More than a year after the novel coronavirus started infiltrating Southern Virginia, a more potent version named after a Greek letter is expected to send caseloads up again among the unvaccinated population through the fall.
New models from the University of Virginia Biocomplexity Institute indicate infections are likely to climb because vaccination rates are well below herd immunity.
“With many Virginians returning to normal, the virus has room to run,” researchers wrote in the latest UVa report released Friday.
Not only does the delta variant — now the dominant strain in the state — spread far easier than the original coronavirus, it also causes more severe illness. As of Friday, Sovah Health-Danville was treating two COVID-19 patients and two more were at the Martinsville facility, said Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, market chief medical officer for Sovah Health at both campuses.
“These patients are much sicker than the patients we were seeing a year ago and frequently need care in our Intensive Care Unit,” she told the Register & Bee on Friday.
The delta variant’s emergence sparked a change in forecasts at UVa. Throughout the pandemic, models have shifted positions over time as more data become available and situations change. For example, earlier this year some models suggested a summer surge far worse than the peak cases that occurred in January. Eventually forecasts pulled back from that ominous skyrocketing track and switched to more of a slight incline, much like the current case situation in Virginia.
Infections have been nudged upward since the end of June across the commonwealth and locally.
Currently, even the most reserved projection show weekly caseloads could reach levels seen last summer. The worst-case scenario puts those infections at about half of January’s surge. Both are increases from projections weeks ago.
UVa estimates that if vaccination rates increase, more than 50,000 illnesses can be avoided.
Virginia could follow the trend playing out in other states around the country. Those areas with low-vaccination rates are seeing an uptick in cases and hospitalizations.
“Despite abundant vaccine supply, the nation fell just short of the President’s goal of 70% of adults with at least one dose by July 4,” researchers wrote. “Nevertheless, vaccination rates vary widely across the country.”
Except for residents of Martinsville, less than half of the adults in the West Piedmont Health District — which also includes Henry, Patrick and Franklin counties — are fully vaccinated. UVa researchers — and health experts in general — say the threat of COVID-19 is “as high as ever” for those without shots in the arm.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance for vaccinated people, nothing was altered for those who are unvaccinated. Anyone who hasn’t received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or just one shot of the Johnson and Johnson should still wear masks in public and avoid large gatherings, experts warn.
Virginia’s overall picture — 70% of adults with at least one shot — is bolstered mainly by high vaccination rates in large-population areas like Northern and Central Virginia.
Those figures vary vastly across the state and are much lower in the rural parts like Southern and Southwest Virginia.
“Delta will cause COVID surges in areas with low vaccination,” UVa researchers bluntly warned. “In areas with high vaccination, outbreaks will occur among unvaccinated individuals but will have less room to spread.”
Charles Wilborn is the local editor of the Danville Register & Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 434-791-7976.