RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Central Virginia is set to experience another surge in COVID infections, with the CDC updating their COVID-19 Community Levels in several localities to the medium level.

The community level measures “case rates, hospitalization rates, and hospital capacity,” and replaces an earlier CDC measure that was based on transmission alone.

The Richmond and Henrico Health District (RHHD) issued a statement on Friday saying that increasing case counts have been “observed across the entire region,” including in localities that have not yet had their community levels updated.

This map shows COVID-19 Community Levels across the state. (Map courtesy of the CDC)

“We understand that moving into a medium level may leave folks feeling frustrated or tired,” said Dr. Melissa Viray, Acting Director of RHHD. “However, this is what we’ve been preparing for.”

The district said they were increasing the availability of free PCR tests at community clinics in anticipation of a rise in cases. However, the list of community testing sites the district linked to in their statement has not been updated since April 25, and the last scheduled testing event took place on May 5.

Residents can also pick up free at-home tests at several branches of the Richmond Public Library, listed here. The free tests are also available at RHHD resource centers across the city, the addresses of which are listed on the same page.

Leading Indicators

Case counts across the state have risen again over the past few weeks, following a surge in cases earlier this year that peaked in mid-January.

Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows that COVID cases in the commonwealth are once again rising. (Chart courtesy of the VDH)

However, another early warning may have come from an unexpected place: the Richmond sewers.

Dr. Rekha Singh manages the CDC’s wastewater surveillance program in Virginia, and she told 8News that viral loads in the sewer system – the measure of dead COVID-19 viruses released by defecation – can be a “leading indicator” of an increase in infections in an area.

The program currently operates at one site in Central Virginia, which observes viral loads in the Richmond sewer system. An increase in viral loads in sewage is often followed within a week or two by an increase in clinical cases, making it a potentially useful tool in predicting outbreaks.

Dr. Singh said they’ve seen an increase in viral loads since mid-April within the Richmond observation point, pointing to a likely increase in cases in the future.

The program is also hoping to expand to other localities in the near future, which will help officials cross-reference levels between different sites.

What Residents Can Do

The health district recommended residents of the affected counties “stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines, improve ventilation in indoor spaces, and follow CDC recommendations for isolation or quarantine if sick or exposed.”

The district added that although Richmond City was not yet at a medium community level, increasing case counts across the region meant it was likely they would soon be moved up as well.

“If we stay up to date on COVID vaccinations and implement more prevention measures during times of increased transmission, we can protect our most vulnerable,” Dr. Viray said.

Data shows that in Virginia, unvaccinated people have died of COVID-19 at a much higher rate than those who have received a vaccination. (Chart courtesy of the VDH)

During the peak of the Omicron surge earlier this year, nearly 600 Virginians a week died of COVID.