Could Virginia be heading for a new COVID-19 case peak?

Could Virginia be heading for a new COVID-19 case peak?
Volunteers wait for patients at a walk-up COVID-19 testing site set up by the health department in Richmond. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Though a University of Virginia model now projects a potential new peak in Virginia COVID-19 cases in November, a top state health official says it’s too soon to tell whether an uptick in cases over the past few weeks is indicative of a bigger trend.

“It’s premature to say now things are increasing,” said Dr. Lilian Peake, Virginia’s state epidemiologist. “We really have had quite a bit of increase over the summer. And that’s been generally going down. Now we are seeing a little bit of increase but it’s small and we need to see what happens with that.”

A model released last week by UVA’s Biocomplexity Institute projects that confirmed COVID-19 cases will peak in Virginia during the week ending Nov. 22 with 8,394 weekly cases and a total of 202,040 confirmed cases by Thanksgiving, though the institute cautioned that model isn’t necessarily a crystal ball. (As of Tuesday there were 167,754 confirmed and probable cases in Virginia.)

“Models are designed to project what could happen based on current trends but do not forecast what will happen. Behavioral responses drive changes in current trends,” the Oct. 16 report says. Previous reports by the institute indicated Virginia hit its weekly peak the week of Aug. 9, when there were 7,581 weekly cases. Incidence of COVID-19 in Virginia remains below the national average, Peake said, with 88 new cases per 100,000 last week compared to the national average of 117 per 100,000.

The model says five Virginia health districts have entered “surge trajectories” (defined as 2.5 or more confirmed cases per 100,000 people per week) and the “reproduction rate,” the number of cases expected to be generated by one case, is above 1.0 statewide and in all but one region.

Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist and a research professor at UVA, said the institute’s latest projection was also informed by increasing transmission rates in cooler states like Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota and previous research on how respiratory viruses spread, particularly when cold weather forces more people inside.

“We’ve been seeing increased rates up there,” he said.

That onset of colder weather, combined with schools across Virginia resuming in-person instruction, school-related virus transmission data from other states as well as the increased cases in college towns when universities brought students back, augurs an increase in virus cases into the late fall and early winter.

“While early, national and global trends suggest concerns about winter case growth and schools reopening may be founded,” the institute wrote in its most recent update.

But it’s not carved in stone. Human behavior can make all the difference, both Lewis and Peake said. And after more than eight months of grappling with a pandemic virus that’s infected millions of Americans and killed almost 221,000 people (including nearly 3,500 in Virginia) now isn’t the time to let “COVID fatigue” set in, especially as Thanksgiving approaches and many people are considering how to approach large family gatherings, they said.

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