RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL) — Southwest Virginians have been hospitalized for COVID-19 at roughly triple the rate of people statewide during the Delta variant, something Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver called “a big concern” Friday.

Oliver told News Channel 11 in a rare interview that the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) has been working very closely with Ballad Health to alleviate staffing concerns as the hospital system copes with yet another increase in hospitalizations brought on by a case spike that began around Halloween.

“We are trying to help them with their staffing so they can deal with this,” Oliver said. “It’s a big concern. We are doing our best. I think working together we will be able to provide the care everyone there needs.”

Virginia Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver speaks with News Channel 11’s Ashley Sharp Friday about COVID’s impact in Southwest Virginia.

Oliver spoke as VDH reported an additional eight new hospitalizations in the nine-county region Friday.

In the wake of a second case spike during November, the region’s seven-day rate of new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people has shot back up in December to levels last seen in early November, when the region was still working through the earlier Delta case spike.

Washington County has the state’s highest COVID hospitalization rate per 100,000 population over the course of the pandemic, at 1,265, with Smyth County’s 1,135 the second-highest among Virginia’s 95 counties.

VDH reported two new deaths Friday, both in Norton. The region’s seven-day death rate of 8.3 is almost four times the state average of 2.2.

Since Sept. 1, 104 out of every 100,000 Southwest Virginians have died of COVID — 301 people — compared to 34 of every 100,000 Virginians.

“The number of cases is much higher than it is elsewhere in the commonwealth,” Oliver said. “The number of deaths unfortunately have been higher as a result.”

Several Southwest Virginia counties have death rates in the state’s top 10 over the course of the pandemic.

Oliver pinned the blame for the high hospitalization and death rates squarely on low vaccine uptake and said VDH is doing all it can to help move the needle in a region with a high degree of vaccine hesitancy and resistance.

Southwest Virginia has a fully vaccinated rate of 46.7% compared to a 66.8% rate statewide and a national figure of 61.2%.

“Those cases and those deaths are almost all in people who are unvaccinated,” Oliver said. “The most important mitigation step we are trying to take in far Southwest Virginia is to get people vaccinated. To reach the population that is still sitting on the fence and letting them know, this vaccine is very safe. It is very effective.”

VDH is trying to do its part by using “precision clinics” that include partnerships with pharmacies to target areas that haven’t had a lot of vaccinations, Oliver said. The agency is also talking to “trusted leaders and messengers” in the area.

“We are chipping away at it little by little,” he said.

Case numbers finally declining as Omicron looms

New COVID-19 case rates continued a recent steady decline in Southwest Virginia on Friday, even as COVID hospitalization and death rates remained far above state averages.

Friday’s Virginia Department of Health (VDH) data showed 165 net new cases in Southwest Virginia for a seven-day rolling average of new COVID cases per 100,000 of 332. The case average has decreased by 21% in just 10 days.

Virginia’s statewide rate climbed Friday to 226 and is up 19% during that same 10-day period, putting the case rate for Southwest Virginia’s nine counties as close as it’s been to the state rate since August.

For most of that time the region’s rates have been more than double those of the state. At the beginning of December the region’s rate of 287 was 2.3 times the state rate of 127. Now the rate is 1.5 times higher.

Oliver warned, though, that the new Omicron variant is “just beginning here in the United States.” It is thought to be at least twice as transmissible than the Delta variant, though there is also some evidence that cases may be milder on average.

The long period of higher rates produced even higher COVID hospitalization and death disparities, though, and those comparative numbers remain much higher even recently. Hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators and won’t likely begin to decline until several weeks after the case decreases.

Of the eight new hospitalizations reported in Southwest Virginia on Friday, four were in Washington County, two in Wise County, and one each in Buchanan County and Bristol.

Statewide, VDH reported 743,110 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth on Dec. 17.

According to VDH, the total number of confirmed and probable cases is 1,013,390.

VDH reports there have been 12,657 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths across the state.

Below is a complete breakdown of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Southwest Virginia:

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. – 2,592 cases / 196 hospitalizations / 51 deaths (8 new cases, 1 new hospitalization)
Buchanan County – 2,969 cases / 171 hospitalizations / 83 deaths (12 new cases, 1 new hospitalization)
Dickenson County – 2,109 cases / 67 hospitalizations / 32 deaths (4 new cases)
Lee County – 4,028 cases / 146 hospitalizations / 62 deaths (9 new cases)
Norton – 711 cases / 35 hospitalizations / 19 deaths (-3 new cases, 2 new deaths)
Russell County – 4,431 cases / 166 hospitalizations / 71 deaths (24 new cases)
Scott County – 3,629 cases / 185 hospitalizations / 87 deaths (12 new cases)
Smyth County – 5,434 cases / 346 hospitalizations / 131 deaths (17 new cases)
Tazewell County – 6,446 cases / 226 hospitalizations / 120 deaths (20 new cases)
Washington County, Va. – 8,753 cases / 688 hospitalizations / 168 deaths (45 new cases, 4 new hospitalizations)
Wise County – 6,247 cases / 249 hospitalizations / 138 deaths (17 new cases, 2 new hospitalizations)

For full coverage of the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, click HERE.