By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
Alexandria is experiencing a spike in confirmed cases of COVID-19 that is unprecedented since the city’s first residents were diagnosed back in March 2020. In the three-week period from Nov. 30 to Dec. 21, confirmed cases have risen almost tenfold, despite the city’s high overall vaccination rate.
Back on Nov. 30, Alexandria was in the “substantial” transmission rate, with 56 cases reported during the preceding seven days per 100,000 residents. That number tripled in one week, to 152.1 cases per 100,000 residents by Dec. 7 and placing Alexandria back in the “high” transmission category, according to the City of Alexandria COVID-19 data page.
By Tuesday, the last day for which data was available, that number had swelled to 551.1 total confirmed cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days. The city’s 7-day moving average of daily confirmed actual cases (not per 100,000 residents) rose almost tenfold during those three weeks, from 13.1 per day on Nov. 30 to 129 by Dec. 21.
The data indicates that this number is still surging, as on Wednesday, the Virginia Department of Health website reported that 257 cases – not a moving average and not per 100,000 residents – of COVID-19 were reported as confirmed or probable in Alexandria in the preceding 24 hours. If the infection rate continues at this level for the next week, there would be 1,799 new cases of COVID-19 in Alexandria over that timeframe. If the infection rate continues to rise the number could be much higher.
This case spike is surprising given Alexandria’s relatively high vaccination rate. In Alexandria, 79.1% of residents ages 5 and up have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, while 68.5% were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, according to the City of Alexandria’s website.
Alexandria’s vaccination rate is slightly higher than that of Virginia as a whole, where 76.5% of residents are partially and 67.1% are fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Virginia’s rate topped the overall United States rate of 74% with at least one dose and 62% who are fully vaccinated as of Sunday, according to USAFacts.org.
There is no available data at this time on the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 who are vaccinated versus unvaccinated.
VDH data reveals that this is the third major spike of COVID-19 cases, with a couple of mini-surges, since the pandemic began almost two years ago.
This surge, which began right after Thanksgiving and with the arrival of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, follows one in March through May 2020 and one that occurred during the holidays in 2020. It’s the steepest and largest surge in number of cases since the beginning of the pandemic.
There are three significant caveats to this leap in case totals, which could somewhat mitigate the alarming data: the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests, the impact that vaccinations will have on severe cases of COVID-19 and whether the Omicron variant causes less severe cases of COVID-19.
Confirmed case totals are a function of both how many people are tested as well as the positivity rate. Because free PCR tests for COVID-19, which are considered more reliable than rapid home tests, are now so readily available, more overall tests are being given than at the start of the pandemic. If more people who are perhaps asymptomatic are tested, then case totals will rise.
Widespread testing, however, was widely available when the December 2020 surge began, and case totals then did not reach the current levels.
Alexandria’s COVID-19 positivity rate was 8.6% as of Dec. 18, the most recent date for which data was available on the VDH website. This remains significantly below the peak positivity rate of 13.3% recorded on Jan. 2, 2021,* though it is the highest recorded rate since Jan. 23, 2021. To put the current positivity rate into perspective, it means that more than 91% of people who are currently receiving PCR COVID-19 tests do not have the virus.
Hospitalization and death rates remain relatively low in Alexandria, as there has been one reported death from COVID-19 since Nov. 30. There has been an uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the past couple of weeks, and three additional people were hospitalized on Tuesday, but so far the rise in hospitalizations more closely mirrors the mini-surge of cases in late September and early October 2021 than the major spike this time last year.
Hospitalizations and deaths have typically lagged several weeks behind case surges, however, and the relatively stable hospitalization and death rates may be due to the fact that the current surge has happened so quickly.
There is insufficient data to draw clear conclusions about the severity of the Omicron variant, though a Reuters report this week said early data from the United Kingdom indicates Omicron is not causing less severe COVID-19 than the Delta variant there.
*Much higher positivity rates were recorded in late March to early April 2020, when COVID-19 tests were scarce and only people with observable symptoms were being tested.