COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the region.

Hospitalizations have doubled since last week.

Cases in children ages 5 to 11 are up.

But come September, the picture may look different.

Noelle Bissell, health director for the New River Health District, said she expects the latest surge in coronavirus cases, sparked by the contagious delta variant, to peak soon in the district and then decrease next month. She cited the variant’s trend in other countries and even in other parts of the state where COVID-19 cases are slowing down after a rise.

“We expect we will hit a peak at the end of the month,” said Bissell, during an Aug. 23 meeting with members of the news media. “The delta variant is so contagious that you see that exponential rise in cases. It runs through the bulk of our susceptible, unvaccinated population, and then, cases do start to drop off. It could be that this is our last big surge.”

She reported that positive coronavirus cases are approximately 300 across the district as of Aug. 23, with cases up in children younger than 12 years old, for whom a vaccine is not yet available. This peak still is lower than the surge last fall and winter, when there were about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a week in the district, she said.

Also, as of Aug. 23, 48 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in the New River Valley, which is double the number a week ago, Bissell said. Though there are reports of some breakthrough cases, which occur in people who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, Bissell said the bulk of the positive cases are in people who are not vaccinated.

She went on to explain that the surge in COVID-19 hospital patients is wearing down the health care community, from hospital workers to public health employees. As the number of people who are sick with the coronavirus rises, there are fewer health care professionals to take care of them in some areas. A rising number are leaving the profession due to burnout, Bissell said.

“Everyone’s tired, everyone wants this to be over,” she said. “No one wants it to be over more than our hospital and public health workers.”

Still, there is a silver lining in the midst of the variant’s surge. It has prompted more people to get vaccinated for COVID-19, Bissell said. Local pharmacies, for example, are seeing twice the number of people requesting vaccines this week than last week.

“This is exactly the situation that vaccines were developed to prevent,” she said. “Hundreds of millions of doses being given and a dramatic impact on decreasing the risk for severe illness, hospitalization, and death.”

There also has been a stronger demand for COVID-19 testing in the region, Bissell said.

On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration announced its full approval of the Pfizer vaccine, replacing its emergency use authorization for the vaccine. Bissell said this approval likely will lead to more people feeling comfortable to receive a vaccine. Many were waiting for the FDA approval. It also may lead to more vaccine mandates by employers and businesses.

“If it becomes more inconvenient to not be vaccinated, I do think we will see more people going ahead and getting vaccinated,” she said.

The health district already is offering third vaccine doses to people who are immunocompromised, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended recently. Bissell said she expects the FDA to authorize an additional COVID-19 vaccine dose for everyone, though the timeline is unknown.

The district also is preparing to host multiple flu shot clinics where it also will offer COVID-19 vaccines. There are tests to create a vaccine in the future that would protect against both the flu and COVID-19, Bissell said.

While the delta variant is circulating, se encouraged everyone to be cautious and to wear a mask indoors, to socialize outside, and to stay away from large crowds and confined indoor spaces. She also cautioned parents not to send their children to school if they are sick.

“You want to become part of the solution and not the problem,” Bissell said. “I do think we’ll be in a totally different place by the end of the month, once cases start declining.”

—Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone

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