RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia is reporting more than 1,900 new COVID-19 cases per day, a level the commonwealth has not seen since late February.
Case levels are not close to the heights reached in January when Omicron pushed cases to more than 18,000 a day, but they have surpassed the average daily cases seen last May. Data shows that severe outcomes, including hospitalizations and deaths, have declined since March.
With mitigation measures being lifted and people’s immunity fading, researchers have predicted a rise in cases. But they remain focused on other variants that could drive up hospitalizations and deaths and lead to health care systems being overwhelmed.
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reported nearly 4,200 new cases over the weekend and 1,435 cases on Monday, moving the seven-day average of new daily cases from 1,456 to 1,923 in four days.
According to state data, hospitalizations have remained steady since April and the seven-day average of new COVID-19 deaths reported in Virginia each day is 11. An analysis from NBC News shows a 31% drop in deaths over the last two weeks in Virginia.
The University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute has been modeling COVID-19 trends in Virginia during the pandemic. Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist for the institute, says that several factors have led to the uptick in cases.
“We’ve been seeing and expecting that we get a little bit of a resurgence here. Certainly within the last month or so there’s been more and more relaxation of some of the sort of basic infectious control measures,” Lewis said Monday.
“We’re seeing that waning of immunity, basically the ability of your body to keep up enough antibodies to keep that infection away. Seems to be in that four to six month time period. So if you got naturally infected with Omicron around Christmas time, it might be about that time of year where your antibodies are going to start to plunge a little bit, we’re going to have more people who can get infected again,” he added.
Lewis noted that the institute’s latest model update showed potential for a large rise in cases in Virginia and pointed to research that fewer tests being conducted in a lab and more being done at home have diminished researchers’ “ability to observe cases” and that cases could be double what VDH is reporting.
“I expect what we’re going to start seeing is bigger fluctuations in cases or activity. Maybe slightly less severe fluctuation in things like hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.
With the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting low community transmission over the last few months and updating their own guidelines as a result, mask rules for public spaces and schools have been rolled back across the country.
The emergence of BA.2, an omicron subvariant that data shows is more contagious than the original, has been seen as the reason for an increase in cases recently, leading some areas to consider reinstating their mitigation measures.
Virginia’s new health commissioner said in April that he doesn’t envision indoor mask mandates returning anytime soon.
“Right now we don’t have a protocol for going back to the mask mandate and don’t foresee that,” Dr. Colin M. Greene, Virginia’s Health Commissioner, said during an April meeting for the Virginia Department of Health’s Advisory Council on Health Disparity and Health Equity.
Lewis told 8News that the virus and the emergence of new variants and subvariants, including BA.2.12.1, which research has shown to be even more transmissible than BA.2, shows the unpredictability of COVID-19 and its impact.
“This virus is still, it seems like forever for us, but in terms of a life of one of these evolving pathogens, it’s infected a lot of people but it’s still relatively young,” Lewis said. “And we saw Omicron just sort of come out of nowhere only six months ago. We could see something like that again, like sort of a totally different branch of this virus that can have different characteristics that we can’t predict.”
Secondary effects of the virus, including “long covid,” lung and neurological damage, is another concern for researchers like Lewis. But he added that the fight against COVID-19 is “not all doom and gloom,” pointing to vaccination rates.
“In essence, we should be congratulating ourselves a bit more than maybe we do. We’re experiencing a lot of cases, but not that many hospitalizations,” Lewis said. “We got a lot of people vaccinated in an amazingly short period of time. I mean, we could have gone faster but we could have gone a lot slower.”