COVID-19 Peaks in SW Virginia, No Cause for Panic Elsewhere

COVID-19 surge in Virginia’s Southwest region. Source: Virginia Department of Health.

by James A. Bacon

Spread of the COVID-19 virus is gaining momentum as the weather cools, and news reports from around the country are raising the alarm that hospitals are at risk of being swamped by a fresh surge in patients. Here in the Old Dominion, the situation is reaching a “crisis point” in far Southwest Virginia, according to the leading hospital system, Ballad Health.

So, how bad are things getting? Are we experiencing a re-run of the spring when public policy was driven by panic that the United States might see a repeat of the hospital overcrowding in Italy and then in New York City?

When viewed from a statewide level, there appears to be no imminent threat of hospitals getting overwhelmed. According to the latest Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association data, hospitals are treating 1,313 patients confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19. That compares to 3,063 inpatient beds available, and another 3,695 additional beds licensed under Executive Order 52.

Another important measure is the number of ICU beds, which are needed for sicker COVID patients. Combining the licensed complement of ICU beds and “surge” beds, ICU occupancy is only 54%. In other words, Virginia hospitals are holding more than 1,100 ICU beds in reserve.

Only 29% of ventilators are being used, leaving more than 2,000 on hand, And not a single hospital is reporting any difficulty replenishing personal protective equipment.

All things considered, Virginia’s hospitals are far better prepared than they were this spring to handle a run-up in the number of COVID patients.

That conclusion is subject to one important caveat. Those are statewide numbers. They don’t tell us what is happening regionally. Some regions have more capacity to spare than others, and some are being harder hit by the virus than others. Here are the regional trends in confirmed cases.

Hampton Roads: The seven-day moving average in confirmed cases, which spiked in July, isway down.

Central Virginia: Cases have been stable since spiking and declining in May, although they have been creeping higher in the past month.

Northern Virginia: Cases are way down from their May peak, but have been inching higher in the past month.

Northwest: Cases hit new highs in September and have not backed off substantially since then.

Southwest: The virus largely bypassed this largely rural region early in the epidemic, but cases have been trending steadily higher and peaked in late October/early November.

Bacon’s bottom line: Hold steady, folks. No need to panic. First, let us remember that “confirmed cases” does not translate into “hospitalizations.”  Here is what is happening to hospitalizations in Southwest Virginia:

Not as spikey as the number of confirmed cases, is it?

If hospitals are approaching capacity in the far Southwest, they can voluntarily suspend elective procedures as long as the emergency lasts. Perhaps temporary restrictions on restaurants, bars and public gatherings are temporarily justified. There is absolutely no cause for a statewide ban on elective procedures, as occurred earlier this year. Fortunately, Governor Ralph Northam has shown a propensity in recent months for measures tailored to local conditions.

Here’s how I interpret the patterns we are seeing. The large metropolitan areas were hit by the virus early and hard. Lots of people were infected, and lots of people developed antibodies. Those regions haven’t reached “herd immunity,” so the virus is still spreading. But it might be fair to say they achieved “herd resistance.” Enough people have antibodies now to slow the propagation of the virus. COVID-19 skipped past Southwest Virginia earlier this year, so the population there never developed herd resistance. Now the Southwest is getting slammed like other regions did.

In the absence of a vaccine, it’s a safe bet that almost everyone would catch the virus sooner or later. Only those willing to isolate themselves indefinitely would avoid it. The aim of public policy now should be to slow the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is available for the general population by next spring — without shutting down the economy. That means applying narrowly targeted restrictions as local conditions warrant.

And everyone, please wear your masks when you run your errands.

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21 responses to “COVID-19 Peaks in SW Virginia, No Cause for Panic Elsewhere”

  1. vaconsumeradvocate Avatar

    Don’t be so sure that what’s happening in SWVA won’t affect other parts of the state. Several weeks ago my mother-in-law needed an ICU bed due to blood clots. She was in Lexington, VA. No hospital bed could be found in Virginia! She was flown to NC. Then came the task of finding a rehab bed to bring her back to Virginia to. As we checked around, several rehab options were closed due to COVID and our search had to be much more geographically broad than we anticipated. Although an ambulance without family along returned her to Virginia, she was put in 2 weeks of quarantine and before that ended, meaning no family member saw her, Medicare decided to end rehab. Appeal was denied. Now we’re trying to get her moved again and anticipating another 2 week quarantine, at best. COVID could affect your family in ways you don’t expect.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      My goodness what a journey your mother in law has been through. I hope she can find a safe and steady recovery.

    2. Sorry to hear.
      We also dealt with elderly parent being in hospital in Pa. Not quite so convoluted, but very difficult period for us. Hospital we like, but was so difficult to deal with this time.

  2. Yesterday, I said, “What we have not heard from VDH officials is what they will do if hospital capacity is strained in one or more regions at the same time. What is being done beyond forecasting dates and numbers? Now would be a good time for Governor Northam, the Health Commissioner or someone else at VDH to let us know if they have a plan, and what it is.”

    Perhaps I should have also asked why the hospital systems are not demanding that the Commonwealth work with them on a plan for each region before one reaches capacity.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      If you want to hear what a plan should sound like tune into Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s weekly Coronavirus update at 4pm today. As an additional benefit, you will get to hear something not heard in Virginia for a long time – a competent governor.

  3. djrippert Avatar

    It is wishful thinking to believe that the surge which is enveloping America will somehow stop at Virginia’s borders. In fact, on the critical statistic of positivity percentage Virginia is in worse shape than Maryland or DC. The rate is 6.5% in Virginia, 5.65% in Maryland and 3.5% in D.C.

