Case spread rate up 63% this month, now more than double statewide average

RICHMOND, Va. (WJHL) — Southwest Virginia’s COVID-19 case rate has risen 63% since Aug. 30 while the statewide rate is up just 16%, and a public health official says the spike is unsurprising and set to spur higher death and hospitalization rates as well.

“One of our localities we found out this morning has the distinction of being the number one locality in the entire commonwealth for the rate of new cases per 100,000 over the last week,” Mount Rogers Health District Public Health Manager Breanne Forbes Hubbard told News Channel 11 Tuesday afternoon.

That was a day the nine-county area’s reached a seven-day “community spread” rate of 605, essentially double the state average of 303, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).

Wednesday, the state rate dropped to 296 while the region’s average climbed another 4% to 631.

VDH reported 356 new cases in the region, along with 11 new hospitalizations and three new deaths. The deaths were reported in Lee, Washington and Wise counties.

Cases surging in September

Southwest Virginia started the month with a community spread rate of 415, which was 60% higher than Virginia’s overall rate of 260.

As that rate stood at 100% higher Tuesday, Forbes Hubbard said she wasn’t “overly surprised” that numbers are higher “and rising more dramatically than other parts of the state.”

“Even in some of our nearby neighbors of health districts that have much better vaccination rates is that they’re seeing an increase, but they’re seeing maybe half of the amount of new cases that are being reported,” Forbes Hubbard said.

As of Wednesday morning, the region’s rate had jumped another 4%.

“It really comes down to vaccination coverage and willingness to take those mitigations and those steps,” Forbes Hubbard said. “Willingness to wear a mask, stay home when sick, avoid gatherings as much as you can.”

And the real key – vaccination rates – is an area in which growth continues to lag far behind the state.

As of Wednesday, 40.8% of Southwest Virginians were fully vaccinated. Even adjusting the state total downward to account for unmapped doses, that rate is 54.1% statewide.

“If we get 2 percentage points of growth in a week that’s a cause for celebration because it’s so rare,” Forbes Hubbard said. “We really need to see a much faster increase than that to get us back to the activities that we all want to do and not have so much disease transmission in our community.”

Knock-on effects — hospitalizations, deaths and disruption

With the current surge still on the upswing, Forbes Hubbard said impacts will be felt for weeks to come.

Those can include disruptions like workplace and school quarantines, and also much higher rates of serious COVID illness and death — as well as strain on hospital systems that can reduce access to needed non-COVID care.

Hospitalization rates are about two-thirds higher than in the rest of the state.

She said outbreaks are occurring along with transmission from social gatherings and school resuming.

“Our schools have been great partners throughout COVID with us working to keep students safe and in-person learning, and they’ve encouraged masking and encouraged vaccination, but when you have large numbers of unvaccinated folks together there’s a greater chance that you’re going to see an increase in cases.”

With those rising case numbers — but later in terms of reporting — come proportionally higher hospitalization and death rates.

Washington County, which has the state’s highest hospitalization rate per 100,000 population through the pandemic, reported seven new hospitalizations. Two were added in Tazewell County and one each in Lee, Russell and Wise counties. Scott County’s total decreased by one.

The increasing hospitalization and death numbers are lagging indicators, so the likelihood that they’ll continue increasing is good, Forbes Hubbard said.

Per capita deaths from COVID-19 are three times higher in Southwest Virginia than the state as a whole this month.

“Even after cases start to drop, hospitalizations and deaths tend to lag, so Ballad and other healthcare providers are still going to be extremely strapped from this,” she said.

“So this is going to result in continued issues of being able to access other health care services for a longer time past when cases drop, because hospitalizations and deaths are still going to be really high and our health care workers are continuing to be overwhelmed.”

When will numbers decline?

The delta peak may have been reached in Northeast Tennessee, which has sat in the 800-900 spread rate range for over a week — but it hasn’t really dropped yet.

Forbes Hubbard said initially modeling from places hit earlier by Delta suggested a four to six-week “curve” of cases rising and then falling back. That hasn’t happened.

“At this point, we’re just kind of taking it day by day,” she said. “We’re looking at some of the modeling and saying, ‘well does it seem like in a couple of weeks our cases might start to plateau’ – again it’s going to depend on people’s behavior.”

She said returning to a low number like that of early summer will allow for a much more normal approach to daily life. Some communities are nearing that point much sooner than Southwest Virginia, and many of them have much higher vaccination rates and compliance with mitigation efforts like masking and avoiding large crowds, she said.

“If people are going to continue to make choices with their actions to drive us away from that goal, we’re going to continue to see cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” she said.

“We hope that at some point soon we’re going to peak, plateau and cases are going to drop again, but we have a really high number of new cases today, so we’re seeing highest number of cases we’ve seen throughout the pandemic and this is nine and a half, almost 10 months into vaccination efforts, so it’s very discouraging, very frustrating.”

The Virginia Department of Health reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in the Southwest Virginia region since the beginning of the pandemic.

VDH reported 356 new cases in News Channel 11’s nine-county viewing area.

Twelve new hospitalizations were reported overnight, with a net gain of 11 hospitalizations after Scott County reported one fewer hospitalization than previously listed on Sept. 14.

VDH reported 616,680 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth on Sept. 15.

According to VDH, the total number of confirmed and probable cases is 818,804.

VDH reports there have been 10,278 confirmed coronavirus-related deaths across the state.

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. – 2,013 cases / 139 hospitalizations / 41 deaths (13 new cases)
Buchanan County – 2,013 cases / 127 hospitalizations / 47 deaths (68 new cases)
Dickenson County – 1,300 cases / 52 hospitalizations / 20 deaths (7 new cases)
Lee County – 3,047 cases / 127 hospitalizations / 51 deaths (33 new cases, 1 new hospitalization, 1 new death)
Norton – 433 cases / 21 hospitalizations / 8 deaths (11 new cases)
Russell County – 3,000 cases / 144 hospitalizations / 43 deaths (25 new cases, 1 new hospitalization)
Scott County – 2,470 cases / 150 hospitalizations / 67 deaths (20 new cases, -1 hospitalization)
Smyth County – 3,719 cases / 234 hospitalizations / 97 deaths (46 new cases)
Tazewell County – 4,807 cases / 207 hospitalizations / 83 deaths (49 new cases, 2 new hospitalizations)
Washington County, Va. – 6,399 cases / 496 hospitalizations / 120 deaths (51 new cases, 7 new hospitalizations, 1 new death)
Wise County – 4,209 cases / 208 hospitalizations / 115 deaths (33 new cases, 1 new hospitalization, 1 new death)

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