Deaths and outbreaks
Halifax County’s official death toll from the health department has increased to 44, but doesn’t yet include all of the fatalities from a long-term care facility.
The death toll at South Boston Health and Rehab — formerly known as Woodview — has increased to 39, according to the latest federal filing on Dec. 27.
An outbreak discovered there in late October is no longer active, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
As of Friday, the state only reported 25 deaths at the former Woodview facility. The discrepancy is based on a matter of procedures.
The federal data comes from the Centers for Disease Control, which mandates long-term facilities file weekly reports. Those reports include a listing of how many residents have died from COVID-19. While the report is filed weekly, it takes about two weeks before it becomes public on the CDC’s online database.
The state’s official count is based on death certificates. Officials with the state health department must wait to have a death certificate before logging the fatality in the master online database. That process is often delayed by weeks.
Simply put, the state numbers lag behind what’s reported by the CDC.
An outbreak at Berry Hill Health & Rehab Center, identified in early November, was still considered active as of Friday when the state reported 43 cases of COVID-19 have been identified.
According to the CDC report for the week of Dec. 27, four additional residents and five more staff members tested positive.
There are no deaths for that outbreak, according to the CDC and state health department.
Also last week, 10 inmates at Halifax County Adult Detention Center tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak there.
The UVa. report continues to place the Southside Health District — an area that includes Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties — in a surge category. This means caseloads have doubled based on a 100,000-population scale.
Even with the rise in cases, there’s a fear some are still being missed.
A high positivity rate of 15% — 16.8% statewide and 15.5% in the local health district — indicates that some cases are likely being missed, according to the UVa. report.
While early hopes that about 20 million Americans would receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2020 fell short, UVa. reports that those early wrinkles will be ironed out over the next several weeks.
As of 5 p.m. Saturday, there had been 534 doses of the vaccine given to Halifax County residents. Two doses are needed to be considered full vaccinated, but the health department does not record that data on a local level.
Throughout Virginia, 12,747 people are fully vaccinated.
The first vaccination phase includes health workers who have direct contact with COVID-19 patients and residents and staff of long-term care faculties. Some areas of Virginia are moving to the next vaccination phase. The Southside Health District is not among those localities ready for what’s known as Phase 1b.
There are 11 health districts that will begin gradually adding vaccination opportunities for the following groups: frontline essential workers, people age 75 and older and people living in correctional facilities, homeless shelters or migrant labor camps.
All areas of the commonwealth are expected to move to Phase 1b before the end of January.
It will take several weeks to months to vaccinate Virginians who fall into Phase 1b, the health department reports.
The ability to schedule appointments will depend on the supply of vaccine available, according to a news release.
Vaccine supply in the United States is still very limited. Currently the federal government is allocating about 110,000 doses of vaccine to Virginia a week.
Large-scale vaccine deployment is very complex, UVa. researchers wrote. However, as more people receive the vaccine, COVID-19 transmission rates should decline.
Then enters a new problem: if some refuses the vaccine that could prolong the pandemic or cause local outbreaks.
For the general population, the vaccine likely won’t be available until late spring or early summer.
“The race between vaccines and new variants will become increasingly important,” UVa. researchers wrote in Friday’s report.
So far, 52 cases in five states have been linked to this new strain that appears more contagious. However, the variant doesn’t increase the risk of severe disease or death, according to UVa.
Early studies estimate this variant increases the reproduction rate of COVID-19 by 40 to 80%.