Infectious disease expert: COVID cases expected to rise in 'alarming fashion' in coming weeks

“Everyone should be concerned about what they’re seeing."
Posted at 6:01 PM, Jan 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-04 22:30:07-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Health professionals warned of a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 infections, and Virginia has surpassed more than 5,000 new cases per day three out of the last five days after never reaching that mark previously.

Infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Stevens with VCU said Christmas and New Year's infections are not reflected in those figures, and he expects cases to continue to rise in an “alarming fashion” for several weeks to come.

“Everyone should be concerned about what they’re seeing and assume anyone you encounter right now probably has COVID and do whatever you can to prevent getting it or giving it to someone else,” Dr. Stevens said.

Dr. Stevens anticipates new case will peak around mid-February. Until that point, he said hospitalizations and deaths related to COVD-19 will likely rise too.

“We could literally save hundreds, if not thousands, of additional lives if everybody doubled down on the things that we know work to prevent the spread of this infection,” Dr. Stevens said. “It’s time to double down on wearing a mask, watching your distance, washing your hands, staying home as much as possible.”

Hospitalizations in Virginia have also been trending upward since the beginning of winter.

Officials with the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA), which tracks and collects data surrounding hospital capacity from their members statewide, said hospitals in every region of the state are currently operating under what they consider “level one” or conventional operations.

VHHA officials said they have enough beds and ICU space to treat current infection levels in Central Virginia and around the Commonwealth. If numbers were to spike, surge beds and ICU capability would be activated, which they said has not happened to this point.

During previous hospitalization spikes, increased patient loads in specific regions, like Tidewater or Southwest, were responsible for the majority of new patients. This time, VHHA said every region is seeing a rising number of COVID-19 related hospitalizations.

The VHHA reports 3,307 hospital beds are currently available statewide, and 3,695 surge beds are available should those fill up. Virginia ICU’s are operating at 82% capacity. For comparison, the average for the year 2019 immediately preceding the pandemic was 67 percent ICU capacity. More than 800 surge ICU bed are also available should they be needed, VHHA reports.

While specific hospitals might be treating a higher number of COVID patients, the hospital system in each region has enough capacity, VHHA officials said.

According to the VHHA, the number of available hospital beds in the commonwealth isn't the greatest concern. Hospitals are more concerned with appropriate staffing to help treat and attend to COVID patients.

"One of the challenges right now in the number of hospitalizations isn't so much bed space, it's making sure that there are adequate numbers of staff members who are working and aren't quarantined or isolated because of protocols," says Julian Walker, Vice President of Communication with the VHHA.

While hospitals work to fill shifts, the VHHA says it's helping its members with temporary hospital staffing. The association is also encouraging former healthcare workers, with their license in good standing, to apply on the VHHA website to help with COVID response and vaccination efforts through the winter months.

Health leaders across the state continue to promote social distancing and masking strategies as the main way to combat spreading COVID-19 as the winter months roll and vaccine distribution continues.

“If everyone could just hang in there and do all the right things for another four or five months, we’re going to save potentially hundreds if not thousands of lives,” Dr. Stevens said. “If you have symptoms, you need to quarantine yourself and get tested. Don’t assume it’s allergies. Symptoms can be very mild, but you can infect others and that can be catastrophic for the person who becomes infected.”