The average number of daily COVID-19 cases is now the highest it has ever been in Charlottesville, Albemarle and surrounding counties — by a lot.

The caseload in the local Blue Ridge Health District is nearly double what it was following last year’s holiday season. Since Christmas Day, more than 1,600 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in a district of around 250,000. More than 600 of those were in Charlottesville. That number is likely an undercount.

Communities across the country are seeing similar trends.

The rise in cases is fueled by holiday gatherings coinciding with the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus. Omicron is far more transmissible than the previously dominant Delta variant. It is also more likely to infect vaccinated people.

“The vaccine is less protective against infection than we had hoped,” said Dr. Patrick Jackson, an assistant professor at UVA Health’s Department of Infectious Disease. “But, the vaccines are still highly effective at preventing the worst outcomes of disease [like] hospitalization or dying. It’s obvious if you just walk into a hospital and work on the wards, the vast majority of people who are coming to the hospital sick with COVID-19 are unvaccinated.”

Omicron spreads quickly. But Jackson said it tends to provoke less severe illness, even in unvaccinated people. Both the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health say that the latest science suggests that this is because Omicron tends to concentrate in the throat and nose, rather than the lungs.

Still, with more people sick than ever before, hospitalizations are also rising.

“We urge everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated and receive their booster shots as soon as possible,” said Eric Swensen, a spokesperson for UVA Health. “It is clear that boosters have a significant impact on preventing hospitalizations.”

The Blue Ridge Health District provides data about COVID-19 in Charlottesville and surrounding counties. It’s most recent release, on Jan. 4, 2022, shows that the number of people infected in the area have gone up significantly around the new year. Credit: Credit: Chart provided by BHRD, with red text added by Charlottesville Tomorrow

Against this backdrop, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week shortened its quarantine and isolation recommendations for people who don’t have symptoms or fevers, citing new science that shows people are most contagious in the first few days of infection.

“It makes me a little nervous,” said Diane Wakatsuki, the director of nursing at Martha Jefferson House, a senior care facility in Charlottesville. “But so far it seems to be working. We’re going to try following it just like it’s written and if we get too nervous we may up it a little and make it longer.”

She’s not the only one feeling uneasy about the new recommendations. 

Officials at the Blue Ridge Health District were concerned enough that they have recommended schools and daycares simply disregard them.

“We are seeing our highest rates of COVID infection since the pandemic began,” BRHD said in its most recent newsletter. “Countries seeing high rates of the Omicron variant are reporting a very high percentage of close contacts that ultimately test positive for COVID-19. Because of this, we are recommending that schools and daycares continue their current quarantine and isolation protocols that have worked so successfully to date.”

Local schools do not plan to follow the new CDC guidelines when they reopen this week. Charlottesville City Schools and Albemarle County Public Schools intended to open Tuesday, but canceled classes because of the conditions caused by Monday’s snowstorm.

“We know you have concerns regarding the rise in COVID cases,” City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley wrote in a letter to parents last week. “We are aware of new guidance from the CDC, but we will maintain our existing protocols.” 

Albemarle County Public Schools had a similar message.

With questions swirling, the local health district plans to host a virtual town hall to discuss the new recommendations and what they mean for area businesses and school children.

The exact date and time for the town hall is up in the air “due to widespread power outages across the district.” It was originally scheduled for Tuesday evening.

The district will announce a new time for the event “no later than Wednesday.”

The Blue Ridge Health District has been giving updates about the town hall on its social media accounts. Check the BHRD Twitter account for the most up-to-date information.

Here’s more information about COVID-19 testing sites.

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Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.