UVa

Some models from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute show cases will continue declining, but two indicates infections could surge this winter.

As Virginia enters a second winter enduring a pandemic that shows little signs of easing its grip, the overriding question — at least in medical circles — centers on how bad the next surge will be.

There’s no easy answer and crystal balls are no help.

Forecast models — very similar to predicting if a winter storm will hit the area — show a variety of solutions. On the low end, some indicate the worst is over and cases will fall, a solution already bucked by a current uptick of infections. On the flip side, one model forecasts COVID-19 cases topping last January’s record levels.

As it stands now, COVID-19 cases in Halifax County and Virginia have risen in recent days after a downward trend since mid-September.

Untimely, the path forward lies entirely in the hands of the state’s residents. 

With enough warning of yet another devastating wave, individuals could take precautions to mitigate the impacts. 

To that end, the Virginia Department of Health is deploying surveillance efforts to detect the next wave before it hits, according to the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute.

The first method may seem like a smelly way of forecasting, but it’s been known to predict spikes before they happen. The health department says people shed the coronavirus in bodily waste. So, one way to detect if the infection is spreading includes testing sewage water.

“As such viral density in sewage water can give a good estimate of the number of infected individuals in a community,” UVa researchers wrote in a report last week. “In fact, these values may spike before people even feel sick, and outbreaks can be identified over a week before cases are detected by traditional means.”

The health department will be installing 25 sentinel-monitoring sites across Virginia in an effort to sound an alarm for future outbreaks. It’s not clear where these sites will be located.

State officials also have enlisted the help of Metaculus to leverage the power of crowdsourcing.

“Individuals are often wrong, but crowdsourced forecasts can be surprisingly good at capturing the intangibles that affect complex processes like an epidemic,” UVa officials said in a recent report. “People are better than computers at understanding sentiment and predicting human behavior. The health department is partnering with Metaculus to augment predictions. Currently, there’s a nearly 1-in-3 chance Virginia will see a winter surge, according to Metaculus.” 

Following trends

A recent analysis illustrates Virginia often lags behind other states in surges. For example, Florida and Texas were head of the commonwealth in both the winter 2020 and delta waves. Michigan and neighboring Midwestern states gave even more warning during the winter 2020 surge, possibly because weather turned cooler there earlier. Meanwhile, New York led by weeks during the first wave in Spring 2020. 

As cases nudge up across the nation now, the health department and UVa are “carefully scrutinizing” other states for signs of yet another wave here in the Old Dominion.

Last year’s winter surge happened mainly because of holiday travel and family gatherings. Winter weather overall also played a role, since cold air drives more people inside to confined spaces where the virus can easily spread.

“Extended contact is the ideal way to propagate the virus, and long-distance travel hastens geographic spread,” UVa researchers said. “On the other hand, these gatherings are important traditions and an invaluable means of keeping connected to family and friends in trying times.” 

Safety

In the end, it’s a balancing act. Health experts say vaccinations play a key role in gathering safely. Using other precautions like wearing a mask in public spaces and staying home when sick also helps slow the spread of COVID-19 or any illness.

However, donning face coverings appears to be stalled or even slowing in Virginia with about 61% of those surveyed now wearing masks compared to 65% earlier in the month.

Vaccination were on the uptick with booster doses recently, but those have tapered slightly, UVa also reports.

“Please do your part to stop the spread and continue to practice good prevention, including indoor masking, social distancing and self-isolating when sick, and get vaccinated as soon as possible,” researchers said.