Increasing amounts of available vaccine and the growing number of fully inoculated residents will keep COVID-19 case counts low and society reopening, University of Virginia Health System doctors said Thursday.
Doctors said the vaccine is now plentiful in the area and that an estimated 40% of Charlottesville and Albemarle County residents are believed to be fully vaccinated. But they said protective measures such as social distancing and wearing masks should not be completely abandoned.
“We’re in a good place. We’re increasing the number of people who are protected and we’re going to continue to the see the results, meaning fewer cases of COVID, fewer hospitalizations due to COVID and fewer deaths from COVID,” said Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology at the UVa Medical Center.
Officials said a recent increase in cases appears to have abated.
“We saw a little uptick in the past two weeks, but it looks like that has not continued and we’re at a steady state again. We expect to see a continued downtrend over the next few weeks as people continue to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Reid Adams, interim chief medical officer at the UVa Medical Center. “Now is the time to get vaccinated so we can beat this.”
The more that people are vaccinated, the more society will open up, Sifri said. On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam opened up seating at bars in an unannounced amendment to his executive order restricting seating in restaurants.
On Thursday, he announced expanded seating at sports venues and other gatherings to begin May 15.
“What we’re starting to see is gradual easing of COVID restrictions. We’re seeing gathering sizes get larger, and I think we’re going to see those play out month by month,” Sifri said. “It may not be rapid, and I don’t think it should be rapid, but we’ll see some of that easing.”
Sifri said reopening society is a good idea.
“We can do things, but we should do them with caution and be careful about what’s going on with the state of the virus in our community,” he said. “To get to a point where we have a largely vaccinated population but we still have a lot of restrictions is a place we don’t want to get to. The reason we’re doing this is to be able to have more of a normal society.”
However, the use of masks and public social distancing should continue, Sifri said.
“In a group of individuals who are vaccinated and not at high risk of complications, you can reasonably start taking off the mask,” he said. “But I encourage continuing to wear masks in public. I think it should become more of our social norm. We don’t have the ability, waking down the street or going into a store, to know who has and who has not been vaccinated.”
As of Thursday morning, UVa had delivered 93,433 vaccinations, officials said. The clinic that the university runs at the Seminole Square shopping center can deliver an estimated 2,300 to 3,000 shots each clinic and officials said they expect to top 100,000 shots by next week.
So far, an estimated 4,400 UVa students have received vaccinations and about 4,000 students are signed up for vaccinations. Officials estimated that about 2,000 others have received shots at other locations or pharmacies.
As vaccinations open for everyone 16 and older, local officials said they are seeing more appointments available through local pharmacies, at UVa’s clinic and the Blue Ridge Health District clinic at Fashion Square mall. That comes as more vaccine has made it into the region.
“After waiting for a long time, we’re at that place we’ve been talking about for weeks where we are seeing a large influx of vaccine,” said Sifri.
Sifri said the additional stocks of shots, combined with area efforts at vaccinating those at greatest risk of the disease, has led the region to being able to provide appointments for anyone who wants one.
“We’ve done an outstanding job of vaccinating people who were in higher risk categories. Some 80% of people 65 and over have been at least partially vaccinated and most of those people are fully vaccinated,” Sifri said. “We’re through vaccinating a lot of the people at the highest risk of COVID, so that, and the large amount of vaccine, means we have availability of appointments.”
Sifri said the apathy many people feel toward the vaccinations has not affected the clinics in the area.
“I don’t think the availability in our area is because of a lack of interest in getting vaccinated, but we understand that as we go further along, that will be something we’ll see,” he said. “COVID is a vaccine-preventable disease. COVID deaths can be eliminated through vaccination. People should get the vaccine.”