COVID-19 cases may be higher now than last summer, but the landscape is very different.
From the public health response to the mood of the general population, the response to a positive COVID-19 test is quite a contrast these days.
Hospitalization rates are also lower. Sovah Health was treating about a dozen patients for COVID-19 between its Danville and Martinsville facilities Friday, according to spokesman Corey Santoriello.
“This summer we also have effective antivirals, COVID-19 vaccines for children, and numerous at-home COVID-19 testing options,” Krysta “McKenna” Luzynski, a senior epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health, told Register & Bee on Friday. “These advances allow us a return to normality that we didn’t have last summer.”
That doesn’t mean COVID-19 is gone. In fact, after a brief dip, the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District is now back on a slow growth trajectory, meaning cases are slowly increasing.
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“We can’t completely forget the virus yet,” said Luzynski. “New variants are emerging all the time, and we want to continue protecting those who are at risk for serious illnesses and complications from COVID-19.”
The latest variant — this one dubbed BA.5 — is now dominant in Virginia, according to Friday’s interim report from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute.
These sub-variants of the original menacing Omicron version could cause a slight increase in cases in the coming months. The dominant BA.5 and its cousin BA.4 can cause infections in people who have previously had a seizure with COVID-19, in addition to those who are vaccinated, UVa reported.
Danville is now in the middle community tier for COVID-19, a three-tier system that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instituted earlier this year. At this level, masks are recommended for people who are considered to be particularly at risk of illness.
Pittsylvania County is at the lowest tier, but neighboring Halifax County is in the highest category, which suggests residents wear face masks in public places.
The reason for the wide range is how the CDC categorizes the categories.
“This is based on an algorithm that takes into account newly reported cases per 100,000 population and the percentage of staffed inpatient beds used by COVID-19 patients,” Luzynski explained. “If other methods are used to compare the two areas, the results may differ.”
For example, the CDC’s old method was to track transmission levels. Based on this map — which is still being updated — nearly every location in Virginia is at highest risk of spreading COVID-19.
“It’s important to remember that humans are not stationary beings,” Luzynski said. “For example, we might live in one county and work in another. Rather than relying solely on the community level of just one county, the regional pattern should be examined as a whole.”
Put simply, the risk of spreading the virus remains, even if the consequences – hospitalizations and deaths – are less severe.
Locally, Pittsylvania County recorded two more deaths from COVID-19 last week, but they likely happened weeks ago.
“Residents of high- and mid-level community counties should take reasonable precautions,” UVa researchers warned in Friday’s report. In addition, anyone who is eligible for a fourth dose of vaccine “should be refreshed as soon as possible,” they said.