    According to the data in the chart included in the article linked below, Virginia is routinely reaching the highest daily rates of Coronavirus infections ever.

    Jim declares that NoVa’s case count has been “inching higher” over the last month. In Northern Virginia, 442 new cases were reported Wednesday. The region’s seven-day average is now at 395.6, the highest it has been since June 9. That a 5 1/2 month new high.

    This is getting frustrating.

    Conservatives struggle to understand exponential math as they constantly chant that there is no crisis right now as if the spread of Coronavirus mimics erosion rather than explosion. They also can’t remember six months ago when the virus steadily spread across the country eventually consuming every state. Now they somehow believe that the current surge of the virus will bypass certain geographies. Finally, they make up ideas like herd resistance (vs herd immunity). Google “herd resistance” and you’ll get articles on herd immunity.

    Liberals are no better. They refuse to accept that the fatality rate is way down. More cases may mean more deaths but not at nearly the rate as earlier in the year. In Virginia at least, they have no plan. They spent the last 8 months berating Trump for not doing more but they can’t come up with a single action Northam should take in the midst of this resurgence. It seems that Democrats that fail to heed the warnings of scientists (i.e. Northam) are pragmatic while Republicans who fail to do the same (i.e. Trump) are incompetent.

    Larry Hogan will provide Marylanders his weekly Coronavirus update at 4pm today. Again, that’s weekly. He has already announced a modest tightening of restrictions particularly around lowering the capacity for indoor dining. He cites the state’s contact tracing data for his decision. In other words, he is articulate, data and science centered and willing to take measured steps in order to avoid an out of control situation.

    Northam had his BI_WEEKLY conference two days ago. He managed to speak for 7:50 about Coronavirus before rambling off to other issues. After admitting a Virginia positivity rate of 6.2% (now 6.5%) he said SW Virginia was at 9%. He neither had any new ideas on containing the surge no any plans on what he would so if the spike continues. Not for Virginia, not for SW Virginia.

  4. djrippert Avatar

    Just watched Hogan’s Covid update news conference. Third update in the last 5 days. Night and day from stumbling, bumbling Northam to Hogan.


    1. James Wyatt Whitehead V Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead V

      No way. The guy voted for a dead man in 2020.

  5. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    By “elsewhere” you mean “elsewhere in Virginia”, ’cause the folks in Texas and places might take exception.

    If it’s anywhere, it’s everywhere.

    1. djrippert Avatar

      “If it’s anywhere, it’s everywhere.”

      From the mouths of cynics sometimes come gems.

      1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        ‘Tis better to have flunked a Wassermann than to have never loved at all.

  6. Nancy_Naive Avatar

    Conservatives, only YOU can stop the spread of Corona Virus. Wear a mask, or stop breathing; your choice.

    1. I already wear a mask (in public places).

      As for the other? Maybe you should show us how it’s done.

    2. I do wear a mask, but that won’t stop the spread. Didn’t Northam wear a mask?

      Masks definitely help, but it remains to be seen if the benefit isn’t offset by a change in behavior of those wearing them.

      “Questions about masks go beyond biology, epidemiology and physics. Human behaviour is core to how well masks work in the real world. ‘I don’t want someone who is infected in a crowded area being confident while wearing one of these cloth coverings,’ says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.”
      – Nature October 6, 2020

      If masks, national leadership other than Trump, and universal health care were the answer, why is Ontario having such trouble?

      “A new coronavirus model released by the Ontario government on Thursday suggested that the province could be experiencing up to 6,000 new coronavirus cases per day by mid-December.”

      “The model also shows that Ontario will likely exceed its intensive care unit (ICU) capacity within two weeks. ICUs in Ontario have a capacity limit of 150, while the model predicts that in the worst-case scenario, ICUs could be treating up to 400 people by Christmas.”

      “Case counts in Ontario have been increasing dramatically in recent weeks, with 1,575 new cases being reported on Thursday, the highest daily uptick on record thus far. The increase in cases comes in spite of stricter lockdown measures implemented by the province at the beginning of October.”

      It’s a pandemic, and relief will come when a significant percent of the population gets the vaccine. You can thank the Trump Administration and Operation Warp Speed for that.

      Biden will try to take credit, but he did nothing to help. He just threw spit balls while he rode it out in his basement refusing to answer questions.

    3. Matt Adams Avatar

      Someone doesn’t realize that this issue isn’t just with America. So much for being worldly.

      PS: It’s a specific corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) the other existing corona viruses cause the common cold.

      “Wear a mask, or stop breathing; your choice.”

      On a side not that statement is steeped in “fascism” it’s always nice when you show your true colors.

      1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        Your smuggery is showing.

        1. Matt Adams Avatar

          How cute, let me know when realize you don’t how the power to force anyone to do, anything.

          1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

            Okay Cartman.

      2. Nancy_Naive Avatar

        “PS: It’s a specific corona virus (SARS-CoV-2) the other existing corona viruses cause the common cold.”

        The evidence of the self-contradictory nature of the grandiose pronouncement in that statement is obvious.

        1. Matt Adams Avatar

          “The evidence of the self-contradictory nature of the grandiose pronouncement in that statement is obvious.”

          That’s nonsense, much like 99% of the comments you make.

          “Nancy_Naive | November 13, 2020 at 6:06 am | Reply
          Conservatives, only YOU can stop the spread of Corona Virus. Wear a mask, or stop breathing; your choice.”

          Your comment was directed towards SARS-CoV-2, which can result in COVID-19 (the disease). That is a specific (sic) corona virus, the proper terms or get called out for it.

          1. Nancy_Naive Avatar

            “2”, “the other existing corona viruses cause the common cold.”

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