JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Rates of new COVID infections in Northeast Tennessee tumbled for weeks and continue dropping — but Sullivan County has bucked that trend recently.
The region’s largest county also has registered much higher test “positivity percentages” — the ratio of those tested for COVID who actually have the virus — than most surrounding counties.
Data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) show the region’s most populous county had an average daily new case rate of 25.6 per 100,000 population in the seven days from Feb. 15-21.
That compares to a rate of 19.4 for the entire seven-county region and a much lower rate of 13.7 in the region’s other biggest county, Washington. Only Unicoi County, with about one-eighth the population, had a higher rate.
Washington, Greene and Johnson counties all had seven-day “community spread” rates that put them out of the federal Centers for Disease Control “red zone” for the first time in months. The threshold for that is 14.3 new daily cases per 100,000.
During that same Feb. 15-21 period, Sullivan County’s test positivity percentage was 14.3 percent. That was 33rd highest among Tennessee’s 95 counties.
Washington County, which has 129,000 people to Sullivan’s 158,000, tested slightly more people during the period and its positivity percentage of 6.9 percent was less than half of Sullivan County’s. Washington’s was the state’s 11th lowest and well below any other large county.
The remaining five counties in the News Channel 11 viewing area, with a combined population of about 218,000, had a combined 8.2 percent positivity rate. Johnson County had the fourth-lowest rate statewide and Greene County the ninth-lowest.
Data: Handle with care
While reported COVID data should be viewed with caution, Sullivan County Health Department epidemiologist Heather Mullins said the new case numbers do provide a much closer to real-time snapshot than hospitalization or death figures.
Mullins noted the first two days of the seven-day period were part of a TDH routine data cleaning of case geographic information that had begun Feb. 9.
That process showed most dramatically on the 9th and 10th, when Washington County recorded a net drop of 169 cases and Carter County recorded 315 cases in two days. That was likely the result of Carter County residents with Johnson City addresses being originally mislabeled.
Sullivan County’s medical director, Dr. Stephen May, told News Channel 11 late last week he couldn’t pinpoint any particular cause for a rise in cases.
The station’s Kaylyn Kluck contacted the department early Monday requesting an interview about mask mandates and COVID numbers but no one had been made available by close of business.
The bump could be short-lived. It could be partly explained by other factors related to case reporting. And Sullivan County’s COVID case numbers are far below their levels of just a month ago.
The numbers bear watching, though, and could play into local government decisions about mask mandates or other mitigation measures.
Monday’s one-day results showed a continuation of the trend. Sullivan County had 15 new cases to Washington County’s four. It recorded 20 new positive tests out of 133 total — a positivity percentage of 15.0.
Washington County recorded eight new positive tests out of 101 total tests — a positivity percentage of 7.9 percent.
The remaining five counties reported 18 total new cases, and 17 new positive tests out of 175 total tests — a positivity percentage of 9.7 percent.