RICHMOND, Va. -- Although it's not the major spike seen in many other states right now, the number of COVID-19 infections in Virginia is still high, according to health officials -- particularly in younger citizens.
A couple of troubling trends could lead to another wave of new infections if safety measures are not followed, they said, despite increasing vaccination numbers.
More than 30% of Virginians have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Monday, and 18% are fully inoculated.
C.D.C. Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said young Americans are driving high infection rate numbers nationally, and VDH officials confirmed young Virginians account for a “disproportionate” amount of the new caseload recently.
“We have not yet reached herd immunity and the level of transmission of the virus remains high. We are seeing cases occur across all ages but a disproportionate number are occurring in younger age groups,” Dr. Lillian Peake, VDH State Epidemiologist, said in a statement Monday. “It’s critical that Virginians continue to take steps to stop the spread. Get vaccinated when it’s your turn. Maintain physical distancing. Wear a mask in public. Get tested and stay home if you’ve been exposed to COVID-29 or have symptoms.”
On Friday, researchers at the UVA Biocomplexity Institute reported the B.1.1.7 strain of the virus “has become or is very close to becoming the predominant strain in Virginia and the U.S.”
The U.K. variant is more contagious and potentially more deadly, according to scientists.
Dr. Thomas Yackel, Chief Medical Officer of MCV Physicians, said the larger the number of new cases reported, the more likely variants will spread. He said the virus is constantly mutating in human hosts, which could lead to new variants.
“The way we prevent variants from happening is we reduce the number of cases. Variants take hold, it’s just a matter of math. Once you have enough people infected, there will be a change in the genetic code and a new variant takes hold. If it’s lucky enough, it will have these characteristics that will make it worse than what we’re dealing with now,” Yackel said. “The biggest risk with the variants is that we develop more of them.”
“That’s why control is critical. We’re seeing variants; there’s a lot of people in the world who are infected. We’ve got to reduce the number of infections to reduce the chance of a new, more lethal variant.”
The UVA modeling shows a host of possible scenarios dependent on behaviors, vaccinations, and variants. The most alarming of those statistical hypotheticals shows a major wave of infection in Virginia, if the current variants take over and mitigation efforts are ignored.
Yackel said the good news about vaccination efforts shows we are slowly winning the fight against the virus, but behaviors now will determine the future of the pandemic.
“The rest is up to what we do. In many ways, these models, they’re a little funny because it’s almost as if what you and I do today will change what the weather looks like in two weeks,” he said.
Tracking new case trends in two weeks, following the Easter holiday and spring break travel, will show clearly how well Virginians followed guidelines and set the stage for the vaccination efforts this summer, according to Yackel.
On a sunny afternoon in Carytown, crowded sidewalks of masked people and two-lane traffic jams crosswalks were reminiscent of springtime 2019, before the pandemic.
VCU student Tamara Diaz was touring some RVA outdoor sights with her mother and said she was taken aback by the scene.
“It’s pretty incredible to see how packed everything can get. People are so nonchalant about it, but then you hear about the numbers,” Diaz said.
She’s looking forward to getting vaccinated soon, but Diaz said even then she does not plan on letting up on health precautions -- especially since young people appear to be spreading COVID-19 at higher rates recently.
“I kind of go from my apartment to work and that’s my routine,” she said. “Keep those masks up and everything and have all the precautions that you need.”