Two years after the first positive COVID-19 case in the Blue Ridge Health District, the Charlottesville area is starting to open up even more, but officials and doctors say pandemic is not yet over.
“While COVID is certainly on the wane right now, it is fair to say we’re not going to overcome COVID, and what we need to do now is to learn how to live with it and go about our daily life in a way that is safe for all of our community members,” Dr. Denise Bonds, director of the Blue Ridge Health District, said at a press conference Wednesday.
Since March 16, 2020, 44,000 individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 and 435 community members have died due to the virus in the health district, which includes the city of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson counties.
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday voted to end the county’s local emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The county, which has been holding virtual public meetings for almost two years, plans to return to some in person meetings next month.
In the region, only Charlottesville and Scottsville still have COVID-19 related local emergency in place. All of the localities in the district fall under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ‘medium’ COVID-19 community level, which recommends those who have been vaccinated for the virus may go without facemask.
COVID-19 cases are continuing to decrease in the district as hospitals see fewer patients with the virus than just a few weeks ago. Still, the pandemic isn’t over.
Bonds said there will continue to be cases in the community as it moves towards an endemic state of continuous infection.
“There will likely be additional variants that happen in the community and we will likely see additional outbreaks as time goes by,” she said.
There might be a future need to reinstitute mitigation measures and additional boosters or different variations of the vaccines that are needed.
“As part of that, I want to acknowledge that some members of our community will remain at higher risk than other members of our community and we need to be kind and caring to those individuals who continue to distance and wear masks and avoid those indoor spaces that we know now are the highest risk areas,” she said.
There’s no “bright line” when a virus or disease has crossed into the endemic stage — where there’s a constant level of it.
“It can be a constant low level or it can be a constant high level. It’s just a disease that we expect and will always have in the community, like the common cold, for example,” Bonds said.
She said the health district is looking to the CDC for moving into that stage, but she would prefer that there is a longer period of time without big spikes in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths before that is considered.
“Over the last six months, we’ve had several big spikes when we’ve had new variants come through. It would be really helpful to have several months where there’s a lower, steadier rate to make that call,” she said.
“But it really shouldn’t change people’s behavior. You should be able to go to the websites and see what is happening in your community and base your behavior on the rates that are happening in the community and your personal risk levels,” Bonds said.
Dr. Bill Petri, an immunologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, said in an interview that two things may mean we’re not out of the woods just yet — new variants arising and vaccine or natural infection acquired immunity being short-lived.
“The best estimates are that immunity against reinfection could be as short as three months or as long as five to six years, and the best bet is there’s probably about a year and a half or so,” he said. “So if that’s true, that’s really good news, because then that means that that would probably take us into the fall or even the winter with sustained high levels of immunity.”
A new version of the most recent omicron variant, called BA.2, is creeping into the area, Bonds said. Many people who are testing positive, however, still have the BA.1 omicron variant.
“We, probably more than Europe, had a higher infection rate with omicron generally in the United States, and so that should mean that more people are resistant and in that immediate post recovery stage where your immunity is the highest,” Bonds said. “Hopefully, it’s not a big impact. So far, it has not been.”
Petri said it’s important that people who have not yet been vaccinated do so.
“If you fall into one of these risk groups that don’t respond well to the vaccine, like people who’ve received kidney transplants, for example, there are now ways to passively immunize you by giving you the monoclonal antibodies against the spike glycoprotein,” he said.