When it comes to Virginia’s herd immunity, Eastern region could be far behind, forecast shows

Less than one out of every 20 standard nasal swab tests came back positive for the coronavirus statewide last week, indicating the first time the rate has dipped below 5% in more than six months.

“We’ve had about a 30% decrease in caseload in Virginia over the last week, and that is reassuring,” said Dr. Danny Avula, state vaccination coordinator, during a call with reporters Friday. “It’s a recognition of progress that we’ve made to date.”

But infectious disease experts say the possibility of COVID-19 surging this summer depends on how pandemic fatigue competes with vaccinations. Data scientists studying the disease’s trends say the team winning the battle can vary from region to region.

Some parts of the state are likely to reach herd immunity levels in the next few months, according to a recent analysis by the UVA Biocomplexity Institute.

Currently, the Eastern Virginia region, which includes all of Hampton Roads, has the lowest level of combined vaccinated residents and people wanting to get the vaccine in the state, according to the institute’s analysis, which used Facebook-administered and traditional phone surveys with other data sources.

The UVA researchers estimated about 43% “vaccine acceptance” in the Eastern region, compared to Northern Virginia, the highest rate in the state, with 88%. Their forecasting model shows Northern Virginia could reach herd immunity by June or July, while other regions may not get there this year.

To reduce the impact of another surge, public health officials are cautioning residents to continue wearing masks, keeping 6 feet from others and washing their hands frequently while more people get vaccinated.

So far, there have been about 513,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 10,770 suspected deaths.

During the past week, 19 people were reported to have died of the virus in Hampton Roads: four in Norfolk; three in Virginia Beach; two each in Chesapeake, Newport News and Suffolk; and one each in Accomack, Isle of Wight and James City counties and Franklin, Hampton and Portsmouth.

The number of coronavirus cases in the United States rose to 32.3 million last week, according to Johns Hopkins University, and about 575,000 Americans have died. Around the globe, 150.1 million people have had confirmed infections, with 3.2 million deaths.

Virginia Beach’s case counts have continued to be Hampton Roads’ highest, with 421 newly confirmed positive cases in the past week, followed by Chesapeake with 222 and Norfolk with 206.

High caseloads are expected in bigger cities, but sometimes localities with fewer people see greater rates of new cases per capita. Last week, Portsmouth led the area with the highest rate, with about 17 per 100,000 people. The rest of South Hampton Roads’ cities had 12 to 13 cases per 100,000 people.

In Eastern Virginia, about 73% of hospital beds are occupied for the second consecutive week, according to data from the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Intensive care unit hospitalizations have decreased for the past five weeks, and emergency room visits for coronavirus-like symptoms have also fallen for three weeks.

Health experts maintain that vaccines will be the most powerful tool in ending the pandemic.

Over the past two weeks, Virginia’s average vaccination rate has dropped. In mid-April, the state was administering some 78,000 shots a day. That rate has fallen to 73,000.

About 2.6 million Virginians, or 31% of the population, had been fully inoculated as of Friday. Those figures don’t include the 328,000 people in the state who have been vaccinated through the military, Veterans Affairs and federal prisons. Approximately 44% of Virginians have at least one shot.

As Johnson & Johnson’s one-and-done shot ramps back up following the temporary suspension last month, Virginia expects to see many more people opting for that vaccine this week.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mass vaccination clinic at Military Circle Mall will begin offering J&J’s vaccine, with the first opportunity to get the single-dose shots Wednesday. Those will be available to residents with appointments or walk-ins through May 22.

All Virginians ages 16 and older are now eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Only a few thousand people remain on the state’s registry, though public health officials believe a sizable chunk of those residents likely ended up finding shots on their own either at pharmacies or at walk-up clinics.

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration expects all adults who want shots will be able to get at least their first dose by the end of May.

Here’s a look at the pandemic around the region for the past week:

Virginia Beach reported 421 new cases, with a daily case average of 60, down from 73 a week ago.

Norfolk reported 206 new cases, with a daily case average of 29, down from 32.

Newport News reported 174 new cases, with a daily case average of 25, down from 31.

Chesapeake reported 222 new cases, with a daily case average of 32, down from 39.

Portsmouth reported 115 new cases, with a daily case average of 16, flat with the previous week.

Hampton reported 121 new cases, with a daily case average of 17, down from 22.

James City County reported 45 new cases, with a daily case average of six, down from seven.

York County reported 50 new cases, with a daily case average of seven, flat with the previous week.

Suffolk reported 78 new cases, with a daily case average of 11, flat with the previous week.

Williamsburg reported six new cases, with a daily case average of one, down from two a week ago.

For other pandemic data, go to www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus.

The vaccinate.virginia.gov will now link to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s VaccineFinder website, which has a searchable map-based tool to find vaccination appointments. For phone assistance, call 1-877-VAX-IN-VA.

Elisha Sauers, 757-839-4754, elisha.sauers@pilotonline.com