JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The percentage of Northeast Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians who got a first dose of COVID vaccine in April was far lower than state averages, even as vaccine availability became widespread.
Just 5.9% of Southwest Virginians got a first dose between March 31 and April 30, compared to 14.8% of Virginians overall. The difference was narrower in Tennessee, as 6.5% of Northeast Tennesseans got the jab from March 31 to April 29, where 9.0% of Tennesseans did.
Nationally, 11.8% of Americans got their first dose in April to bring the rate from 31.8% to 43.6% over the month.
The figures come from data provided by the Tennessee (TDH) and Virginia (VDH) departments of health as well as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The one-day difference is due to Tennessee reporting its numbers in late afternoon rather than the morning.
They also show Tennessee, where Gov. Bill Lee lifted the public health state of emergency this week, continuing to rank among the bottom in most vaccination categories. Virginia, which has employed stricter statewide measures, is among the top half of states in vaccination rates.
That news of slow regional progress toward herd immunity also comes after a month that saw Northeast Tennessee counties post some of the state’s highest new COVID case rates and test positivity percentages.
“We have seen a decrease in demand and currently have vaccines on hand,” Mount Rogers (Virginia) Health District (MRHD) Population Health Manager Breanne Forbes-Hubbard said via email this week.
“This changed around the time that we opened up to Phase 2 (all adults eligible).”
Across the state line in Tennessee, Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD) Medical Director Dr. Stephen May told News Channel 11 lack of convenience is one driver for a slowdown there.
“When we started opening it up to particularly those less than 65, demand went way down,” May said. But he said vaccine hesitancy is also a major factor.
“This level of vaccine hesitancy is becoming a real challenge,” he said.
“The pause with the (Johnson & Johnson) did not help either as far as confidence.”
Harder hit by COVID deaths, hospitalizations, Southwest falls far behind Virginia in vaccinations
The slowdown has been most marked in Southwest Virginia, where News Channel 11 tracks nine counties in its viewing area. In the vaccine rollout’s early days, most of those counties exceeded state averages for vaccine uptake.
The rest of the state began catching up in March, and by March 31 the percent of population with at least one vaccine dose was almost identical. 29.6% of Southwest Virginians had gotten a jab and 29.5% of Virginians had.
As of Friday, the statewide percentage had climbed steadily, reaching 44.3%. That was nearly 9 percent higher than Southwest Virginia’s 35.5%.
For weeks, Washington County had one of the state’s highest first dose percentages. Now it and Russell County lead the region at 38.8%, more than 5% below the state average.
Tazewell, Scott and Lee counties all have fewer than a third of their residents with a first dose. Lee County’s 28.7% rate puts it third-lowest among the Commonwealth’s 95 counties.
That gap in vaccinated people is occurring in a region that’s been among the hardest hit in terms of hospitalizations and deaths per capita.
Washington County, in fact, has the highest number of hospitalizations per 100,000 population among all of Virginia’s 95 counties, at 750. Almost all the counties have rates higher than the state average.
Smyth County, meanwhile, has the sixth-highest death rate per 100,000 population at 298. Wise County’s rate of 253 puts it in the top eight.
In mid-April, MRHD Director Dr. Karen Shelton said the region was using all its supply each week. She said Richmond had pledged an allocation shift based on social vulnerability — which the area scores high on — but that it hadn’t materialized.
That supply increase came through shortly after, but it hasn’t resulted in a surge in vaccinations.
Forbes-Hubbard said officials are hopeful a strategy shift will increase access and convenience and that vaccination rates will pick up as a result.
“We … will be going out into the community for mobile vaccine clinics, and making COVID-19 vaccines available at some local health departments,” she said.
“We are excited about the opportunity to reach residents in different areas and ways than we could through our larger, fixed-site (locations).”
Northeast Tennessee rates just below SW VA’s but closer to state average
Vaccination rates are very similar in Northeast Tennessee. The region started the month from a slightly lower baseline, 28.0%. It wound up at 34.5%, less than 1% behind Southwest Virginia.
Statewide, the overall percentage rose from 25.8% to 34.8%. That pushed a state that’s got one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation ahead of a region that’s also seen higher per capita rates of death than the state as a whole.
Three area counties — Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi — still have rates exceeding the state average, with Washington County’s rate of 40.6% ranking sixth in the state.
Greene, Hawkins, Johnson and Carter counties have lower rates ranging from Greene’s 31.5% to Carter’s 26.8%. Carter County’s rate is the lowest in News Channel 11’s 16-county, two-state viewing area.
Sullivan County’s Dr. May said the increasing proportion of cases involving the more virulent UK variant make vaccination a critical tool.
“We’re in a footrace between the variant and the vaccine,” May said.
Like colleagues in Virginia, May said Northeast Tennessee health departments and their vaccination partners “are looking at strategies and targeted delivery systems for the future.”
To that end, health departments have been moving away from mass vaccination sites.
Ballad Health just announced it’s moving a “Community Vaccination Center” from Elizabethton to an empty storefront at the Mall at Johnson City and keeping that site open until 7 p.m. weeknights.
The grant-funded “Take a Shot on Life” campaign has clinics scheduled for several predominantly African-American churches later this month and is developing strategies to increase accessibility in rural areas of Northeast Tennessee.
Whether all those efforts will reverse the trend of the region falling further behind the country — and the state in Southwest Virginia’s case — remains to be seen.