Virginia Omicron Update: December 29

New COVID cases. Source: Virginia Department of Health

by James A. Bacon

Omicron is upon us, cases are surging and local media are sounding the alarm. Nationally, hospitalizations are setting “grim records,” according to the Washington Post. Closer to home, Loudoun County’s government-run drive-through testing center reached capacity within an hour of opening. Mary Washington Healthcare providers are closing a COVID clinic after exhausting supplies of monoclonal antibodies. Virginia Tech is mandating booster shots, and Norfolk State University is postponing spring-semester classes. And that’s just today’s headlines.

So, how bad are things in reality? The statewide data tell us two things. First, new COVID cases are increasingly rapidly. Second, hospitalizations are increasing, too, but less rapidly. The big caveat is that data reported on the Virginia Department of Health COVID dashboard is more than a week old, and with the fast-moving Omicron variant now the dominant strain, the data can be pun-ishly described as “out of data.”

The graph above shows the number of new COVID cases in Virginia since the deadly February 2021 peak. The most recent entry, dated Dec. 18, 2021, showed a surge since early November that equaled  September’s Delta-variant peak. Reported cases were still far short of the February apex, but that was 11 days ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that things have gotten worse, not better, since then.

Making analysis more difficult is the fact that the number of confirmed cases can vary for reasons unconnected to the underlying prevalence of the virus, such as the frequency of testing, and the evolution of arrangements for reporting testing results to VDH. A more reliable trend indicator is hospitalizations. This metric may tell us only the number of people with symptoms severe enough to warrant medical treatment, but it is a hard number.

Virginia COVID hospitalizations.

The graph at right shows the number of hospitalizations reported by the VDH. COVID-related hospital admissions began ticking up in late November/early December, but the increase was not as pronounced as the surge in cases. However, this data, too, is out of date. The last date reported was December 18. Fortunately, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA) COVID dashboard is several days more recent. This source (seen below) shows hospitalizations on the upswing through December 22, but on a less pronounced upward path than confirmed cases.

Hospital admissions. Source: Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association

First caveat: hospitalization is a lagging indicator. Sometimes there is a delay between when a COVID case is confirmed by a test and the point at which symptoms get bad enough to require hospitalization. Second caveat: the virus does not spread uniformly around the country. At any given point in time, some areas experience explosive spread while others see little at all.

Still, speaking provisionally, the data seem consistent with findings elsewhere that Omicron, though more transmissible, is less virulent. It is spreading faster and more people are getting it, but symptoms tend to be milder.

At present, Virginia’s hospitals seem to be in good shape to weather the Omicron storm. According to VHHA data reported today, hospitals hold 1,845 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 169 whose test results are pending. Virginia hospitals have 2,671 inpatient beds available to accommodate a surge.

Bacon’s bottom line: While we should remain vigilant, the data available to Virginia citizens suggests that there is no cause for panic. The Centers for Disease Control isn’t recommending lockdowns, and the Biden administration isn’t recommending them either. There seems to be a growing understanding nationally that lockdowns impose significant economic,  educational, health, and mental-health costs. As shutdown fatigue sets in, a view seems to be spreading that the onus falls mainly upon vulnerable individuals to take precautions appropriate to their risk profiles while the rest of society goes about its business.