Since late December, virtually all of Virginia’s new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have been among residents who are unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.
The statistics parallel trends in neighboring states, including Maryland, which announced that unvaccinated residents made up all of its coronavirus deaths in June, The Washington Post reported. And experts say the data dramatically underlines how crucial vaccines are, even as officials scramble to convince more people to receive the shots.
“I mean, gosh, get vaccinated,” said Dr. Bill Petri, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Virginia. “But it also shows we should continue to make big outreach efforts to get to these populations that, in many cases, have historically not received adequate medical care.”
From Dec. 29 to June 25, 99.7% of new COVID-19 cases have occurred among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Virginians, according to VDH. Those residents made up 99.3% of hospitalizations and 99.6% of deaths over the same time period.
While all three metrics have dropped precipitously since late January, when Virginia was experiencing a record-breaking holiday surge, the state’s average number of new cases has crept upward over the last several weeks. Public health experts, including Petri, say it’s highly unlikely the state will face the same type of sustained rise it saw last winter, when thousands were hospitalized every day with the disease.
But with the rise of highly contagious variants, including Delta — which now makes up more than 50% of new cases nationwide — officials are warning of “hyperlocal outbreaks” in areas with low vaccine uptake. Just over 70 percent of adult Virginians have received at least one dose, meeting a July 4 goal set by President Joe Biden. Still, wide disparities exist across the state.
In Fairfax County, just over 55% of the population is fully immunized, according to VDH. In other areas, that number is below 35% — including pockets of Southwest Virginia and several counties in Southside and Central Virginia.
“So when we get into wintertime, I think we’re going to see an uptick in cases,” Petri said. “Because we know this thing spreads best indoors.”
While studies have shown that available vaccines are still highly effective against the Delta variant — especially the mRNA versions from Pfizer and Moderna — unvaccinated Virginians are much more at risk. That includes children under 12, who aren’t currently eligible to receive a shot.
The number of vaccines administered across the state has plummeted over the last two months, from a daily average of nearly 86,000 in early April to less than 12,000 as of July 4. As enthusiasm wanes, state and local health officials have pivoted to targeted outreach, offering doses at baseball games, public parks and mobile clinics in shopping center parking lots.
State vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said last month that convenience was key to reaching Virginians who may not be prioritizing the shots. Still, many health officials think it could take months to fully vaccinate a large majority of residents.
For Petri, it’s obvious that vaccines are important for personal protection. “It’s clear that they prevent severe COVID, and that’s reflected in what we’re seeing at the hospital level,” he said. But they’re also crucial in preventing new variants. Vaccines work by creating multiple antibodies that bind to multiple points on the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In order for it to evade that protection, the virus has to create mutations that prevent many of those antibodies from binding.
“It’s hard for a virus to make multiple mutations at the same time to give it an advantage to be able to infect vaccinated individuals,” Petri said.
Variants have only occurred across millions of infections, giving the virus a chance to evolve new mechanisms for transmission.
“There’s been like three billion doses of vaccine given in the world today, and that’s amazingly good news,” he said. “Because that’s what’s going to stop all these variants in their tracks.”