Southwest Virginia is driving new COVID-19 cases but there are no plans for regional restrictions — for now

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver speaks at a press conference in August. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia’s COVID-19 infections are increasing again, but the latest spike is targeting the Southwest — a region that largely avoided significant case growth for much of the pandemic.

Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that he currently has no plans to place the area under more stringent safety restrictions or step up enforcement at public-facing businesses — measures he took this summer in response to a surge in cases in the Hampton Roads region. There, health officials attributed much of the growth to residents gathering in bars without wearing masks.

But state Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver said cases in Southwest Virginia are largely being traced to small groups of people, including family and community gatherings such as picnics or potlucks. That makes reversing the trend more difficult, given the outbreaks aren’t tied to residents or businesses breaking the state’s current Phase Three guidelines, which allow public events with up to 250 people.

“This isn’t going to be solved with enforcement,” Oliver said in an interview after a news conference with the governor. “And if you look at that trend line, you see that it really represents a lag in the Southwest catching up with coronavirus.”

Oliver was referring to the trajectory of the virus throughout the state, where infections have disproportionately affected different regions during various peaks since Virginia recorded its first confirmed case in early March. 

In May, numbers were largely driven by Northern Virginia, which saw a peak average of nearly 700 daily new cases. In late July and August, Eastern Virginia saw nearly 500 new cases of day.

The weekly average number of new cases in Southwest Virginia, on the other hand, hovered below 100 for the first four months of the pandemic. That began to shift in August, where some localities, including the small city of Galax, had some of the highest case rates in the state.

As of Wednesday, the region was recording an average of more than 350 cases a day, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. The Bristol Herald Courier reported that the “tsunami” of new infections was straining the resources of the local health system. Other public health officials have said the increase is making it more challenging for contact tracers to reach people who were potentially exposed.

Northam said officials were “keeping an eye” on the increase and having “conversations about actions they can take to mitigate potential spread.”

Oliver added that the Virginia Department of Health is launching a communications campaign in the region, which will include print and TV campaigns encouraging residents to follow safety measures such as social distancing and wearing masks. State Health Secretary Daniel Carey said there’s risk even for extended family members who aren’t part of the same household if they choose to meet without social distancing or face coverings.

“We need to spread the message there that it’s important to take the same precautions we have throughout the commonwealth,” Oliver added. “Back when there were almost no cases, it was much harder to tell people they needed to stay at home.”

The department is also partnering with faith leaders and local officials to spread the message about mitigation measures, he said. The push comes amid concerns — in Virginia and across the country — that cases will continue to rise throughout the fall and winter as temperatures drop and more people congregate indoors.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m concerned that we’ll see cases increase past previous peaks,” Oliver said. “But I’m concerned that we’ll continue to see them rise. With people coming inside, plus Christmas and other holidays, it’s likely we’ll see more of those small gatherings.”

There were a total of 1,345 new COVID-19 cases in Virginia on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 176,754. Past peaks have involved a seven-day average of roughly 1,200 new cases a day.