Some Virginia’s health districts are seeing a surge in COVID-19, sounding the alarm for public health experts

Some Virginia’s health districts are seeing a surge in COVID-19, sounding the alarm for public health experts
COVID-19 testing in Virginia. (Source: Virginia Mercury)

Data from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute show that roughly a third of the commonwealth’s health districts are showing “sustained growth” in COVID-19 cases — what computational epidemiologist Bryan Lewis said could be described as a surge.

“What it basically means is over the past couple of weeks, there has been a very steep incline that has been sustained,” Lewis said. So far, Virginia has avoided the kind of headline-grabbing case growth that’s occurred in states such as Texas, Florida and Louisiana as safety restrictions across the country have almost universally been loosened or lifted (though many states are now reimposing rules to mitigate the spread). But public health experts are sounding the alarm over recent increases in Virginia, fearing that the trend will continue to worsen in the coming weeks.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” said Madhav Marathe, director of the institute’s Network Systems Science and Advanced Computing Division. “That’s the key message I would like to pass on. In fact, we have a few dark clouds on the horizon that we have to manage. Otherwise, all the good work we’ve done for the past few months could be lost.”

Some of the most recent messaging from state officials has focused on a regional growth in case numbers. Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam held a news briefing that largely focused on a spike in cases in the Hampton Roads area, where daily case counts have risen from a low of less than 10 to the triple digits in mid- and late July. Northam, attributing many of the new cases to crowded bars, directed state agencies to crack down on businesses that weren’t complying with safety measures and said he’d consider a regional rollback of Virginia’s reopening plan.

And he said this past weekend that he’s considering taking “additional steps to blunt the spread of this virus” if numbers don’t come down.

But experts said recent increases should still be viewed from a statewide lens. Lewis said significant surges in certain areas of the state have been followed by an increase of cases in surrounding localities. Dr. Thomas Yackel, the president of MCV Physicians at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed out that the total number of cases in Virginia — more than 83,600, as of Saturday — is now slightly higher than the surge scenario predicted by UVA’s COVID-19 model for Virginia.

“The trend is toward increases now, and there’s not something that we believe is going to intervene to prevent that,” he said. “Early cases can be a big concern for an exponential spike coming in the future. So, that’s my sense of why this concern is really coming to the forefront.”

According to modeling estimates, ongoing mitigation efforts — including policy interventions and weeks of good compliance with guidelines to stay at home — have averted more than 772,000 cases in Virginia. But recent projections show the possibility of a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases that begins in early August and continues through September.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.