As usual, Dr. Richard Williams, the director of VDH’s Three Rivers Health District weighed in at this month’s school board meeting in Westmoreland, and he painted a picture that could be described as cautiously optimistic.
“Things are looking better nationally and in the Commonwealth,” Dr. Williams said.
The variant of the month this time around is Omicron, which has supplanted Delta as the dominant strain. Although it spreads a lot easier than the previous variants, even among those who are vaccinated and asymptomatic, the symptoms in many cases have been described as mild, especially when compared to previous strains.
At the time of Dr. Williams’ update, total cases were on the decline, and as of the time of this writing, cases have continued on that downward trajectory. While caseloads are still considered high, Dr. Williams noted it was a step in the right direction, especially since while the district has never exceeded its patient capacity, it has come closer during this particular wave than in previous ones.
“Here in Three Rivers, we’re also getting better,” Williams continued. “Very high, but still getting better. At the height of the Omicron wave, we decreased down to 1,600 cases total across all jurisdictions, and hopefully that trend continues. There’s still a lot of disease in the community, but again, hopefully we’re heading in the right direction.”
When the topic of vaccination status was brought up, Dr. Williams revealed that Virginia’s vaccination status was on a steady increase. In fact, at the time of this writing, 80% or more of the commonwealth’s populace have had at least one dose of vaccine compared to 68.6% back in January.
COVID boosters, meanwhile, are starting to get recommended by the CDC for everyone 12 years and older that have already been vaccinated.
As for testing, there are testing events still going around the Three Rivers region and community testing and vaccination centers have opened up. Demand for both, however, according to Dr. Williams, has dropped.
“Our public health lab capacity has remained adequate for PCR testing,” he stated. “That’s the most important thing we do, and we’re still able to. With regard to containment, there’s case investigation and contact tracing. We’re prioritizing those activities to high-risk and vulnerable facilities.”
When it came to the subject of schools, Williams noted, “The schools are one of our highest priorities to help in regard to those sorts of containment activities.
The director also called attention to a model from the University of Virginia that predicted a peak higher than was seen before.
Of course, given the performance of other models throughout the pandemic, whether this is a reliable model remains to be seen. Even Dr. Williams was quick to pour cold water on the predictions.
“I don’t think we’re going to reach anywhere near that,” he explained, “I think we’re going to go down more, maybe even lower than what the bottom end of this model predicts. How fast we drop off and where we end up though is yet to be determined. We’ll watch that very carefully.”
School board chairman Ralph Fallin concluded the update by asking Dr. Williams what could be expected in the upcoming weeks from the Omicron variant.
“It’s really hard to say sir,” Williams replied. “In South Africa, it declined very rapidly, and they’re down to about 10% of their peak at this point. The UK has declined but not as completely as South Africa. People are expecting a steep drop, but we’re seeing a leveling out of cases with a more gradual decline in the next several weeks with the hope that this marks the progression of this virus towards being endemic rather than pandemic. But again, with the ability this thing has to spin off a variant, that’s probably impossible to predict.”
Dr. Williams ended his update by noting “We’re going to emerge from the Omicron wave with a lot more population immunity than we’ve ever enjoyed against SARS-COV-2 since the virus emerged. At this point, I don’t think there’s any looming future variant threat on the immediate horizon, but only time will tell on that one.”