RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The Delta variant could drive Virginia’s coronavirus case count past levels seen during January’s peak, but more than 60,000 cases could be prevented if vaccinations rise, the University of Virginia’s COVID-19 model projects.

Research appears to indicate that the Delta variant is more transmissible than other variants, possibly as contagious as chickenpox, could cause more severe illness than other variants and is more likely to lead to breakthrough coronavirus infections.

Concern over Delta, now the dominant coronavirus variant in the U.S., has prompted scientists and researchers to raise alarms over the significant public health threat it poses and the importance of vaccines.

Citing the emergence of the highly contagious variant, a weekly update of UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute’s COVID-19 model estimates cases in Virginia will hit levels in mid-September that have not been reached since April.

“Vaccination rates are still below herd immunity levels and, with many Virginians returning to normal, the virus has room to run,” the report states. “If the Delta variant continues to spread, cases could peak at 103 average daily cases per 100,000 in mid-September.”

LISTEN: Full interview with UVA research associate professor Bryan Lewis

Virginia did not report over 1,000 new daily cases since late April before July 28. Since then, the state’s health department has reported more than 1,000 new daily cases multiple times.

A rise in cases in the U.S., attributed mainly to the Delta variant spread, pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise its recommendations on mask-wearing in public indoor spaces. Despite vaccination status, the CDC is now calling for people to wear masks in areas with surging case counts, specifically in parts of the country with “substantial or high transmission.”

As of Monday, the CDC is reporting that nearly 80% of U.S. counties, including dozens in Virginia, have substantial or high transmission levels. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) did not issue another mask mandate in response but instead has encouraged people in such areas to follow the CDC’s recommendation.

While some localities have called for residents to wear masks indoors, Virginia health officials and researchers have used this moment to reiterate the importance of vaccines.

“If vaccination rates pick up, the model estimates that over 60,000 cases could be avoided,” the UVA report reads.

According to VDH, 54 percent of Virginia’s population is fully vaccinated and 12,414 doses of the vaccine are administered per day on average as of Aug. 2. Since June, 79 people in Virginia have died of COVID-19. Five were fully vaccinated and 74 were not, VDH data shows.

Bryan Lewis, a research associate professor at UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute, said Monday he doesn’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion that Virginia hits the level reached during the winter surge. But he noted the model’s projections show the potential impact in Virginia if vaccination rates remain the same during the spread of the Delta variant.

“It’s like, if you’re driving a car, you see a sharp bend ahead. You don’t just stay 80 miles an hour into that turn. You know that you need to slow down and start steering out of it,” Lewis said in an interview. “So, that’s really what the intention here is, to just sort of be those headlights on what’s ahead of us. So we can try to avoid it.”