MARION, Va. (WJHL) — A Southwest Virginia public health official had one word to describe her feelings about the current numbers of COVID-19 cases in the nine-county region Tuesday: thrilled.

The rural area, which has been harder hit than the rest of the state by cases, and even more so by hospitalizations and deaths, is seeing a rapid decrease in cases, a decline that has taken longer to arrive than it did in many other parts of the state and the country.

“We are looking forward to our entire region being moderate or low community level, which we hope will happen soon,” said Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health manager for the Mount Rogers Health District. “Being in a low or moderate community level of COVID means that most people will be able to scale back some mitigation strategies, like masking.” 

Data from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) showed the region’s rolling seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 people had dropped to 94, putting it below 100 for the first time since early August.

The rate is not far above Virginia’s overall figure of 80. Other than a brief period early in the Omicron surge, Southwest Virginia’s rates have usually been at least double the state rate through most of the fall and winter.

As of Saturday’s weekly reporting of community transmission levels in Virginia, all nine counties also had COVID test positivity rates below 10%, the first time in many weeks the rates have been that low.

Forbes Hubbard said that’s partly a consequence of low vaccination rates in the region. But she added that Southwest Virginia’s current and projected case rates should allow people to safely alter some of their daily behaviors.

For the past several weeks, rates of new cases per 100,000 population have decreased by roughly half and brought the region’s overall rate much closer to that of the state. The Omicron variant arrived later in Southwest Virginia, and its decline after the peak was slower than it was in other parts of state.

Several Southwest Virginia counties have community levels that according to the CDC are substantial, or even moderate, after many weeks at the high level. Forbes Hubbard said the indications public health officials see from projections are for a continued decline and low rate of cases for the foreseeable future.

Omicron’s death toll much higher in Southwest Virginia

In a recent change, VDH has begun reporting 13-week increments of cases and deaths. Those numbers tell a somewhat grim tale in Southwest Virginia. Over that period, the statewide total of 4,330 COVID deaths is a rate of 50 per 100,000 population. The region’s rate is almost double that, at 94.

Southwest Virginia’s COVID-19 death rate the past three months is almost double Virginia’s rate overall. (WJHL Photo)

Of the 21 of Virginia’s 95 counties with death rates above 90 per 100,000 people over the past 13 weeks — which roughly corresponds with the period of the Omicron variant — five are in Southwest Virginia.

“Our death numbers from Omicron have been very high, in part due to our low vaccination coverage in the region,” Forbes Hubbard said.

The highest rate regionally is in Wise County (including Norton) at 124. That’s the third-highest Omicron variant death rate in the state, and the two counties with higher rates have much lower populations than Wise.

The other area counties above 90 are Russell at 116, Smyth at 103, Tazewell at 96 and Lee at 90.

Most of the counties with rates above 90 have populations below 20,000, and so only nine of them experienced 20 or more deaths during that Dec. 14-March 15 period. That included all five Southwest Virginia counties with rates that high, led by Wise’s 51 deaths and Tazewell’s 39.

Forbes Hubbard said vaccination rates will continue to play an important role in how Southwest Virginia fares in the event of future COVID surges or variants. Currently, half of Southwest Virginians are fully vaccinated against COVID, while the statewide figure is 72%.

“Getting vaccinated now, even though cases are low, means that you will be better protected against future variants,” she said. “Vaccination is an important way to care for those who are vulnerable to severe illness or death from COVID-19.”

Statewide, VDH reported 1,182,581 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth on March 15.

According to VDH, the total number of confirmed and probable cases is 1,656,187.

VDH reports there have been 16,075 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths across the state.

Below is a complete breakdown of local COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Southwest Virginia, with new case numbers on March 15.

Note: VDH does not report whether cases are active or recovered. County and community case totals can include active, recovered, confirmed and probable cases.

Bristol, Va. – 4,371 cases / 244 hospitalizations / 76 deaths
Buchanan County – 
4,840 cases / 190 hospitalizations / 105 deaths
Dickenson County – 
3,317 cases / 75 hospitalizations / 47 deaths
Lee County – 
6,195 cases / 167 hospitalizations / 90 deaths
Norton – 
1,298 cases / 40 hospitalizations / 22 deaths
Russell County – 
6,771 cases / 194 hospitalizations / 101 deaths
Scott County – 
5,706 cases / 208 hospitalizations / 102 deaths
Smyth County – 
8,694 cases / 402 hospitalizations / 166 deaths
Tazewell County – 
10,061 cases / 258 hospitalizations / 159 deaths
Washington County, Va. – 
13,655 cases / 808 hospitalizations / 211 deaths
Wise County – 
10,191 cases / 302 hospitalizations / 189 deaths