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UPDATED: A dramatic spike in new local COVID-19 cases reported by the Virginia Department of Health on Sunday was the result of a new state system that automatically uploads test results rather than relying on local health districts to input the data by hand.

That's according to Sean Morris, COVID-19 epidemiologist for the Prince William Health District.

The 1,508 new cases reported Sunday were cases that likely should have been added to the local health district's daily tally over the last several days, perhaps going as far back as Tuesday, Jan. 12, Morris said in an interview Monday.

Up until this weekend, the local health district had been investigating new positive cases as they were reported from labs around the state to ensure they were true positives and did not represent duplicate tests, Morris said. 

The new system uploads the cases automatically but did not initially add them to individual county totals until Sunday. Their addition amounted to an extra dump of cases across the state.

The VDH website showed an alarming 2,101 new cases reported over the last two days. They included 1,904 reported in Prince William County, 183 reported in Manassas and 14 reported in Manassas Park.

The daily numbers far exceed the health district’s last record-setting daily case tally of 428, which was reported just a day earlier on Saturday, Jan. 16.

The website showed more than 9,900 new COVID-19 cases reported statewide on Sunday, Jan. 17, as well as more than 4,000 people hospitalized. 

Neither of those numbers, however, are likely an accurate reflection of patients currently hospitalized for COVID-19 or new cases of COVID-19 reported in a 24-hour period.

Hospitalizations had dropped to 3,149 on Monday, which is more in line with what they’ve been over the last few weeks. It's still not clear, however, what was behind the spike in hospitalization numbers, according to Julian Walker, spokesman for the Virginia Healthcare and Hospital Association.

Despite the backlog in case reporting, Morris said the 593 cases reported in the Prince William Health District today, Monday, Jan. 18, is probably closer to the "true daily number," which is still a significant uptick from previous weeks.

The increase in cases, Morris said, was likely driven initially by holiday gatherings. The region is now seeing the additional COVID-19 cases that have arisen as a result of the holiday spread, he said.

"This is what's going to happen after holiday gatherings when people get together," Morris said. "Now we're seeing the next generation of cases after that."

The health district is continuing to stress the importance of physical distancing, mask-wearing and avoiding indoor gatherings as much as possible to avoid catching and spreading the virus.

It’s not yet clear whether rising cases will affect the Prince William Health District’s guidance to the Prince William School division, which is currently offering in-person instruction on a hybrid schedule to special education students, those learning English and those in pre-K through the third grades.

Students were off for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Eligible students whose parents have chosen in-person instruction generally attend school two days a week while learning from home the other three.

Dr. Alison Ansher, director of the Prince William Health District, said the numbers need further investigation.

“We have to wait for more clarity of the numbers. … Mitigation strategies are already implemented in schools. Also, it is critical that those mitigation strategies are followed as strictly as possible in the schools,” Ansher said in an email Sunday.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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