For the Pittsylvania-Danville Health District, a continued drop in daily COVID-19 cases is ushering in a new attitude for the local health department: optimism with only a small dash of caution mixed in.
The caution is there because the novel coronavirus certainly knows how to throw curveballs just when health experts think they may have a handle on the situation.
In Danville, the daily infection rate has dropped to about one. And while Pittsylvania County is still adding about six new cases per day, data from the Virginia Department of Health shows the figures are comparable to the summer of 2021, the lowest point in the pandemic now in a third year.
There were seven new fatalities recorded in the last week, bringing the death toll to 469 for Danville and Pittsylvania County. However, those deaths likely occurred weeks ago and only recently made it to the official record books.
A subvariant of omicron — the altered version of the coronavirus responsible for the record infections in January — is leading to a rise in virus infections in other countries. Even if that does cause an uptick in cases locally, a full-blown surge isn’t projected.
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“While BA.2 is in the US and in Virginia, it remains relatively low here,” Brookie Craword, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Health, told the Register & Bee on Friday. “Hopefully, it will not contribute to any significant surge.”
Across Virginia, many health districts are seeing rapid drops in infections and hospitalizations. The exceptions are in Central Virginia, Roanoke city and West Piedmont districts, the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute reported Friday. Those locations are seeing a slow growth from low case levels.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the BA.2 subvariant accounts for about 30% of new COVID-19 cases in the state. By mid-April, it’s expected to become dominant, UVa reports.
“Most European nations have crested the BA.2 arises,” UVa researchers wrote in Friday’s abbreviated report. “However, the subvariant is causing a major surge of hospitalizations in England and Ireland.”
The state health department is using early warning systems to monitor possible upticks, including wastewater surveillance. Locally, sampling is happening in Danville.
“This week, we have observed a decreasing trend in viral load (amount of virus in a sample) at that site,” Linda M. Scarborough, a health department spokesperson, wrote in an email to the Register & Bee.
This is part of more than 400 testing sites across the nation feeding data into the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By monitoring wastewater, health leaders hope to catch signs of an increase in COVID-19 before it becomes problematic.
“Virus levels in wastewater usually increase four to six days before clinical cases increase, so surveillance results can help communities act quickly to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” CDC officials wrote in a Friday update.
“Vaccination continues to be a cornerstone in preventing another uptick,” Crawford explained, also noting there’s likely to be more “seasonality to this virus” by fall.
Just as cases have failed, so has the demand for vaccines. In fact, across Virginia and the United States, daily administrations of the shots of protection are at the lowest levels in the pandemic.
Locally, only about half of the population is fully vaccinated and about 1-in-4 have received a booster dose.
The district is now using a mobile van to reach residents who haven’t been vaccinated.
That’s in addition to handing out thousands of test kits, long hailed by experts as a key part in controlling the pandemic.
Yet vaccine hesitancy is difficult to overcome, especially in rural areas.
“We continue to partner with community leaders and organizations across both health districts to reach the unvaccinated population and offer vaccination clinics,” Crawford explained, referring the Southside Health District to the region’s east also. “Additionally, Governor Youngkin released a public service announcement with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) encouraging Virginians to get vaccinated.”
Anyone wanting a free COVID-19 vaccine should visit vaccination.virginia.gov.
Masks and more
Danville and Pittsylvania County are in the low community level for COVID-19 based on the CDC’s new formula for calculating the virus threat. Instead of relying on how the virus is transmitting in a community, data from hospitals now determines the local rankings.
In the low level, the federal agency no longer recommends masking in public indoor places. The local health district is a tad more measured when asked if residents should feel safe returning to a pre-pandemic life.
“Masks are no longer required, but they are still suggested,” Crawford said. “It is important to evaluate each situation individually and use the 3 Ws — wash your hands, watch your distance, wear your mask — appropriately for the situation.”
She also stresses people stay home when sick and follow quarantine and isolation guidelines.
Other health focuses
For the last two years, the local health department’s daily routine has centered around COVID-19. However, once the virus moved to the endemic designation — essentially “living with it” — workers will be able to get back to the core health programs, Crawford explained.
In addition, they hope to launch some initiatives put on hold to better help the region’s health.
“We do hope to build upon what we have learned about our communities and the relationships we have built/deepened to ‘springboard’ these efforts to greater community engagements,” she said.
Crawford also noted with low cases, it’s a perfect opportunity for residents to follow-up on preventive health screenings that may have failed by the wayside because of the pandemic.