RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Data analysts could recommend a two-week shutdown after Thanksgiving if in-person celebrations cause a surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Virginia.
The idea of a lockdown ahead of the December holiday season was the strictest of possible mitigation strategies mentioned by RAND Corporation researchers in their most recent weekly update to state leaders.
RAND Corporation Senior Mathematician Dr. Carter Price has been tracking data and advising Gov. Ralph Northam’s response to the pandemic for months.
In an interview with 8News on Monday, Price predicted that Thanksgiving could be an inflection point for coronavirus spread in Virginia. He said the choice is between maintaining control and what could be the worst toll to date.
“If there is a lot of travel, if people are having big gatherings and socializing indoors…then this could be a super spreader event,” Price said.
The trends Price is tracking suggest the current wave has the potential to be more severe than two previous surges that occurred in the spring and summer. That’s partly because colder weather is moving more gatherings indoors and recent increases are more widespread.
“It won’t be concentrated in Northern Virginia like it was in the first round. It could be statewide at those very high levels,” Price said. “It’s just now starting to get cold so we can tell that if it’s going to be worse, it’s going to be a lot worse.”
Even with the cap on social gatherings being lowered last week to 25 people, Price still has major concerns heading into Thanksgiving. His analysis suggests that the risk of transmission is higher depending on the size and location of celebrations.
In Southwest Virginia, Price estimates that nearly 1 in 3 events with 20 people are expected to have at least one attendee with COVID-19. The odds are closer to 1 in 5 events of that size for most of the commonwealth, corresponding with lower case rates.
Price said the behavior of Virginians in the next week could have a big impact on what restrictions are necessary moving forward.
For example, if hospitalizations surge following Thanksgiving, Price said another temporary ban on elective surgeries could be necessary to free up bed space throughout December and January.
“At this point, it doesn’t appear that we’re on that trajectory but we don’t really know. We’ll have a much better picture of all of this after Thanksgiving and that’s why it’s so important that people are responsible over Thanksgiving,” Price said.
If things take a turn for the worst, Price said a two-week shutdown might be necessary to rein in spread ahead of the December holidays. Specifically, Price said he’ll be watching hospitalizations and the percent of positive tests. He said he would be more likely to push for a lockdown if there’s momentum towards a 10 percent positivity rate in the week after Thanksgiving.
In an interview on Monday, Virginia Department of Health Chief Deputy Commissioner Dr. Parham Jaberi said this recommendation resurfaced in the last two weeks, underscoring the seriousness of the situation.
“It’s something to consider but not something that has been officially vetted or approved yet by our cabinet,” Jaberi said. “We know it’s not palatable.”
“RAND is taking a purely scientific perspective and not a broader look at the economic, psychological and political feasibility,” added Justin Crow, who serves as the Social Epidemiology Division Director within VDH’s Office of Health Equity.
In addition to a possible lockdown, RAND also recommended mandatory testing at airports to reduce spread from travelers. Price said it could be a useful intervention, especially since Virginia continues to see a lower case rate than most other states.
So far, Gov. Northam has been reluctant to formally restrict travel, though he has often emphasized the importance of staying home for the holidays. Northam has repeatedly said “all options are on the table” when it comes to coronavirus restrictions but his office didn’t comment on Monday.
Jaberi said, while mandatory airport testing is a good idea on paper, it would be logistically challenging, costly and have unclear benefits strategically. He said it could be an option going forward but, so far, it hasn’t been a priority.
“I think the bottom line is there is no easy choice,” Jaberi said. “Help us avoid these difficult decisions and do what you can to prevent the spread.”
Learn more about VDH’s holiday guidance here.