RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia health officials are pointing to the delta variant for the recent uptick of COVID-19 as the strain is spread two to four times more easily.
"The weekly COVID-19 case rate has been increasing for over a month. And it's 30%. Higher this week compared to last week," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake during a Tuesday afternoon tele-briefing. "The number of people with COVID-19 who are hospitalized in Virginia has also been steadily increasing. Today, 770 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to 396 on August 1."
Peake said the increases align with the Delta variant becoming the dominant strain in the United States and Virginia. The Delta variant accounts for 80% of the cases tested in Virginia to determine what strain it is.
"We know that the Delta variant is much more infectious, it spreads more than twice as easily from one person to another compared with earlier strains of the virus," added Peake.
While hospitalizations and deaths are predominantly among the unvaccinated, health officials urged those who are fully vaccinated to wear masks in indoor public spaces in areas with substantial or high community spread.
A CDC tracker says Virginia as a whole is an area with substantial community spread, but a more local breakdown shows most of the Richmond area in "high transmission".
Officials also credit fear of the Delta variant for an increase in vaccination rates but say that more people need to get the shot soon because this variant spreads so quickly.
As a result of the quickly spreading variant, the bulk of Virginians could face exposure in the months to come.
"I think it's possible that we get to a place where we have 90 to 95% of the population who have immunity, either through vaccination or through natural immunity as a result of having contracted the disease. And clearly, we would much prefer that people have that through vaccination," Dr. Danny Avula said.
Officials continued to call on schools to require universal masking as the new year approaches and say that they've been preparing for potential approval of the vaccine for kids in the five to 11 age group.
"We spent the summer recruiting a lot of pediatricians to become approved vaccinating providers through the CDC process. And so have a number of pediatricians, number of family physicians who have come on board and will be vaccinating providers," said Avula. "We also continue to have the robust infrastructure of pharmacies that have actually delivered the vast majority of our vaccines to date. And then health departments have really worked closely with their school systems."
Officials also discussed plans for the potential full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, versus the current emergency use, saying it could lead to even more vaccine mandates or proof of vaccination status.
Avula added they are also planning full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine around the same time and expects that to lead to more vaccine mandates or people having to require proof of vaccination status. He said VDH already has a website set up where people can download a PDF version of their vaccine card, but are working to set up the technology to support businesses that may require digital proof through a QR code.
"There are certain entities that are requiring a QR code scan that tracks to your vaccine status,' said Avula. "So, we are working through that right now. I think in the next couple of weeks or so, we'll have that functionality so that those companies that are requiring you to have a QR code -- to be able to get on the flight or to participate in an activity. We'll provide that for Virginians."