Fueled by the omicron variant, both the Blue Ridge Health District and the University of Virginia Medical Center set pandemic records this week for the number of new COVID cases and related hospitalizations.
Health district officials on Friday reported 800 new cases of COVID in the previous 24-hour period, besting the previous record for single day cases of 605 on Jan. 8.
“We’re seeing a lot of community spread,” said Kathryn Goodman, district spokeswoman. “There is a large number of people getting COVID who have no idea how they were exposed or where they may have gotten it.”
UVa Medical Center officials reported 114 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Friday with about 30% of them being in intensive care.
Officials said on Friday that the medical center had 615 patients in for treatment of a variety of medical issues.
Doctors said the number of patients being treated varies day to day and sometimes by the hour because of admissions and discharges.
“We’re at our highest point we’ve seen throughout the pandemic,” said UVa Health CEO Wendy Horton. “This is the highest number of COVID patients we’ve had.”
Although the numbers are the highest they’ve been since the pandemic came to Virginia in March 2020, Horton said many are discovering they have COVID after coming to the hospital for other medical issues or procedures.
“We’re seeing a difference in that we’re treating COVID patients who come to the hospital with traditional COVID-19 symptoms and asymptomatic patients who are coming in with other medical issues and discovering they’re positive,” Horton said.
The omicron variant is highly contagious but does not always cause debilitating sickness, doctors said.
“A lot of people are comparing their symptoms to the common cold, but there are people still getting seriously ill,” Goodman said. “If you get it, even if you don’t feel that sick, you can still give it to other people.”
According to UVa’s COVID tracker webpage, as of Wednesday the school had a seven-day average of 18.7% of students and staff who were tested for coronavirus proving positive. Among just staff and faculty, the number was just under 20%.
The school was averaging about 40 new cases a day during the last seven days, according to the website, with 55 new cases reported on Thursday.
The numbers come as COVID cases are beginning to wane in some hard hit areas, including New York and New Jersey. That is not the case locally, however.
“There are some indications that there could be an end to the current surge by the end of the month, but many people have predicted the end of the pandemic only to have a variant happen and we want to avoid that,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology.
“We don’t know what will look like after omicron. Will there be newer variants? Will older variants make a comeback? That could happen with delta, but we don’t know,” he said.
Sifri said the omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-19 coronavirus is less virulent than delta, impacting the upper respiratory system more than its predecessors that created pneumonia deep in the lungs. That means the odds of needing a ventilator or long-term stays in an intensive care unit are less with omicron.
The fact that omicron is extremely contagious, however, means more people are getting sick so that more are coming in for treatment.
“We have so much community transmission that people are bound to be exposed, but we want to limit that as much as possible,” Goodman said. “We want to limit the spread as much as possible. We don’t want to overwhelm the medical resources.”
Although UVa has been able to add beds to COVID units as needed, the influx does wear on staff, officials said.
“It’s still causing people to come into the hospital and still causing people to need intensive care and it is still deadly, especially for those who are unvaccinated or have been vaccinated but have weakened immune systems,” Sifri said. “When you have so many people getting sick, you have a lot of people who need hospitalization and it becomes overwhelming.”