JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — COVID-19’s grip on Northeast Tennessee has tightened again since early May, with case rates more than four times their level of late April and regional hospitalizations and admissions also rising.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID in Ballad Health hospitals hasn’t grown as fast as the official case rate, but it is nearly double what it was in late April and averaged 58 last week. Weekly new COVID-19 hospital admissions have totaled 62 each of the past two weeks, which is roughly triple the rate of late April and early May.

And COVID deaths, which lag by up to several weeks in their reporting to the state, have totaled at least 14 since May 1, with Hawkins County reporting the highest total at five.

The percentage of Northeast Tennesseans testing positive for COVID-19 has more than doubled over the past eight weeks. (WJHL photo)

Actual case numbers are much more difficult to accurately determine than they were prior to widespread availability and use of home tests. If someone tests positive at home and doesn’t report the results to the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH), the case doesn’t show up in official numbers.

Jodi Jones, a Washington County commissioner and East Tennessee State University professor, contracted COVID a couple weeks ago. While she reported her illness to her primary care provider, whether it reached TDH’s database is unknown.

Jones, who carefully masked from the time COVID began until just a couple months ago, said she is convinced of one thing: the virus is circulating much more heavily in the community than it was in late March and April.

“It definitely seems like a lot of people are getting COVID, but I’m not hearing that the hospital numbers are high,” Jones said. Concern about vulnerable people contracting COVID before vaccines were available and later when hospitalization rates were high gave Jones her primary motivation to mask up previously.

Even if many cases aren’t showing up officially, COVID case numbers reported by TDH totaled 1,499 in the seven-county Northeast Tennessee area over the two weeks that ended June 18, the latest date reported. That was 34% higher than the two-week period ending May 28, meaning the official rate of increased cases is slowing compared to earlier in May. Two-week case rates tripled between April 23 and May 28, from 356 to 1,117.

Test positivity percentages have also roughly tripled since late April and continued climbing since late May. The 14-day average of tests that were positive was around 6% April 23 for the region. By May 28 it had more than doubled to around 14%, including over 18% in Washington and Unicoi counties.

That positivity rate has continued increasing, with Washington, Carter and Johnson counties each around 24% positivity for the June 5-18 period. Sullivan and Unicoi counties were just under 20% for that timeframe, Hawkins was 16% and Greene was 10%.

Hospital numbers jumped in mid-May; deaths still not absent

Jones is correct that hospitalized numbers aren’t anywhere near critical levels, but they have followed the rise in cases to some degree.

Hospital admissions of patients with COVID-19 are roughly triple their rates of early may. (WJHL photo)

The number of COVID patients in Ballad hospitals dropped below 30 in mid and late April after exceeding 400 during the height of the Omicron wave in early 2022. Those low numbers stayed steady through mid-May, with the census averaging around 30 up through May 13.

A week later that had jumped to 45, and since May 13, the numbers have ranged between a low of 40 on June 3 and a high of 63 June 21.

The number of COVID patients in intensive care (ICU) jumped from four on June 20 to nine the next day, and eight patients remained in ICU June 24. ICU totals had dropped to as low as one in mid-May.

Even though they are the most lagging indicator, COVID deaths have continued. The 14 already reported as having occurred since May 1 isn’t far below the 19 that occurred in April.

Those are very low numbers compared to the winter and may indicate the current COVID variant that’s circulating is slightly less severe than some earlier ones. Even so, reported deaths may very well increase over the next few weeks if the increase in hospitalizations is leading to more deaths that have not yet processed through the TDH system.

Jones said she believes being fully vaccinated and boosted helped her bout with COVID stay on the mild side. She had one day during which her activities were very limited and a few days of cold-type symptoms.

Jones said her hope at this point is that COVID might be reaching a point where vaccinated people who contract it cope with an illness that’s less deadly than its original version — something that would also lessen unvaccinated people’s risk of getting very ill or dying.

“But I would just say about the vaccine, ‘go get it, of course.'”