Virginia is experiencing another wave of COVID-19 cases. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reported 13,500 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, up from 12,112 reported on Wednesday, breaking the previous daily record from January 17, 2021 of 9,914 new cases. However, hospitalizations are down from the highs of January 2021. On Thursday, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association (VHHA) reported 2,101 confirmed and test-pending COVID patients, less than a January 13 high of 3,201 hospitalizations.

“Virginia is in the midst of a fifth coronavirus surge since the pandemic began last year. The peak of this latest surge may not arrive until several weeks after the holiday season concludes, making it likely that its true impact on public health and the health care delivery system is yet to be fully felt,” the VHHA and VDH said in a joint press release Thursday. “While these numbers are elevated, they remain below the peak hospitalization numbers Virginia encountered this time last year. That is thanks in large part to the widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines. Data continues to show that the majority of patients currently hospitalized in Virginia for COVID-19 care are unvaccinated.”

The VHHA and VDH are asking people with mild COVID-19 and other non-serious illnesses to avoid unnecessary visits to emergency rooms.

“Hospitals across Virginia have recently experienced an influx of patients seeking emergency department care for asymptomatic or relatively mild COVID-19 infections, as well as cases of the flu or other seasonal illness. In many cases, a hospital emergency department is not the appropriate venue for patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms to seek medical care. Most individuals who contract COVID-19 do not need to visit the hospital’s emergency department and can effectively recover from their illness at home, or by seeking primary care treatment and/or speaking with their primary care provider,” the release states.

People should consider emergency care if they have severe COVID-19 symptoms like significant difficulty breathing, severe weakness, or an elevated temperature that persists for days.

“Virginia’s caregivers have worked nonstop to serve their communities throughout this pandemic. They are feeling the strain of yet another surge and are looking to the community for support,” Chair of the VHHA Board of Directors Steve Arner said in the release. “It’s crucial for community members to seek the appropriate level of care, ensuring that emergency rooms are reserved for emergencies. Of course, the best support that you can give is to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.”

Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin is set to take office in mid-January — when the current wave will be reaching its peak if it follows the 2021 pattern. He has said that while he’s pro-vaccine, he’s anti-mandate – but has also expressed an intention to allow local authorities to make decisions. A Youngkin spokesperson declined to provide a statement on how the latest case numbers will affect Youngkin’s policy or messaging.

Governor Ralph Northam is reacting differently to the current wave of cases than he did to the January 2021 wave. For much of the pandemic, Republicans have been highlighting the need to consider the severity of the cases, not just case numbers. Northam is now offering a similar message, thanks to the vaccines.

“The COVID case numbers are a reason for concern, but not a reason for panic. It’s important to understand why. We have all studied the ‘number of cases’ for many months now, but this data point means something different today, compared to this time last year. One year ago, vaccines had just become available, so nearly no one had gotten a shot. Today, more than 14 million shots have been given in Virginia,” Northam said in a Wednesday statement.

“As the virus becomes endemic, it’s now time to study not only the number of cases, but also the severity of symptoms and the number of people going to the hospital. The data are clear: Nearly everyone going to the hospital with COVID is unvaccinated. This is entirely avoidable, if everyone gets their shots,” Northam said.

Northam said, “This is really important, because people working in hospitals are exhausted—nurses, doctors, and everyone. They have worked tirelessly for months to care for people who have gotten sick. Please go to the hospital only if you believe you really need to. It’s not fair to put even more pressure on hospital workers to care for people whose hospitalization is avoidable.”

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].