RICHMOND, Va. -- Holiday trees and flickering lights dot storefronts through Carytown as the changing colors of the seasons also bring along colder weather that experts say will likely bring higher levels of COVID-19 infections. Still, the context this winter compared to last is critical.
The context of the season dictates Joseph Courtney’s relationship with the forecast he sees on the news each morning.
“It’s going to be 71 degrees today!’ I’m like, babe, bring your hoodie,” he said with a grin.
Courtney has a medical condition that makes him more susceptible to infection, so he pays close attention to the local COVID-19 numbers and where they are heading.
“The more people that we have gathering together, the more susceptible you are to obtaining COVID. That’s just logic,” he said.
Logic is backed up by data, according to health experts. Currently, the Upper Midwest and Northeast portions of the U.S. are seeing spikes in new COVID cases and upticks in hospitalizations, partially because it gets colder there earlier.
Currently, Virginia is seeing an overall trend of decreasing new case counts and percent of positivity. Dr. Danny Avula, Virginia’s Vaccination Coordinator, said he expects case counts in the Commonwealth will tick up soon, especially with holiday gatherings around the corner.
“I think it’s pretty clear that as we head toward our winter here in Virginia, we’re going to see an upturn of disease here as well. We’re already seeing the decreasing trend flatten out,” Dr. Avula said.
Still, Dr. Avula said the context of this winter compared to last is critical, and he does not expect to see a surge in hospitalization and death, like last January and February. This year, Virginia’s high vaccination rate, expansion of treatment options for COVID-positive patients (like monoclonal antibodies and a pending COVID anti-viral pill), and greater access to testing all contribute to a safer outlook, he said.
“Very different scenario now, not only we have extremely high vaccination rates, top ten in the country, but we’re kind of on the backside of the delta surge where a lot of people got infected and have some degree of protection through natural immunity,” Dr. Avula said.
Booster shots for those who are eligible will also play a role. Although it could change soon, booster shots for Pfizer and Moderna recipients are recommended six months after a person’s second dose, if they are older than 65, have an underlying medical condition, or live/work in a high-risk setting. Still, Avula called those requirements pretty “all-encompassing” and encourages anyone who is eligible to get the booster dose.
“When you look at the eligible numbers in Virginia, that’s almost three million people. If we were to move to wide open eligibility that only adds another 400,000 or so,” he said.
Johnson and Johnson booster doses are recommended for those 18 and older, at least two months after the first shot.
As holiday gatherings begin, Dr. Avula said it is important to “remain vigilant” by masking in public spaces, getting testing if you feel symptoms, and isolating if you test positive.
“The combination of vaccination, better testing, and better access to treatment is going to mean this winter is not going to look anything like last winter did,” Dr. Avual said. “This is moving from the pandemic phase to the endemic phase. What that means is this is a virus that will be part of the mix for us moving forward. It’s not going to disappear, go away, overnight. We’ve got to learn how to adapt our lives.”
As for how long pandemic adjustments will continue, Dr. Avula said he anticipates Virginia will be a much different place with the virus 3-6 months from now, likely beginning in spring 2022.