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What do we really know about COVID-19? You won’t like the answer

Virginia covid-19
(© Ingo Menhard –

A 2020 high 2,707 people are in Virginia hospitals today for treatment of COVID-19. Another 10,563 are in hospitals in the Commonwealth for … we don’t know.

I’ve tried, really hard, to get a more complete picture – sending inquiries to the Virginia Department of Health, Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association, the office of Gov. Ralph Northam, over the course of the past several weeks.

What I asked for was a comparison of current hospital census numbers vis-à-vis census data from last year, from the past five years – to try to contextualize how COVID-19 is impacting hospital numbers compared to how our most recent flu seasons impacted capacity in recent Novembers and Decembers.

Numbers of people in the hospital are just numbers without that context.

My thinking, anyway.

There have been, give or take, 13,000 people in our 16,474 in-patient beds statewide consistently the past couple of months.

If we had a similar census the past couple of Novembers and Decembers, maybe COVID is replacing seasonal flu – which we’ve been hearing, anecdotally, from VDH, has been almost nonexistent in the Commonwealth in recent weeks.

Or, if the census the past couple of Novembers and Decembers was 11,000, 12,000, in that range, we’re seeing an uptick, and then the number in the hospital with COVID starts to mean something.

The closest I got was a response from VHHA with annual average occupancy data for 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Average occupancy data for the year.

Contextualize that against the busy times.

That would be akin to comparing temperatures in July to the average annual temperature.

We’d learn, in that instance, shockingly, that it’s hot in the middle of the summer, compared to the baseline.

Not exactly helpful, is the point here, but it’s all they have.

I’ve been trying to process for the past couple of weeks how it is that we don’t have more good data to use to understand where we are right now against past years, how we don’t know a lot of things.

For example, that Yale-VCU study from earlier in the year estimating that a third of the excess deaths we’ve had this year aren’t COVID – OK, so, what are they?

How is it that we don’t know specifically if they’re overdoses, suicides, heart disease, cancers, something else?

We know every day with precise detail how many people test positive for COVID-19, how many people are in hospitals who have tested positive for COVID-19 – how many people are in hospitals who are awaiting a test result.

Try as I might, I can’t get numbers for suicides any more recently than 2018.

Details on other causes of hospitalizations, deaths, are also lacking.

We have anecdotal reports on a lot of things – that suicide ideation is up, that hospitals are dealing with tons more overdoses, that cancer docs fear an increase in deaths due to people avoiding hospitals and doctor’s visits.

I’m not casting blame at VDH here.

Folks there are running around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to put out the various fires under their purview.

We reported earlier this month that VDH is having to scale back even more on its services for low-income Virginians because of its additional responsibilities related to COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

I say even more there, because there had already been a pretty dramatic scaling back dating back to the beginning of the public health response to COVID-19.

The folks at VDH have a lot going on when there isn’t a pandemic.

For a country that spends an order of magnitude more than any other country on the globe on healthcare, we sure don’t spend a lot on public health.

The Department of Health and Human Services accounts for roughly a third of all state spending, but the bulk of its budget – just under 80 percent – is Medicaid.

VDH is around 11 percent of state spending, and from what we’ve been seeing the past 10 months, it’s stretched to the gills resource-wise.

The scaled-back services, the contact tracing program that not only hasn’t produced reliable data, but has created myriad headaches for business, the workforce, families, schools, and now, the failed COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

It’s fair to point out the failure of the Trump administration to get anywhere close to its 20 million vaccine doses distributed nationally by the end of December goal.

What about the failure in Virginia to get the doses that it has into people’s arms?

VDH reports on its COVID-19 dashboard today that the Commonwealth has received 285,725 doses of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Of that, 54,295 – 19.0 percent – have been administered.

We’re told that the way out of this, the path back to the normal, is the vaccines.

It’s unconscionable that the Trump administration isn’t getting the vaccines it promised to the states.

It’s also unconscionable here in Virginia that we’ve only used 19 percent of what we have.

Everybody who needed to know has known for months that there would be at least one successful vaccine candidate by the end of 2020.

The Northam administration prioritized mass hiring for the contact tracer program that has been a bust.

This seems to have come at the expense of making sure we had the infrastructure in place to administer the vaccines.

And from what we’re hearing from VDH, it’s up to the same people who barely have enough resources to get through non-pandemic times to just figure out how to do everything else they’re supposed to do, and also do this other massive, the fate of society hinges on them getting it right thing as well.

And what do we get from the news media on any of this?

A record number of people are in hospitals with COVID.

Daily positive test numbers referred to as cases.

No context to any of it.

Certainly not anything in any way critical of the failure we’re seeing here in Virginia to be able to roll out vaccines that we’ve known for months were coming.

The headlines about positive test numbers, hospitalizations, are sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Because that, bottom line, is, 10 months into this, what we really know about COVID-19.


Story by Chris Graham

augusta free press
augusta free press