Inside the Numbers: Examining the dramatic decline of COVID-19 in Northern Virginia

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COVID-19 cases continue to trend dramatically downward in Northern Virginia. Is this evidence of the first wave having burned itself out there?

The seven-day moving average of reported COVID-19 cases in NoVa is 167.4, according to updated information from the Virginia Department of Health.

This is down 75.6 percent from the peak seven-day average of 685.3 back on May 31.

If you think back to that date, May 31, that was two days after Gov. Ralph Northam allowed the seven Northern Virginia localities – Fairfax County, Arlington County, Loudoun County and Prince William County, and the cities of Alexandria and Fairfax – to enter Phase One of the state’s economic reopening, after leaving them stuck in a Phase Zero for the first two weeks of the reopening.

What you have to understand, then, is the improvement in NoVa over the past six weeks hasn’t been about the efficacy of lockdowns, and would seem to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that opening things up leads to more COVID.

Northern Virginia literally opened back up at its peak in terms of COVID, and is in a sustained period of decline since.

How can this be?

This is where I borrow from the thinking of Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Levitt, a professor of biophysics at Stanford, who has been postulating since February that the COVID-19 virus would in effect burn itself out once it reached a saturation point of roughly 20 percent of the population of a given area.

Levitt’s thesis seems to be bearing itself out elsewhere. Most significantly, you can look to the New York City corridor – including the states of New Jersey and Connecticut.

Ravaged by COVID-19 at the outset in March and April, the three states have had positive COVID-19 test rates in the 1 percent range for the past week.

It’s not hard to envision a comparison between the New York metro area and Northern Virginia, which has a population density is 2,423 people per square mile.

To put that number in perspective, downstate, there are 129.6 residents per square mile.

Some cities, lots of wide open spaces, more than our fair share of cows.

You can imagine a virus spreading quickly in a region with people living, working, shopping, the rest in close quarters, and if there’s a point where it would burn out relatively quickly, per Levitt, places like New York and NoVa seem like fine candidates.

The math

Doing the math is where this gets hard. The lack of consistency in terms of confirmed case numbers is a hindrance, but modelers have been working from the assumption from the early days of the public health response that there is some number of unconfirmed cases for every confirmed case, the uncertainty being, what is that number?

If we look at the data on file for the localities in NoVa, where things seem to be very much in control, we could arrive at the number in Virginia being 15 – 15 unconfirmed cases, either asymptomatics, or people with symptoms that just didn’t require a doctor’s visit, et cetera, for every confirmed case.

The number 15 gets you to around 20 percent saturation, within a couple of percentage points in either direction, across Northern Virginia.

It’s frustrating that we have to reverse engineer numbers four months into this. Why there hasn’t been a greater emphasis on getting more accurate data is something we’ll need to examine once this is over.

But getting back to our thesis, if what we’re noticing in NoVa is true, and the first wave of the virus is burning out there, what does that mean for the rest of the state?

I’ll focus on our AFP home base of operations: Waynesboro, Staunton and Augusta County.

Waynesboro

  • Currently: 117 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases
  • 15X multiplier: 8.2 percent of population
  • Projected burnout: 285.4 cumulative cases

Staunton

  • Currently: 90 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases
  • 15X multiplier: 5.4 percent of population
  • Projected burnout: 333.3 confirmed COVID-19 cases

Augusta County

  • Currently: 204 cumulative confirmed COVID-19 cases
  • 15X multiplier: 4.0 percent of population
  • Projected burnout: 1,007.7 confirmed COVID-19 cases

Prognosis

The cities are closer, and the county, there’s work to do, so to speak.

The work to do isn’t more lockdown. I shouldn’t need to remind you here, but, the case of Northern Virginia is instructive here. NoVa literally opened at its peak in terms of COVID spread, and has been in a period of sustained decline since.

The media and politicians have spun an interesting tale about COVID can be suppressed, but to go vernacular for a second, a virus is gonna virus.

It’s not a matter, basically, of, if we’re going to get to that rough 20 percent threshold before things start to calm down, but when.

That’s actually what flatten the curve was originally supposed to do.

It was assumed that a set number of people would come down with COVID-19. The goal with flattening the curve was to spread out the number to ensure that we had adequate hospital capacity to deal with a possible influx of COVID patients alongside the normal daily intake of people with emergency, treatment and related medical needs.

If what we think we’re seeing in New York City and Northern Virginia turns out to be the real story, we’re on our way there, and in Virginia, at least, we seem to have managed to have avoided the worst of it, like what was seen in terms of the death toll in the New York City corridor.

Some of you aren’t going to like hearing this, but the best course of action would clearly seem to be to maintain status quo, Phase Three, until downstate catches up to where Northern Virginia is now.

But, emphasis here, Phase Three. No regressions to Phase Two.

It makes no sense to punish people if the numbers tick up when you know that they’re going to tick up until burnout is reached.

Again, look at NoVa. Opened at peak, steady decline since.

As long as we can manage hospital capacity, the same trend should play out downstate over the next several weeks.

Story by Chris Graham


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