As new cases of COVID-19 increase in Prince William County and across Northern Virginia, experts are expressing concern about the winter and the onset of “pandemic fatigue.”
According to updated Virginia Department of Health data released Monday, Northern Virginia is back up to a “moderate” level of community transmission for the virus that causes COVID-19.
In addition, the Prince William Health District – which encompasses the county as well as the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park – has the highest test positivity rate in the region at 6% as of Wednesday.
Other indicators of the virus’ spread, such as hospitalizations and ventilator usage, are down from highs in the spring. In its most recent weekly report, the University of Virginia’s COVID-19 model showed the Prince William district in the “slow growth” category, below “in surge” but above “plateau.”
Hardest-hit Zip codes
The Prince William Health District has five of the top 11 Zip codes in Northern Virginia in terms of number of COVID-19 cases reported to date per 100,000 population.
Cases per 100,000 people
20164 - Sterling
20110 - Manassas
22305 - Alexandria
20109 - Manassas
22306 - Alexandria
22191 - Woodbridge
22150 - Springfield
22311 - Alexandria
22041 - Falls Church
22193 - Woodbridge
SOURCE: Northern Virginia Regional Commission. Data as of Oct. 19.
In all three variations of its model, the report predicts an increase in weekly confirmed cases statewide from now through the end of the year but expects that no region in Virginia will exceed its hospital capacity.
Amira Roess, a global health and epidemiology professor at George Mason University, said she’s seeing “pandemic fatigue” and a growing aversion to being tested. At the same time, she said, a fall and winter surge in cases is almost inevitable.
“As we move into the colder months we will likely see a surge in cases and an increase in demand for testing. This may lead to shortages in supplies and delays getting test results,” Roess told InsideNoVa this week.
“I fully expect cases to rise because as the weather gets colder, people will move to socialize and to eat out,” she added. “We know that eating out at restaurants is linked to cases and we will likely see more people eating indoors. … During the holidays, we have many indoor gatherings, and we know that indoor gatherings are also linked to outbreaks.”
The level of COVID positivity in the health district is crucial to the question of school reopenings. Prince William County Public Schools plans to phase in a return to in-person classes in a hybrid format for elementary school students starting Nov. 10, with middle and high schoolers expected to follow in late January or early February, but the school system has emphasized those plans are subject to change. Students and their parents can choose to remain in remote learning.
Manassas City Public Schools has not announced any plans for a return to in-person learning for the vast majority of its students.
At a joint meeting between the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and the school board Oct. 13, School Board Chair Babur Lateef said more testing would help to encourage school reopenings by driving down the county’s positivity rate.
“In Fairfax … they give [testing] out like candy,” Lateef said. “I’m asking you guys to help us do more testing.”
But by all accounts, there’s more free public testing available in the county than there is demand, a shift from the late spring and early summer when public testing sites ran out of tests before they were scheduled to end.
Last Friday, with a half-hour left for public testing at SplashDown Waterpark outside Manassas, Prince William County Fire Department employees and health-care workers stood idly with nobody in line for free tests. One worker said that in almost three hours, they had conducted only about 70 tests, a far cry from the over 200 they would give per session in the summer. Likewise, at the Woodbridge Senior Center on Friday afternoon only about 70 tests were conducted.
Alison Ansher, director of the Prince William Health District, said the district has tried to direct its free testing toward the most vulnerable people, such as those in congregate settings and those living in the hardest-hit areas, namely Manassas and Manassas Park. The two cities contain the second, fourth and eighth highest numbers of cases per 100,000 population in Northern Virginia.
After a slow start, contact tracing in the state has ramped up significantly from just a few months ago, Ansher said. But while the health district had set a goal to hire 145 tracers, it has experienced high turnover among tracers and currently has just over 100.
If a big fall surge does occur, it could be a heavy lift for tracers trying to contain outbreaks in real time.
“Initially we had a lot of help from school nurses, and they’re going back to school,” Ansher said. “And I think some people all over the state signed on because, whether their job was not functioning and then went back to work, or because they were in college or graduate school and went back to school. So it’s sort of been an ongoing hiring. But I think we’re at a point where we’re stable.”
Ansher also said tracing efforts can be more efficient than they were earlier in the pandemic. It’s now known that a large percentage of cases are attached to “super-spreader events,” in which someone infects a big group of people at a gathering who then go on to spread the disease in their communities.
“When you look at what happened in the White House, we’d be better to address those super-spreader events more heavily, as opposed to each individual case. It would give us a bigger bang for the buck so to speak,” she said, referring to the Rose Garden event in late September at which President Donald Trump announced the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.
The updated U.Va. model, released Oct. 16, predicts that cases statewide will peak the week ending Nov. 22, just before Thanksgiving. The previous statewide weekly peak occurred during the first week of August, although Northern Virginia’s numbers peaked in late May.
“This upward trend coincides with national trends, and trends in Europe,” the report states. “While too early to be certain, this may suggest that concerns regarding the onset of cold weather were founded.”
Dr. Lillian Peake, Virginia’s state epidemiologist, told the Virginia Mercury that it’s too soon to tell whether the recent uptick is part of a bigger trend.
“It’s premature to say now things are increasing,” she added. “We really have had quite a bit of increase over the summer. And that’s been generally going down. Now we are seeing a little bit of increase, but it’s small and we need to see what happens with that.”