Covid hospitalizations tick up slightly as county health officials monitor new variant

Fairfax County COVID-19 severity measures as of Aug. 18, 2023 (via FCHD)

Fairfax County health officials are monitoring a new COVID-19 variant that has gained traction in the U.S., becoming the most prevalent strain of the disease.

Since the pandemic ceased to be an official national health emergency in May, Covid has faded to the background for many, even as others struggle with long-term health issues after getting infected.

However, hospitalizations, test positivity rates and deaths have been on the rise across the country since early July, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.

Fairfax County’s hospitalization rate remains low at 1.8 admissions per 100,000 residents for the week of July 30 to Aug. 5 — an increase from 1.2 admissions over the previous week. There were 35 hospital admissions that week, a 45.8% increase, and the percent of emergency department visitors diagnosed with Covid has gone from 1.1% for the week of July 2 to 3.2% last week.

The increase in Covid-related hospital visits coincides with the spread of the EG.5 variant, though officials say there’s no indication so far that it has exacerbated the disease’s severity. The variant now accounts for over 17% of cases nationwide, according to the CDC.

The Fairfax County Health Department says it’s “closely” tracking the variant’s circulation, but in Northern Virginia, levels were “either below detection or unchanged for the most recent reporting period available” based on wastewater surveillance, which can be used to detect the coronavirus that causes Covid.

“While the increase in the EG.5 variant may not be considered of high concern to most people in the general population, those who are more vulnerable to serious illness are urged to take steps to prevent illness and protect their health,” the FCHD said, advising community members to watch out for symptoms and get a test if needed.

Covid testing has become more complicated since the federal state of emergency ended, prompting a suspension of the government’s free program and enabling insurers to start charging for at-home kits. Testing sites can be found through the Virginia Department of Health’s online locator.

The FCHD will still provide testing to people who have symptoms, lack access to other options, have been identified as a close contact of someone with Covid or recently returned traveling internationally. Appointments can be scheduled by calling 703-246-2411.

With Fairfax County Public Schools kicking off its new academic year today (Monday), the county health department will “work closely with FCPS on health issues that impact the student and staff populations,” FCHD spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said.

“The Virginia Department of Health provides free at-home COVID test kits to all K-12 schools and childcare facilities in Virginia, so FCPS and other school systems have testing resources available upon request,” Caldwell told FFXnow. “It is my understanding that FCPS has ordered tests and will provide them to students who appear ill with covid-like symptoms in the health rooms.”

FCPS didn’t return a request for comment on its Covid protocols for the year by press time. The school system’s dashboard showing cases reported by students and employees is no longer on its website.

As of last Tuesday (Aug. 15), the Fairfax Health District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, was averaging 61 cases per day for the past week — the highest rate since March 5, according to VDH data. Given the prevalence of at-home testing, health officials have shifted to measuring the disease’s severity instead of total case and death numbers, which haven’t been reported by the CDC since May 12.

In preparation for the colder weather and people spending more time indoors, a new Covid booster vaccine is expected to roll out this fall, as health officials hope to establish an annual schedule akin to the one for flu shots.

The new boosters were developed based on an earlier omicron variant known as XBB.1.5, but they will still provide protection for the new variant, which “is genetically similar,” according to the FCHD.

“As in other boosters over past year, it is anticipated that vaccines will be widely available in the community (medical providers/pharmacies/healthcare facilities),” Caldwell said by email. “The FCHD will also provide vaccinations for clients.”

As of Friday (Aug. 18), 80% of Fairfax Health District residents — 941,999 people — had received their initial, “primary” series of Covid vaccinations, according to FCHD data. Half of the population has gotten at least three shots, and just 25.6% have gotten the booster updated for the omicron variant, which has been available to those 6 months and older since December.