Cases of COVID-19 are once again on the rise in the Blue Ridge Health District because of a resurgence of the delta variant, doctors with the University of Virginia Medical Center said Friday.
The increase comes after families gathered together for the Thanksgiving holiday and with a potentially worse variant, omicron, on the horizon. UVa hospitalizations related to COVID-19 stood at 36 patients as of Friday.
“So this is, unfortunately, the thing we were concerned about moving into the holidays,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, UVa Health’s director of hospital epidemiology. “I don’t think we’re at a peak right now. There’s certainly no evidence to say that we’ve reached a peak. If anything, it appears that things are accelerating.”
The Blue Ridge Health District has reported 717 new cases this month, and the seven-day average is back up to 73 new cases a day, almost double the low of 38 in mid-November. So far this month, eight people have died, and another 21 have been hospitalized. All three measures — new cases, hospitalizations and deaths — are still below the highs seen during the delta surge in the early fall.
BRHD spokeswoman Kathryn Goodman said the increase in cases this week stems from an increase in people getting tested for COVID-19 as well as some outbreaks linked to indoor holiday gatherings where COVID-19 precautions, such as wearing masks, weren’t always being followed.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the first confirmed case of the omicron variant in Virginia had been identified, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Sifri said information about the variant is rapidly evolving, and there’s a lot that scientists don’t know. However, initial evidence has shown that omicron is not likely to cause more severe disease but could be able to spread more rapidly, Sifri said.
Dr. Reid Adams, UVa’s chief medical officer, said that before Thanksgiving, UVa was seeing hospitalizations in the low 20s but that has increased to 36.
“Fortunately, about a third of those are intensive care unit patients, where they’ve sort of been 50/50 in the past,” he said.
With more people gathering inside because of cooler temperatures, Adams said it’s more important than ever for people to get vaccinated, wear a mask and social distance as much as possible.
Sifri encouraged people who plan to see extended family over the holidays to take an at-home COVID-19 test beforehand.
“Make sure that you know that you’re not a carrier of COVID before you see people and put people at risk,” he said.
Adams said that the medical center is prepared for another surge in COVID-19 cases; however, that will stress other parts of the health system, which has been the case for previous waves.
“Our teams are incredibly tired,” he said. “They’re stressed from two years of COVID care. So the decision not to try to protect yourself and your family also has implications for the health care system and everybody that needs to access it.”
Last year, the area saw a surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths following the winter holidays and before the vaccine was widely available.
Next week marks one year since the vaccine arrived in the area. Since then, 70.1% of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in the health district have received at least one dose, and 63.6 are fully vaccinated, according to the health district. About 24.3% have received a booster shot.
“The tragedy is that we’re still seeing this large amount of infections that by and large, particularly those that end up in our hospital and our ICUs, are completely preventable,” Sifri said.
The state will likely surpass 1 million COVID-19 cases over the weekend. On Friday, the state had reported another 2,848, bringing the total to 994,069 cases.
“It’s nothing short of tragic to think about those numbers, particularly when you then think about the number of hospitalizations, the families that have impacted and the lives lost due to that when we have a toolbox of tools that can be used and employed to prevent that,” Sifri said.
Sifri said that now is the time to get a booster, which has been approved for everyone 16 years and older.
“Remember that your antibody responses and your ability to stave off infection after being vaccinated against delta wears off,” he said. “It diminishes after around six months or so.”
The vaccination site at Seminole Square inside the former Big Lots is open for appointments or walk-ins. To make an appointment at that location or elsewhere in the area, go to vase.vdh.virginia.gov.