COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are occurring at lower rates than when the pandemic began 21 months ago, but Fairfax County health officials still are encouraging the public to wear masks and get vaccinated now that the new omicron variant has appeared.
“The good news is that available public-health prevention strategies, when used in a layered approach, do work in limiting community spread” of COVID, said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, director of the Fairfax County Health Department, in a Dec. 14 report to the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
“The most important tool is the vaccine,” she said.
Addo-Ayensu urged more local residents to get COVID shots or boosters as soon as possible. A highly vaccinated community prevents local health-care facilities from becoming overwhelmed, she said.
“We understand people are fatigued, but we must remain vigilant, especially at this time when influenza activity is now widespread and there is going to be lots of traveling and congregating indoors with loved ones from across the county and around the world,” Addo-Ayensu said.
As of Dec. 15, the Health Department during the pandemic had recorded 100,075 COVID cases, 4,215 hospitalizations and 1,233 deaths. Of those fatalities, 81.7 percent involved people ages 65 and older. Only one death involved a person 17 or younger.
Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, the Health Department’s medical epidemiologist, projected a graph showing the roller-coaster-like instances of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths from mid-March 2020 through November this year.
The initial peak in mid-2020 was caused by the initial Wuhan strain of the virus, the larger spike of cases (but fewer hospitalizations and deaths) last winter stemmed from the alpha variant and the subsequent less-intense surge of cases (with even fewer deaths and hospitalizations) was linked to the delta variant.
Schwartz attributed the decline in COVID deaths and hospitalizations to mass vaccinations. Some virologists say such results adhere to a common evolution in which viruses become more infectious, but less lethal, as they continue mutating.
Local COVID-transmission levels are high and the number of the number of positive tests results is increasing, said Schwartz, who recommended that everyone – even fully vaccinated people – mask up while indoors.
The next phase likely will see COVID treated as a more endemic disease than a pandemic one, with health officials focusing on severe consequences of infection, such as hospitalizations and death, rather than on infection alone, Schwartz said.
While Hispanics and blacks initially had a higher rate of COVID cases compared with Asians and whites, those disparities have shrunken, he said.
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) since late September has reported 1,361 cases in students, equal to 0.76 percent of the student body, and 308 cases among staff and teachers. The infection rate was highest for elementary-school students, coming in 2.2 times higher than that found in high schools.
About 40 outbreaks – defined as three or more cases in a classroom or group – have occurred in county schools, no schools had to close because of COVID outbreaks, Schwartz said.
There were 6,823 students who came into contact with COVID-positive classmates – roughly an average of five contacts per case – and this resulted in the quarantining of 2.5 percent of the student body, officials said. One percent of the quarantined students later tested positive for COVID.
Since COVID vaccines became available a little more than a year ago, about 1.92 million doses have been administered to residents in the Fairfax Health District (which includes Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church). Hispanics have a higher vaccination rate than other groups, Schwartz said.
The health district has a 77-percent overall vaccination rate, which breaks down to 87 percent of people age 12 and older and 37 percent for children 5 to 11 years old. About 808,000 people, or 68.3 percent of health-district residents, are “fully vaccinated” with both doses of a two-shot vaccine or one dose of single-shot treatment.
After peaking at about 2,400 first doses per day in mid-November, the daily dosage rate for children 5 to 11 years old by Dec. 7 had dropped to 500.
“National survey data show high levels of concern among parents about potential side-effects and many parents, in our community and elsewhere, are taking a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude, wanting more experience with the vaccines before making a decision,” Schwartz said.
Booster shots now have the highest number of doses per day, at around 3,700, in part because there is less vaccine hesitancy among people who earlier received doses, he said.
The health district has no shortage of options for those seeking COVID vaccinations, with 335 sites available this past September and October. These included 147 pharmacies, 108 healthcare providers, 74 “equity” clinic sites (targeting disadvantaged populations) and six locations operated by Fairfax County. Those numbers increased further in November, when pediatric healthcare providers, “pediatric equity” clinics and FCPS clinics started giving shots.
South African scientists in mid-November first identified the new omicron COVID variant, which subsequently has been detected in 63 countries and 31 U.S. states, Schwartz said.
Health officials think the variant may be more transmissible than the delta version, less capable of being neutralized by vaccines and infection-induced antibodies, and resistant to monoclonal-antibody treatment, he said.
While data from South Africa show that omicron patients tend to need fewer intensive-care services and less ventilator usage, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that even if the cases tend to be milder, they still could overwhelm the health-care system by dint of their easier transmissibility, Schwartz said.
“We can’t let our guard down,” he said.