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COVID cases are rising again in Virginia, thanks to colder weather and Thanksgiving gatherings
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COVID cases are rising again in Virginia, thanks to colder weather and Thanksgiving gatherings

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A sign in The Murry N. DePillars Building at VCU requires masks to be worn Thursday, October 30, 2021.

RTD A1 - Dec. 9, 2021

With colder temperatures and people congregating for Thanksgiving, COVID-19 cases have risen the past 10 days in Virginia, mirroring a national trend.

It’s not surprising that cases are up, given that people are spending more time together indoors, said Dr. Noelle Bissell, health director for the New River district in Southwest Virginia.

The daily average of cases in the state has risen almost 80% in the past week and a half to 2,374. That’s the highest figure since mid-October.

For about seven weeks during the fall, cases were on the decline. After reaching a yearly high of 3,689 in mid-September, the seven-day average of daily cases sank as low as 1,250 in early November, and it plateaued there for the next three weeks.

Now, the current number of cases is about two-thirds as high as the September peak.

“As expected, with the Thanksgiving holiday, with people spending more time together indoors, with colder weather, new cases of COVID-19 nationwide and Virginia are up,” Bissell said.

Cases were rising this time last year, too. They peaked in January at a daily average of 4,500 in Virginia, the highest since the pandemic began.

It wouldn’t be surprising if cases continue rising because of cold temperatures and holiday celebrations, said Dr. Melissa Viray, deputy director of the Richmond and Henrico health districts.

Each person will have to assess their own level of risk when choosing to travel for the holidays, Bissell said. Younger, vaccinated people are less likely to develop disease. The older and the unvaccinated are more likely.

But Viray hopes the region won’t see an outbreak as bad as last year, because most of the population is vaccinated now. In Virginia, 66% of the population is fully vaccinated, and 1.5 million residents have received a booster.

In Richmond and Chesterfield County, cases aren’t rising as quickly as the rest of the state. In the city, the weekly average has increased from 35 per day in late November to 52 Wednesday.

But in Henrico County, cases have been rising for the past three weeks, and the case count has tripled during that time.

The rate of community transmission in almost every locality in Virginia remains high, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends people wear masks indoors in public when transmission is high. Masks are especially important for the unvaccinated, Viray said.

The number of deaths has increased, too. After reporting just one death on Monday, the lowest figure since August, the Virginia Department of Health reported 27 deaths Tuesday and 40 Wednesday. Wednesday’s figure was the highest number of deaths in a single day since late October.

Hospitalizations, which were flat in late November, have begun rising. Those dying and experiencing severe disease are largely the unvaccinated and immunocompromised, Bissell said.

The omicron variant hasn’t been found in the state of Virginia, but it’s just a matter of time until it is, Bissell said.

“If it’s not here, it will be,” she added. “Just like delta, you’re not going to hide from it. It’s going to be everywhere.”

Early evidence suggests that omicron might be more transmissible than delta but less severe. That’s often how viruses evolve toward becoming endemic, Bissell said.

“At this point, COVID is pretty much everywhere,” Bissell said. “We’re accepting that it’s not going away.”

Just because omicron displayed in South Africa a pattern of heightened transmissibility and lower severity doesn’t mean the variant will follow that path in the United States, Viray said. The level of vaccination in the U.S., which is much higher than the 25% vaccinated in South Africa, could change the virus’s trajectory here.

The CDC recommends everyone ages 5 and up be vaccinated and every adult 18 and up to receive a booster. Boosters are available for Johnson & Johnson recipients two months after their first shot and for Pfizer and Moderna recipients, six months after the second shot.

Almost all the cases in Virginia are delta, though a few might be older variants. The state is sequencing one in every seven positive COVID cases looking for the omicron variant.

Across the state, doctors are seeing some cases of the flu, whooping cough and RSV — or Respiratory Syncytial Virus — which produce symptoms similar to COVID. There haven’t been huge increases in these viruses, Viray said, but the health department is hearing more about them. The flu has become a larger concern in other states, Viray added.

The influx of other viruses is just another reason to wash hands, mask up and to stay home when you’ve got symptoms, Viray said.

Last year, there was virtually no flu in Virginia, as people largely stayed home. That’s atypical, as the flu usually comes through every year, and antibodies are exposed to it. It’s unclear if having no flu in 2020 could weaken antibodies in 2021. That’s a question doctors want to answer, Viray said.

Viray recommended that everyone receive both a flu and COVID vaccine.

ekolenich@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6109

Twitter: @EricKolenich

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Eric Kolenich writes about higher education, health systems and more for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He joined the newspaper in 2009 and spent 11 years in the Sports section. (804) 649-6109

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