New COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed around the Lord Fairfax Health District in the last week, with the area reporting a pandemic high of 638 new cases on Friday.
The health district, which covers Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren, has a seven-day total of 3,124 new cases.
On Friday afternoon, Valley Health had 163 hospitalized COVID patients — 119 at Winchester Medical Center, 14 at Warren Memorial, 10 at Page Memorial, seven at Shenandoah Memorial and nine between Hampshire Memorial and Berkeley County’s War Memorial Hospital in West Virginia, said Dr. Nicolas Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs for Valley Health.
On Wednesday, the health system had 234 people hospitalized or in the ER with COVID “at some point during the day.” It was the highest one-day total that Valley Health has seen during the pandemic.
In recent days, the available beds for COVID patients in Winchester are “very much in the single digits moment to moment,” he said.
Lately, Valley Health routinely has 10 to 20 people with COVID in the emergency room waiting on a bed, depending on the time of day. Those looking to transfer from other hospitals can wait days for availability, Restrepo said.
There were 21 ICU patients with COVID as of Friday, 15 on ventilators.
About 88% of Friday’s hospital patients were unvaccinated, about 12% vaxxed but not boosted, and about 1% boosted but with health complications that increase their risk of severe illness.
Though the omicron variant is half as dangerous to the unvaccinated population as the delta variant — as measured by hospitalizations — omicron is twice as contagious, said Dr. Jeffrey Feit, community and population health officer for Valley Health.
“This means that given the number of unvaccinated people in our community, we are likely to see a very large number of cases and a significant rise in total hospitalizations,” he said on Thursday.
Cases have been quickly rising week by week since the omicron variant came to the region in early December.
“As a broad rule of thumb,” Feit said, “the more vaccines you’ve had the more immune you are. If you had COVID and recovered, that increases your immunity about as well.”
Because immunity can wane over time, whether from a vaccine or a recovered case of COVID, he said, mask-wearing and social distancing remain among the best ways of reducing the spread of disease.
But because omicron creates so many mild cases compared to other COVID variants, Feit said it also causes a giant funnel that challenges a health system in various ways.
“At the large end of the funnel, there is a tremendous number of people who are exposed to [COVID-19],” he said.
“This creates a massive need for testing, but home testing has only slowly increased in our communities,” he continued. “PCR testing requires a provider visit, which creates higher demand in our outpatient offices.”
Over New Year’s weekend, Valley Health opened additional testing sites at the Frederick County Public Safety Building with help from the county sheriff’s office.
“It went very well,” Restrepo said. “The sheriff’s office was both accommodating and very helpful.”
The testing site was open for four hours a day Friday through Monday and saw about 350 to 400 people.
To help address the strain on community resources, Valley Health is working with the federal government to obtain more than 200,000 at-home testing kits over the next few weeks. The first shipment arrived on Thursday, Restrepo said, and will be delivered to Valley Health’s rural clinics to distribute among the community.
“This will allow many people who are concerned about COVID to test themselves at home and reduce the need for physician visits and urgent care visits,” Feit said. “People with positive tests who have very mild symptoms and a low risk for severe disease may be able to care for their symptoms at home with or without a telehealth visit.”
Large pharmacy chains around the area continue to receive at-home tests that typically sell for about $20 per box.
Library locations in Winchester, Berryville, Stephens City and Front Royal expect more free tests soon through their partnership with the VDH. Updates will be posted at the library systems’ websites at handleyregional.org and samuelslibrary.net.
In addition to at-home tests, residents with symptoms or doctor’s orders can opt for rapid tests through their primary care physician or urgent care locations, which all offer rapid tests as well as the more sensitive PCR tests.
Based on the world’s experience with omicron so far, Feit expects the spikes in cases to last at least through January.