The current COVID surge in the Charlottesville area has already peaked, and the number of new cases are projected to keep trending down, according to the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute.
However, predicting COVID trends has been tricky and people still need to be cautious, especially with colder months on the horizon, said Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor with the? Biocomplexity Institute. That group puts out weekly COVID projections for Virginia.
This week’s model shows that cases in the Charlottesville area peaked during the week ending Sept. 19 at 709 new cases. Statewide, the number of new cases are starting to decline with most health districts either declining or plateauing, according to the institute’s weekly update.
The model’s update comes as the rise in cases in the Blue Ridge Health District started to slow down. The model put the Blue Ridge district on a “slow growth” trajectory.
“We’ve learned very well that predicting the course of this pandemic is fraught with peril and it should be approached with humility,” said Dr. Kyle Enfield, director of intensive care at the UVA Medical Center. “I think we have to be concerned that [an increase] is something that could happen, that we could see another surge or other variants.”
Enfield said at the medical center’s weekly briefing that cases are declining because many people have already been infected with the virus and more people have started to get vaccinated.
In the last seven days, the Blue Ridge Health District didn’t have a daily increase in the triple digits, said Ryan McKay, the COVID-19 incident commander for the health district. The district averaged 81 new cases over a week, as of Friday — the lowest average since the end of August.
“So it does seem to be trending downward at this point, which is good, and then that would be consistent with what VDH is experiencing and most of the state. I think that’s sort of a similar term that we’re seeing across the country. We’re seeing a high number of cases as compared to where we were maybe in August, but that trend is starting to head down.”
Still, September was one of the worst months of the pandemic, fueled by the much more transmissible delta variant. The health district reported 3,191 new cases (the second-highest of any month), 94 new hospitalizations (the most) and 18 new deaths (the fourth most).
The rapid rise in cases led the health district to prioritize which cases would be investigated, focusing on individuals who are at higher risk for COVID-19, who live or work in congregate settings and those who are at high risk in terms of frequency of potential exposure. The district is also taking into account a person’s ability to get vaccinated as part of that prioritization.
Recently, the district decided to leave the notification of individuals who might have been exposed in school settings up to the school divisions. McKay said they’ll give that new process about a month and then re-evaluate, but he expects it to continue.
“Even in a manageable level of cases, there’s no need for us to contact a family that’s already been contacted and having to go through that same process again,” he said.
McKay said that even with the slowdown, the health district is still in surge mode.
During this recent surge, McKay said the virus was spreading in indoor settings, in instances where there’s no social distancing and among people who aren’t wearing masks. The majority of cases were among those who are not vaccinated, he said.
“So those things that worked last year, if we had been using them this year, probably would have prevented not all but a higher proportion of those cases that occurred,” he said.
The district has continued to not see many cases spreading outside, including from University of Virginia football games.
Moving forward, McKay said he’s going to keep an eye on the number of new cases and the demand for testing.
“Hopefully cases will continue to go down, and maybe even plateau,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ll see the numbers that we saw this past summer when we were in the single digits as a district for cases. That would be nice, but I don’t think we’re gonna plan on that.”
The district offers testing events daily in different localities. McKay said he expects that they’ll add more events to provide more access. He’s expecting demand to increase with the beginning of the holiday travel season.
Additionally, the district has started to offer COVID booster shots and is planning for the approval of the vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old, which could occur by early November. Children under 9 years old made up less than 10% of the new cases in the health district last month, and three children from ages 10 to 19 were hospitalized. Statewide, two children died from COVID last week. The delta variant has infected more children across the country than other variants or the original virus.
“I’m excited about the 5 to 11-year-olds,” McKay said. “I feel like that’s like our next step toward getting a little bit closer to maybe making this a little bit more normal, even if that means boosters once a year.”
UVa’s model takes into account vaccination rates, transmission in an area, natural immunity and other dynamics of the disease, among other factors. The institute also monitors variants, but Lewis said there’s none on the horizon that are currently concerning. The newer variants, mu and lambda, aren’t picking up quickly like delta did.
Lewis said that predicting the pandemic’s peaks has been difficult especially as policies such as mask mandates change along with people’s behaviors and attitudes.
“It’s always something that changes a little bit, and it’s hard to build those in as factors in the model,” Lewis said. “And so this is the approach that we’ve taken is to just track the trend and project forward on it as best as we can.”
He said the model is less of a forecast and more of an early warning system. In early September, the institute’s model projected that the surge in the Charlottesville area will peak Oct. 17 at 2,245 cases a week.
“It sort of overshoots just to say this is the trajectory we’re on, if you stay on this road and you don’t take a turn, you could drive off the missing bridge or whatever,” Lewis said.
During the delta surge, vaccination rates have started to pick up a little bit, with 60.5% of those eligible for the vaccine in the district becoming fully vaccinated. About 66% have received at least one dose. If more people get vaccinated and the younger children can start receiving shots in early November, then the decline in new cases will be faster, according to the model.
Lewis said that there’s potential for a winter surge similar to last year’s, which could be worse, peaking at 1,049 new cases in the first week of 2022, according to the model’s holiday surge scenario. The 2021 winter surge peaked at 909 new cases for the week ending on Feb. 21.
“Winter time will be challenging, but again, there’s fewer and fewer people to get infected,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, Lewis and other officials continued to encourage people to get vaccinated. To make an appointment for a shot, go to vaccinate.virginia.gov.
“We just need to get everybody vaccinated, or eventually they will get infected with delta at some point or another,” he said. “… [Vaccination] is what keeps people out of the hospital. That’s really the main gain here is trying to keep hospitals from getting overwhelmed and also to get the rates down low enough that we can still do what we want to do without having everybody have to be overly cautious all the time.”