UPDATE: With more testing, new COVID case rates hit new highs

Local Coronavirus Coverage

The average number of new daily COVID cases across Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia has more than doubled in the past month.

15-county region breaks single-day record twice in three days

(WJHL)- Digital Reporters Jessica Fuller and Jeff Keeling regularly break down COVID-19 data on WJHL.com and social media.

This story has been updated November 9, 2020.

The 15-county News Channel 11 viewing area topped 500 new daily cases for the first time Saturday, registering 502. Monday the region blew past that mark, recording 559 cases.

The seven-day average for community spread has increased after several days of more recorded tests in Tennessee. That state had two days of very low test numbers at the beginning of this month.

By most measures, the two-state area that includes seven Tennessee counties and eight Virginia counties continues to register worse numbers than the rest of its states and the nation.

That includes deaths, which are particularly impacting Northeast Tennessee, and hospitalizations, which have hovered at a pandemic high for the past week but held somewhat steady.

The region’s also registering higher community spread, measured by a rolling average of new daily cases per 100,000 population, and test positivity — the percentage of tests taken in a county that result in a COVID-positive diagnosis.

The region registered its first 400-plus day of new cases Oct. 23, when there were 415. In the 16 days since then, that number’s been eclipsed another six times.

Monday marked a grim milestone as Northeast Tennessee reached 300 recorded deaths with six new recorded. Including Southwest Virginia the total now stands at 406. It was 258 a month ago.

Meanwhile, Ballad Health keeps seeing record numbers of hospitalized patients, though the figure has held relatively steady between 190 and 213 (today’s mark) since Oct. 30. It had risen much more sharply in the prior two weeks.

The average number of patients on ventilators and in intensive care has continued to rise, though, with those averages more than double their levels of just a few weeks ago.

The ICU count peaked at 29 during the summer surge in cases, but has been above 30 every day since Oct. 27 and above 40 eight out of the last 10 days.

Positivity rates as reported by Ballad, which cover a 21-county region, were 15.9 percent Monday. Those are based on a seven-day average. The rate was 11.4 percent three weeks ago Monday and 7.8 percent three weeks before that, on Sept. 28.

Both Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia counties have been recording positivity rates significantly higher than their states’ averages. The U.S. average has been rising steadily and reached 8.0 percent Monday.

Tennessee’s rate was 10.8 percent Monday while Virginia’s was 7.0 percent.

Northeast Tennessee

While death rates are the most severe element of COVID’s spread in Northeast Tennessee, they are accompanied by signs that the death rate may be elevated for some time to come.

Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties have community spread and positivity rates exceeding the state average. Higher testing numbers over the weekend also brought the raw case numbers back to the highs they had reached at the end of October.

Monday’s one-day record of 472 new cases shattered the previous single-day record of 384 set Nov. 4. It brought the seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 population to 54.8, which is also a new high.

The 14-day average remains below its high, which was set Oct. 30. A two-day anomaly Nov. 1 and 2 will roll off the current 14-day average in another week and likely cause a new record for that time frame.

Hospitalizations continued rising, with the seven-day average hitting a new high, but those numbers have remained somewhat steady over the past week.

One positive sign is a decrease in positivity rates over the past seven days compared to the previous seven. Those rates have decreased in most Northeast Tennessee counties, including a decline from 18.3 percent to 15.7 percent — still 32nd-highest in the state — in Washington County.

Health experts say such high positivity rates indicate unchecked community spread.

The summer peak of new daily cases not adjusted for population (14-day average) was 143. day, it was 234.

If the mortality rate is similar to what it was from the summer surge of cases, the 14-day average daily death rate around the first of December could easily be in the neighborhood of seven. Sustained for a month, that would yield around 200 deaths.

Washington County alone recorded 19 deaths in the past week.

Southwest Virginia

While it didn’t see the spike in deaths Northeast Tennessee did, Southwest Virginia dealt with a continued trend upward in new daily cases, including a record-shattering 217 on Saturday.

The region has recorded 100-plus new daily cases six times — five of those within the last 10 days.

Virginia Department of Health (VDH) data and New York Times analysis show six of the region’s eight counties and one of its two cities among the top 15 out of the state’s 127 total counties and independent cities.

On Monday, Wise, Lee and Russell counties ranked third, fourth and fifth respectively. Bristol was eighth, and Washington, Scott and Smyth counties ranked 13th through 15th for new daily cases per 100,000.

Overall, the region is averaging 43.3 new daily cases per 100,000 — more than two-and-a-half times the state rate of 16.4.

News Channel 11 spoke with Mt. Rogers Health District Director Dr. Karen Shelton Thursday.

 “People need to take it seriously,” Shelton said. “They need to wear their masks. They need to socially distance. They need to stay home right now as much as possible and really think about those social circles and getting out and you know, maybe rein it back in a little bit right now.”

Shelton acknowledged people have “COVID fatigue” and also don’t want their rights infringed upon, but suggested the pandemic’s current phase was worth finding a safe middle ground.

“I know I have my personal freedoms and I want to live my life,” she said. “But how do I live that life smarter? How do I keep from infecting other people on the chance that I have it? So just really taking it to heart, respecting other people and and trying to do the best thing for their family, friends and community.”

Southwest Virginia’s case rates and positivity percentages have been drawing closer to Northeast Tennessee’s the past couple of weeks.

Because of limitations with the data provided by the Virginia Department of Health, it’s not possible to report recoveries, active cases or the percent positivity rates in southwest Virginia counties.

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