Data: Virginia Department of Elections. Note: The numbers above show the total number of absentee ballots cast by mail in municipal elections in more than 100 cities and towns across Virginia in 2016 and 2020. This year’s number is preliminary and reflects the number of absentee mail ballots as of Wednesday morning. Chart: Axios Visuals

42 times as many mail-in ballots were cast in Tuesday's Virginia municipal elections than in 2016, according to new data from the sVirginia Public Access Project (VPAP).

Why it matters: The state's experience provides an idea of how massively such demand may skyrocket across the U.S. this year because of the coronavirus pandemic — and can serve as a signpost for election officials as they rush to prepare in response to the virus.

By the numbers: 61,220 absentee mailed-in ballots were cast across more than 100 cities and towns in Virginia, according to VPAP. In 2016, just 1,452 mailed-in ballots were cast.

  • In 20 Virginia towns and nine cities, more than half of votes cast were absentee.
  • Of nearly 91,000 absentee ballot applications submitted for these local elections, 96% were under the "disability or illness" category, which was what people concerned about COVID-19 were told to choose, according to data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

And these are just municipal-level elections. Demand for vote-by-mail for bigger general elections in November could be so great that some officials are beginning to worry about supply shortages.

  • "Supply chain issues are huge," Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon told Axios last week. "There are rumors about a nationwide envelope shortage."
  • Earlier this year, Wisconsin saw requests for absentee ballots surge and had to act fast to solve its own envelope shortages, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in March.

What to watch: The spike in absentee voting seems to show that the public is paying attention to warnings by public health officials about crowds voting in person on election day.

  • One new study, for example, found that Wisconsin counties that had higher numbers of in-person voting per voting location during the primary also had higher rates of positive COVID-19 tests two to three weeks after the election compared to counties with relatively fewer in-person voters.
  • President Trump has been leading Republican efforts to fight some efforts to expand vote-by-mail, claiming without evidence that it could lead to widespread election fraud.

Go deeper

Updated Aug 7, 2020 - Health

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

African countries collectively surpassed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases this week.

Why it matters: Health experts believe the true number of COVID-19 cases in African countries is higher than that figure due to a lack of testing and fear that undetected cases could overload some of the world’s weakest health systems.

Aug 7, 2020 - Health

Massachusetts pauses reopening after uptick in coronavirus cases

Gov. Charlie Baker at Boston MedFlight Headquarters on Aug. 4. Photo: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday that the state's second phase of reopening is "postponed indefinitely" in response to a modest increase in coronavirus cases.

The big picture: The state is reporting more COVID-19 deaths than most others across the U.S. outside of domestic epicenters like California, or previous hotspots including New Jersey and New York, per a New York Times database.

Aug 7, 2020 - Health

Africa records over 1 million coronavirus cases

A health worker in Nigeria checks students' temperatures on August 4. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekepei/AFP via Getty Images

African countries collectively surpassed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases this week, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

Why it matters: Some health experts believe that the true number of COVID-19 cases among African countries is higher than that figure due to a lack of testing, and fear that undetected cases could overload some of the world’s weakest health systems, according to AP.