JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – COVID-19 case rates have skyrocketed in Tennessee and Virginia’s urban areas over the past week while staying flat in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia — but Ballad Health’s chief infection prevention officer expects the surge to reach this area soon.

“I don’t think we’ll dodge the bullet,” Jamie Swift told News Channel 11’s Josh Smith Monday.

“Obviously I would hope and love to see that but with Omicron as infectious as it is, as contagious as it is, we know that the cases will take off here.”

And Swift said even if Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, as is thought, the sheer number of cases is likely to add to the hospitalization and death tolls, primarily among unvaccinated people.

Two weeks ago, Northeast Tennessee’s seven-day rate of new COVID cases per 100,000 was nearly double the statewide rate — 340 to 186. It was still about 30% higher a week ago, at 286 regionally and 213 statewide.

Ballad Health COVID-19 testing
Testing can be scheduled online or by calling 1-833-8-BALLAD.

But in the seven days since, Tennessee’s rate has exploded, rising 92% to 408, while Northeast Tennessee’s has gone up just 12% to 319.

The statewide spike is being led by Davidson County and the counties surrounding it, as well as Shelby County. Davidson’s rate was 225 a week ago. Monday it was 618, third-highest in the state. Shelby went from 224 to 781 the last week and has the state’s highest rate.

Williamson County, the state’s most vaccinated and wealthiest location, saw its rate rise from 189 to 464 the past week.

The trend is similar in Southwest Virginia and Virginia, where high rates in urban areas around Washington D.C. have sent the state rate from 270 to 517 in a week while Southwest Virginia’s rate barely moved — from 340 to 350.

Tennessee’s test positivity percentage has also spiked statewide the past two weeks, more than doubling from 9.1% to 19.3% while the region’s has remained almost the same.

More cases means some hospitalization, death

Swift said any case increase that big – Davidson County saw its population-adjusted rate nearly triple over the past week – does bring a likelihood of increased hospitalizations.

“Is it going to be as severe as Delta? Maybe not. But if you have no past history, no immunizations, then you’re completely vulnerable.”

Swift warned against a nonchalant attitude even with COVID fatigue making it difficult for people to maintain a vigilant preventive approach, saying “this is still COVID.”

“So while it may be milder than Delta and we certainly hope so, I don’t want people to take that as ‘nobody’s going to end up in the hospital and nobody’s going to die from this,’ because I do expect that will happen,” Swift said.

Indeed, Virginia has seen its statewide seven-day hospitalization rate more than triple the past couple weeks to its highest point since September. If those hospitalizations are being reported promptly, a number of them could be stemming from Omicron cases.

To test or not to test

Swift said health officials expect a testing demand that will be difficult to meet.

“There’s going to be so many cases that you probably are going to see empty shelves at the drug store of those over the counter rapid tests,” she said.

Ballad still has plenty of PCR tests, which are actually the more accurate variety. Some provide rapid results, others take 24 to 36 hours. Others in Ballad’s arsenal get sent off to labs with results in a couple days.

“I do think it’s going to get tight over the next month,” she said of test availability.

Swift said Ballad is ramping up test availability. Testing appointments may be set up by calling 1-833-8-BALLAD or visiting Ballad’s website.

Swift advised people who think they may have been exposed but don’t have symptoms to wait five days from the possible exposure and then get a PCR test, which can detect even asymptomatic COVID. People with symptoms can use the rapid tests – if they can get one. They’re less sensitive but usually detect the higher viral load of a symptomatic person.

And she urged people with symptoms to get tested.

“Please don’t assume it’s just a cold,” Swift said. “Know that often with Omicron you’re not going to lose your sense of taste or smell, so please any symptoms it’s really important to go get tested.”