JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Reported new COVID-19 cases have tripled in the past month in Northeast Tennessee’s counties and Ballad Health’s new COVID hospital admissions more than doubled recently.

Whether the increase will end as more of a “wavelet” than a wave is hard to predict, Ballad Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift told News Channel 11 Friday. Swift said case and hospitalization rates remain a tiny fraction of what they were during the Omicron variant surge but that community transmission has reached levels that concern the system once again.

“We are not back to where we were with the Omicron surge,” Swift said. “We’re not, and so I want people to hear that. But we are starting to see an increase in our daily cases, we’ve had a slight increase in our hospitalizations – still very low overall – but starting to see those numbers go up.”

A month ago, the seven-county region recorded a one-week total of 181 new cases (seven days ending April 23. Two weeks later that total was 73% higher at 313. Two weeks after that, in the seven days to May 21, it had risen another 76% to 550.

That isn’t as rapid a rise as the region experienced as the Omicron variant began to surge in January or the Delta variant before it last August. The raw numbers are far lower and the possibility exists that this wave will crest at a peak that doesn’t strain the hospital system or cause a significant number of deaths.

“But there’s enough of a trend that we’re saying, ‘hey, COVID is still here, take your precautions, make sure you’re doing the things you can to protect yourself,” Swift said. She added that includes getting vaccinated or boosted when eligible and — with test positivity running above 10%, known cases tripling and lots of cases flying under the radar due to home tests — considering masking again in public spaces.

“We’re back to the point that there’s known community spread,” Swift said. “And so I think people need to take that into consideration as you’re determining what you’re going to attend, if you’re going to mask. I’m always going to be a proponent of masking in large gatherings when we have community transmission.”

Hospital system impact muted so far

Ballad admitted 15 new COVID patients the week ending April 23, then 24 the following week. That number stayed steady the weeks ending May 7 and May 14, at 22 and then 24, but it spiked to 53 the week that ended last Saturday.

Swift said the prevalence of home testing makes data analysts’ work more difficult when it comes to projecting hospitalizations.

“We think we’ll probably continue to see a little bit of an increase. We’re hoping we can keep it pretty stable.”

While still comparatively low, COVID-19 hospital admissions have more than doubled in the Ballad Health system recently. (WJHL Photo)

“In April we maintained about 20 people in the hospital at various times. Right now we’re running in the 45 to 50s and so that’s a small increase compared to where we were but an increase enough that we need to keep our eye on.”

The first half of May saw the number of COVID patients in intensive care and on ventilators drop to two one week and one the following week. By Friday, the totals were six in ICU and five on ventilators.

One area being impacted is labor. The system has gone from occasional days in April and early May with zero positive staff cases to recent days when they’ve reported up to 15.

With staffing typically on a knife’s edge anyway, Ballad has returned to the “contingency” staffing allowed by CDC for workers who have been exposed but not tested positive.

“With the national burden on staffing it’s a move that we needed to make right now,” Swift said.

She said exposed team members can work during their “incubation period” under strict guidelines that include daily symptom monitoring, additional testing and masking at all times in the facilities.

“It really just allows them to get back to work without quarantining everyone for 10 days,” she said.

“Really just making sure that we don’t end up as exposures go up across the region, and we know that they are, that we don’t end up in an extreme staffing shortage strictly related to ‘we have hundreds of people in quarantine.’”

A new subvariant of Omicron that appears set to become the dominant strain is also leaving health care leaders with more questions than answers so far. Swift said some early studies are showing it may be able to reinfect people who’ve had recent infections.

“We’re not to the point that we think we’re gonna have 200 or 300 hospitalizations, we don’t see a path to that right now,” Swift said. “You never know with this virus. Things can change. But it’s certainly something that we really need to watch closely.”

The same goes for case numbers, she said.

“We know with community spread that there’s an increase, but we just don’t know what the peak will look like, we don’t know if there will be another lull and then another increase in the fall – there’s just a lot of unknowns.”