The delta variant, a mutated version of COVID-19, is charging through the New River Valley and leaving a surge of new coronavirus cases in its wake.

Lately, there have been between 20 to 60 new cases of COVID-19 each day in the New River Health District, said Noelle Bissell, health director for the district during an Aug. 9 update with the news media. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients also are on the rise in the region, she said.

That’s compared with only a few daily coronavirus cases earlier this summer.

Bissell said she expects the case numbers to peak and eventually decline, as has happened in other areas of the country and in the world where the delta variant has spread.

Still, vaccination is the way to prevent people from becoming seriously ill or dying with the coronavirus, including its highly contagious delta variant, Bissell said.

“We can’t say it enough that this continues to be a pandemic that is hitting the unvaccinated individuals the hardest right now,” she said. “If you're vaccinated, your chance of hospitalization and death is very low.”

Breakthrough infections, which happen in people who are fully vaccinated for COVID-19, are rare and symptoms typically are mild, Bissell explained.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, since the beginning of the year, 1,865 people in Southwest Virginia who were not vaccinated were hospitalized and 643 died from COVID-19 as of Aug. 6; 75 people who were fully vaccinated and were infected with COVID-19 (considered a breakthrough case) were hospitalized and 14 died.

Bissell urged people to follow the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which suggests that people wear face coverings in indoor spaces, no matter their vaccination status. She also encouraged people to socialize outdoors, if possible, and to avoid closed indoor spaces and crowded areas.

Cases of the coronavirus in children younger than 12 are up about 19 percent in the United States. In the New River Health District, at least 20 percent of the coronavirus cases have been in children lately, Bissell said, attributing some of the infections to summer camps.

One way to protect children in this age group from infection is for the adults who live with them and who are closest to them to get vaccinated. That’s because the coronavirus often is transmitted within a household where people typically are not wearing masks, Bissell said.

“The biggest message is vaccines are the way for the rest of us who can be vaccinated to protect those who can’t,” she said. “That’s part of the community doing their part.”

Bissell said she also supports employers mandating the vaccine for employees, because “mandating the vaccine is the way to protect public health and the way to get us out of this pandemic.”

She also approves of masks in schools, for now, but she said she hopes it is temporary.

“We’ve certainly had a little bit of a dark time right now with the surge in cases, but we do expect it to be relatively short lived,” Bissell said, adding that she expects a vaccine for children 12 and younger to be approved by the late fall.

As college students soon return to the region’s universities, Bissell said she doesn’t expect a large increase in COVID-19 cases. That’s because the universities are requiring students to be vaccinated and they have instituted policies for masks indoors.

She praised Virginia Tech’s high student vaccination rate, which was 93 percent as of Aug. 9.

“That’s where we want to get our community,” she said.

Currently, just under 50 percent of the New River Health District population is fully vaccinated, which is less than where it should be, Bissell said.

“If we can get more people vaccinated, we can avoid a lot of these surges,” she said.

By Jenny Kincaid Boone

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