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Delta-fueled surge 'taxing' area health district, medical personnel

Cases of COVID-19 in the Blue Ridge Health District have jumped by 20% in the last three months and show no sign of slowing down.

So far this month, the district has reported 978 cases, 24 new hospitalizations and five fatalities.

Because of the surge in cases, fueled by the delta variant of the coronavirus, the health district is once again prioritizing case investigations, adding staff members and figuring out how to meet the range of demands from testing to vaccinations.

“The numbers themselves have been taxing,” said Ryan McKay, the health district’s COVID-19 incident commander.

August was the fourth-worst month of the pandemic in terms of number of cases, with the health district reporting 1,695 new cases. Meanwhile, an additional 53 people were hospitalized and five people died. Most of the new cases have been among people under 40 years old and those who are not vaccinated, according to the district.

McKay said the health district has added 15 staff members to the case investigation team, but the recent cases have yielded more close contacts than previous surges.

“Three hundred to 400 close contacts [a day] is happening more often than not,” he said. “That just really creates a strain on the system, as compared to where we were a year ago, or even in February, or March — our last big surge — where the contact list was much smaller. So much has changed since then.”

So, the health district is prioritizing which cases to investigate and reaching out to close contacts of those who work or live in congregate settings, young children and people who are vulnerable because of their age or medical conditions.

To help slow the increase in cases, McKay recommends that people resume wearing masks while inside, keep their distance from others and limit their close contacts, especially with flu season approaching, along with colder weather that will bring more events inside.

As opposed to previous surges in area cases, the health district has resumed all public health services, and other mitigation measures — such as a statewide mask mandate and limitations on gatherings — are no longer in place. Additionally, more people are attending school in-person and attending large gatherings, such as home football games at the University of Virginia.

So far, McKay said the health district hasn’t seen the virus spread among students while at school or an increase in cases related to UVa football games.

The UVa Medical Center is seeing an increase in COVID-related hospitalizations, averaging about 10 new patients a day, according to the university’s COVID dashboard. That’s the highest seven-day average since August 2020, when UVa started publicly tracking hospital data. Currently, UVa has 70 COVID patients.

In late August, UVa started delaying some elective surgeries again and once again limited the number of visitors patients could have.

“As our COVID case numbers grow, the intensity of the needed resources — nurses, staff and otherwise — means there is fewer staff and resources available to care for other patients,” said Dr. Reid Adams, the interim chief medical officer for UVa, at a media briefing Friday.

“We’re challenged by the shortage [of nurses and medical staff] as others are across the nation and we’re trying to mitigate that by bringing in nurses and staff to supplement. Everybody is strained and worn out. We’ve been in this for 20 months now.”

Although COVID cases haven’t reached levels seen in the winter, the UVa Biocomplexity Institute projects the surge in the Charlottesville area will peak Oct. 17 at 2,245 cases a week, which would eclipse numbers seen in January and February.

Cases increased sharply in August after numbers sunk to record lows thanks to higher vaccination rates.

So far, 59% of the eligible population in the health district is fully vaccinated. Albemarle County’s vaccination rate tops the district at 65.4%. In Louisa County, 48% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, the lowest rate in the district.

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Of the five localities in the health district, Albemarle has the lowest case incident rate, which is determined by the total of new cases per 100,000 residents over the last seven days. Albemarle has averaged 30.6 new cases per 100,000 people, which is below the state average of 39.7.

“Albemarle is doing extremely well,” McKay said. “That sends the message that vaccinations are important and helpful to minimize spread.”

The percentage of fully vaccinated people has increased by about 3% since early August.

McKay said the district has seen a slight increase in people wanting to get vaccinated in recent weeks.

“We haven’t seen a large increase and so I do feel like that’s something we would like to see go up, even before boosters are made available,” McKay said.

Alongside planning for the booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine, the health district is still working to figure out how to get more people vaccinated. That includes sending its mobile vaccination unit out to high school football games throughout the district and continuing to work with community leaders to answer questions about vaccinations and overcome hesitancy about the vaccines themselves.

The vaccinations might not totally prevent illness but they do reduce the risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the virus, McKay said.

For the mobile vaccination events, such as the football games, McKay said giving out 10 shots would be a huge success.

“Anything is going to help at this point, even though we want something that’s a much faster pace than what we’re currently going on,” he said.


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