An analysis of local COVID-19 cases shows that the U.S. Virgin Islands is ahead of the curve, especially when compared to data from other states and territories who may now be heading into a peak in their numbers without effective social distancing measures in place.
The V.I. Health Department began publishing its analytics last week and even after a few days of updating, the local curve is still low. Appearing on a virtual town hall Thursday night, Territorial Epidemiologist Dr. Esther Ellis attributed this to an onslaught of response efforts, starting with limits placed on gatherings above 50 in early March to a stay-at-home order that went into effect just a week or two later on March 25.
Ellis said Thursday night that the department has been testing for COVID-19 since January, when typical flu activity often peaks. Placed against other data projections – in the forum, Ellis used one generated by the White House for the United States – the territory would have experienced 2,000 hospitalizations if no social distancing measures had been put in place, and just under 1,000 if minimal social distancing was implemented. With the addition of having residents shelter in place, however, Ellis said the projected peak for the territory should be, at its highest at any one time, 117 hospitalizations split between the two districts around late-April to early May.
“For the past 20 days, our curve is looking really good and flat,” she said, referencing another data study that shows the U.S. Virgin Islands at the bottom of a comparison of COVID-19 cases of states and territories.
Overall, based on population numbers from 2010, there could be a projected total of 20,875 infections locally. And the majority of residents, Ellis said, will not know why they are sick. According to the data, females are more likely to get tested and overall, as are people between the ages of 18-49. Of the total individuals tested, a little more than 35 are age 65 or older, more than 55 are between the ages of 50-64 and less than 20 are between the ages of 0-17.
Ellis also said that illnesses that started over the past month, from the last week to two weeks of March onward may also have not been reported. Still, from the numbers, Ellis said the territory’s rate of infection is modeled at “R-naught,” or R0 2.4, but was reduced to R0 1.3 as a result of the shelter in place order. The “R0” is a measure of how many people each infected person will subsequently spread the infection to. The lower the number, the better, and officials have continued to highlight the statistics in an effort to reduce panic and misinformation.
Added to the effort is the department’s ability to continue tracking active cases, which is now about nine.
It’s Not Over Yet
Still, Ellis said Thursday it’s still an uphill battle that needs to be taken seriously. As of Friday morning, the territory had tested a total of 368 residents, 273 of which tested negative, while 50 have tested positive. Currently, 43 of those with the virus have recovered, leaving about seven active cases that are being tracked daily. Two residents are still hospitalized, and one death has been recorded. Another 45 tests are pending.
Looking at the demographics per island, Ellis said the territory’s first positive case was recorded on March 13 and, since then, the infection rate has varied based on environmental factors such as population density and social practices. Cases on St. Thomas now total 34, with hotspots in denser areas such as East End, Havensight, Estate Thomas and Altona.
St. Thomas was also the first island to document a case of “community spread,” which is a classification for cases that cannot be explained by travel or having close contact with someone confirmed to have the virus. There are now 12 cases born through community transmission, 13 through close contact, seven that are travel related and two still under investigation.
St. Croix’s numbers are low in comparison, with 14 positive cases spread across the island, 10 of which are travel related and only three through community transmission. St. John trails with two positive cases, both of which are travel related.
At this point, the priority for testing is given to hospitalized patients, sick health care providers and the contacts of confirmed cases, but Ellis encouraged residents who want to get tested to contact their health care provider, who can take a sample and send it off. She also encouraged residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 and have to self-quarantined to try to limit contact with vulnerable populations such as children or the elderly. It’s recommended, for example, that parents who are able to go somewhere else to recover instead of sheltering at home should, she said.
“We are not off the hook,” Ellis added Wednesday. “Everyone still has to shelter at home and take care of themselves.”