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Virginia’s 2021 Case Count Could Surpass 2020

Graph of projections
Virginia's cases could spike close to 100,000 per week, more than 13 times the summer's peak. (Graphic: Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia)

Over 400,000 Virginians may get COVID-19 in the new year, according to a model put together by the Biocomplexity Institute at the University of Virginia. As of Dec. 21, the state has confirmed about 267,128 cases in 2020.

The new estimate is a nearly 20% increase from the previous week’s projection of 338,000. The reason for the increase: a larger than expected Thanksgiving bounce.

“Even with vaccines, the adaptive model shows [weekly] cases peaking at over 98,000 on February 7. This is three times higher than last week's projection and demonstrates the impact that Thanksgiving gatherings had on case growth,” the report says.

Cases per day peaked in the state in early December, with the seven-day rolling average of new cases peaking at 3,381 on Dec. 5. While cases have declined since then, the U.Va. model weekly report contained a warning that if families get together for December holidays, the state could see another surge of cases. 

“Early data indicates that the post-Thanksgiving surge is large. If compounded with surges accompanying Christmas, Hanukkah and other winter holidays, it could be a long, cold winter,” according to the report.

The new projected peak is four times larger than December’s high. The model estimates Richmond may see up to 2,300 cases per week, up from 644 as of Dec. 21.

The increased projections come as the state received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines last week and is expecting more following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to greenlight Moderna’s Vaccine

However, Bryan Lewis, a computational epidemiologist who works on the model, previously told VPM News that early doses of the vaccine are not expected to control the spread of the disease.

“What we’re really trying to do with these first doses is protect the people who need to be protected the most,” he said. “These first shipments of this vaccine are mainly targeting saving lives and allowing the hospitals to function.”

This echoes sentiments from Gov. Ralph Northam who has repeatedly called on Virginians to maintain social distancing even as the vaccine rolls out. He’s also implemented multiple new sets of restrictions, once in November and again in December.

The weekly report does contain some positive news, however, saying mitigation measures should be even more effective as the vaccines roll out.

“The good news is the effect of behavioral and community mitigation strategies, which will have a much larger impact on transmission for the foreseeable future, are enhanced as the vaccine rolls out,” the report says. “The end of the pandemic is in sight, and we can bring it to a close faster and with less hardship by following basic prevention measures.”


Connor Scribner is a former VPM News assistant editor.
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