Virginia is administering vaccines at record levels, more than tripling the daily average of shots given three months ago when the state was weathering the worst of the pandemic.
But after declining all of February and plateauing for the majority of March, cases and hospitalizations are creeping up once again — a potential effect of residents traveling and relaxing behaviors as highly transmissible variants continue to circulate.
Now, the relative security of 37.5% of Virginia’s population receiving at least one dose is colliding with the possibility of another surge in cases.
And to reach herd immunity, the state would need to more than triple its percentage of fully vaccinated people, which on Wednesday was 22.2%.
Dr. Danny Avula, the state’s vaccine coordinator, said Virginia is equipped to meet the capacity and is expanding its clinics to be ready come Sunday, when every person 16 and older will be eligible for a dose.
The problem: Demand for vaccinations is slowing.
As health officials work to rectify those challenges, current trends are mirroring the patterns reported in early summer and fall, when infections and hospitalizations dropped before hitting a new tipping point.
Deaths, a lagging indicator of the pandemic’s severity at any given moment, followed in the ensuing weeks.
The number of people dying from the virus declined to its lowest point of the pandemic in the final week of March, the same month Virginia reported nearly 400 deaths in a single day while working through a backlog of death certificates.
Most deaths occurred between December and February. As of Wednesday, the rate is fluctuating with an increase the first week of April then another decline last week.
Average daily infections are nearing 1,600 for the first time in over a month. On Tuesday, the state reported more than 2,000 cases for the first time since March 18.
These recent increases have placed Virginia 15th in the U.S. among states for highest case counts in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 1 in 4 people hospitalized with the virus — out of 1,060 total — are in an intensive care unit. Nearly 150 are on a ventilator, a figure last seen on March 9 that also occurred when hospitalizations ramped up post-Thanksgiving.
Ballad Health, a hospital system serving Southwest Virginia and parts of Tennessee that has seen nearly 2,000 COVID-19 deaths, began its most severe months around the same time.
The hospitalizations dramatically slowed in February, resulting in a level of recovery and optimism among health care workers and staff who had been operating on crisis levels, getting infected and burning out for a year.
Then on Wednesday, Eric Deaton, Ballad’s chief operating officer, addressed reporters to say the numbers have reversed course.
“We’re seeing some very disturbing trends,” he said.
The hospital system had 16 COVID-19 deaths in the past week. More than 30% are in an ICU. Patients are younger, with some barely in their 20s. The average age has dropped to 58 years old.
In 2020, it was 67.
About 1 out of 7 people in the region, or 13.9%, are testing positive for the virus, a rate more than double the state average.
If the situation worsens, Ballad might be forced to halt elective surgeries again, just as it has begun to sort through the backlog. On Wednesday, Deaton pleaded for residents to seek out a vaccine and continue to get tested, wear masks and social distance.
“Simply put, we really cannot take another surge like we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “We’re very concerned that we cannot sustain another strain.”
VDH data shows a statewide case increase the week of March 21 that steadily decreased into the first week of April.
Last week was when Ballad began seeing the influx.
“What we heard when our numbers started to rise ... is that some of our teams were in tears because they just couldn’t believe the community wasn’t supporting them,” said Lisa Smithgall, Ballad’s chief nursing executive.
Nurses have been working through the grief of losing one or two patients per day, she said, and they can’t keep doing it.
“I really am making a personal plea,” Smithgall said. “I wish COVID were over as well. It’s not. I really need people to do what they need to do to help support our teams.”
Virginians who haven’t yet preregistered to receive a vaccine can visit vaccinate.virginia.gov or call 877-VAX-IN-VA to sign up over the phone.