Fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant and its delta cousin, the number of COVID-19 cases is reaching record levels across the region, the state and on the University of Virginia Grounds.
The Blue Ridge Health District reported 371 new cases Wednesday, the highest single day total of any pandemic day so far. The district is averaging a record 160 new cases over a seven-day period compared the 74-case, seven-day average last year.
The recent surge makes December 2021 the second-worst month of the pandemic in terms of daily case counts. So far, 19 new deaths have been recorded, and 77 people have been hospitalized this month, which is one of the higher monthly totals.
Jason Elliott, a spokesman for the health district, said the dramatic increase in the district’s case rate is likely a result from an increase in COVID-19 testing, more gatherings and travel around the holidays and the more transmissible omicron variant.
More than 12,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported by the Virginia Department of Health on Wednesday, more than twice as many as last week and the highest count since the pandemic began. The previous daily record of 9,914 cases occurred on Jan. 17, 2021.
More than 38,000 new COVID cases have been reported since Christmas, health department statistics show.
At UVa, more than 20% of faculty and staff tested for COVID-19 in the past seven days have tested positive, according to statistics posted on the university’s COVID-19 tracker website.
The website shows that an average of 20.51% of employees and faculty tested for COVID in the seven-day period ending Tuesday returned positive results for the coronavirus. The same seven-day average for students still on Grounds was 18.17%.
On Tuesday, UVa tested 239 staff and faculty, 53 of whom tested positive. On Monday, 197 staff and faculty were tested, of whom 54 returned positive results.
For students, 42 took tests Tuesday, with eight proving positive. On Monday, 31 students were tested, with eight positive results.
As of Tuesday, 634 employees and faculty plus 563 students have reported cases of COVID-19 since August.
UVa administrators have said that any changes to attendance procedures or health protocols for spring term will be decided by Jan. 14.
“University leaders and public health experts are monitoring the situation,” said Brian Coy, UVa spokesman. “We continue to encourage every member of our community to take precautions to help limit the spread of the virus, including getting vaccinated or a booster as soon as possible.”
UVa has been plagued by COVID-19 in recent weeks. On Dec. 26, athletic officials announced that the Cavalier football team would not play in the Wasabi Fenway Bowl planned for Wednesday, Dec. 29 because too many players tested positive.
The game was canceled “due to the number of COVID cases impacting the roster, preventing safe participation,” according to a statement from the bowl organizers.
Thursday’s Cavalier women’s basketball team game against Notre Dame was canceled because the Cavaliers “entered COVID protocols,” according to Atlantic Coast Conference officials.
The surge is striking restaurants as well. Reports from Richmond and other locations show many have closed due to staffing issues related to COVID-19. In Albemarle County, Brazos Tacos on 2nd Street is moving to take out only in response to the surge in cases, according to a social media post.
“Indoor dining just feels wrong right now,” restaurant managers wrote on Twitter. “We’re moving to take-out only until the storm subsides. We keep each other safe.”
In a Wednesday statement, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said the increasing number of cases is “a reason for concern, but not a reason for panic.” He said that vaccinations are keeping people from being hospitalized or dying.
“The data are clear. Nearly everyone going to the hospital with COVID is unvaccinated. This is entirely avoidable, if everyone gets their shots,” Northam said.
At UVa, all full-time and part-time employees are required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Jan. 4 and be boosted as soon as they are eligible. All students and faculty must prove they’ve been boosted by Feb. 1 or as soon as it is received after their eligibility.
Northam said PCR tests – polymerase chain reaction tests that detect genetic material from the coronavirus – are “widely available, and more rapid antigen test kits are becoming available every day.”
However, complaints from across the commonwealth claim the tests are quickly sold out in pharmacies and stores and that public testing sites are being overwhelmed.
In the past three days, UVa employee testing sites have been reportedly swamped by people seeking tests. Long lines and waits of up to three hours were reported on Tuesday, according to social media reports by employees waiting for tests and others doing the testing.
Blue Ridge Health District officials said registration capacity for the district’s testing site at Fashion Square Mall was full in advance for both Wednesday and Thursday, although some walk-in capacity would be granted at the drive-up testing site.
The district’s testing sites in Louisa and Stanardsville reached capacity early on Monday and Tuesday, officials said.
On Wednesday, the line of cars in queue for the district’s Fashion Square testing site wrapped around the parking with more than 100 cars in line at one time during the day.
Officials with Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville urged those who have not been vaccinated to get their shots and those who are eligible for boosters to do the same.
“As the community is facing increased cases brought on by the omicron variant, Sentara Healthcare is asking those eligible who have not yet been fully vaccinated to do so today,” said Alyssa Pacheco, brand engagement consultant with Sentara Martha Jefferson, in a prepared statement.
Pacheco said emergency departments in the area are experiencing longer wait times than normal and asked those seeking tests to go a doctor’s office, a testing center or find one at a store.
“If you have been exposed to COVID-19, feel asymptomatic, need a test for travel purposes, or are experiencing mild symptoms, such as a sore throat or loss of taste or smell, please schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or purchase a test at a local convenience store,” she said.
“If you are experiencing shortness of breath or severe weakness when walking a short distance, please visit your nearest hospital. These can be life-threatening and need to be evaluated by a provider as soon as possible,” she said.
Northam echoed Pacheco.
“Please go to the hospital only if you believe you really need to. It’s not fair to put even more pressure on hospital workers to care for people whose hospitalization is avoidable,” he said.