COVID testing seeing sharp drop in Northeast Tennessee

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Health officials say it’s too early to tell whether actual community spread is decreasing

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The rate of Northeast Tennesseans getting tested for COVID-19 took a nosedive starting in late December and hasn’t picked back up, but public health officials say now is no time for people who need it to refrain from getting tested.

“Absolutely we’re not getting quite enough testing out there,” Sullivan County Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said.

“In our region we continue to have a high rate of number of deaths and our hospitalization rate remains elevated, so just because we don’t necessarily have the numbers on the testing side it tells us – the disease tells us with the severity of the disease, we still have high rates of community transmission.” 

Click above for a full-length interview with Dr. Stephen May covering testing, vaccines and the current situation confronting the region.

Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) data show the past two weeks (ending Sundays) have seen the lowest total of new tests reported in the seven-county News Channel 11 viewing area since early November.

Those two weeks have also registered the highest test percentage of people who are being tested getting a positive diagnosis – 27.1% the week ending Jan. 3 and 25.8% the week ending Jan. 10.

Weekly test totals for the weeks ending Jan. 3 and Jan. 10 were 8,688 and 9,163 respectively. The previous three weeks ending Dec. 13, 20 and 27 averaged 15,646, with a high of 19,535 tests the week ending Dec. 20.

The last week registering fewer tests came Oct. 26-Nov. 1, when 8,450 tests were recorded.

Pivot to vaccine partly responsible?

No single factor explains exactly why fewer people are being tested despite higher positivity rates.

Local health departments altered their testing regimens a few weeks ago when they transitioned much of their focus to vaccinations. May said the primary focus now is on vaccinating people to try and minimize risk to vulnerable populations like those over 75.

“As in any war effort battling on three different fronts we had to triage our resources to get the most bang for our buck,” May said.

“The real answer for long term getting out of this mess is going to be getting vaccine out and we’re really being challenged by our vaccine supply.

“It is just so limited and so that’s why we’re really trying to focus on those who are 75 and up, getting it into our long term care facilities, protecting our health care workers so that they can continue to care for those who are sick. That’s why we have the phases that we’re currently working through.”

Staff still conduct tests in Blountville but have closed the Kingsport site. Northeast Regional Health Office’s testing in the other counties has scaled back to Tuesdays and Thursdays, with only self-administered tests offered the other three weekdays.

May said in a perfect world, the health departments would still be conducting much more testing, but added that many other testing options have become available to people in recent weeks. And he says the fallback in testing totals is a concern and he hopes people will take advantage of testing offered through their own health care providers and others.

“Anybody with fever, chills, fatigue, malaise, sore throat, cough, cold congestion and even nausea/vomiting/diarrhea needs to think about, ‘well, do I need to get tested,” May said.

He also said if a person knows someone else has been sick “and you’ve got a positive exposure there is a very good chance that you could have COVID-19 and not have a severe case but we don’t want you transmitting it to other people.

“So once again the first thing you do is isolate, then you test and figure out what you’ve got.”

One place that’s occurring is East Tennessee State University’s testing site at the ETSU parking garage. It uses an online registration and results system and returns results within 24 hours.

“We want to be as proactive as we can to help the community curb the spread of the virus,” ETSU spokesperson Melissa Nipper said.

While numbers are declining overall, the ETSU site saw its highest one-week total yet of tests conducted last week. The site also registered its second-highest positivity rate behind the week after Thanksgiving.

Testing totals at ETSU’s 24-hour PCR site reached a high last week, but positivity percentages are also near their highest levels.

ETSU’s service is appointment-only and can be accessed here:

Hospital system in wait and see mode

Ballad Health System officials said Wednesday they’re not sure whether cases are really down or they’re just “officially” lower due to less testing. The 14-day community spread rate (average new daily cases per 100,000) peaked at 119 Dec. 19 and had dropped to about 80 this week.

“We don’t know that we have not hit our peak,” Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said. “We need to keep looking at the data, I think we’ve got about a week’s worth of flattening our number of inpatients and we have about three weeks of flattening of total positive cases.

The 14-day average of new daily reported deaths in Northeast Tennessee has stayed elevated. If actual community spread has dropped as sharply as the numbers show, death rates should begin to drop soon.

“I think those are good indicators at this point but there is a little bit of a slowdown in testing which caused some of that. But we think it’s probably some of that and we do think it’s because we are seeing more vaccine into the community that is breaking that chain that we talked about earlier.”

Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said what happens with hospitalizations over the coming weeks will provide more clarity.

We’re kind of at that threshold of, it may just be due to lower testing volumes but we’re not sure.

“I think as we watch trends over the next few weeks if we continue to see a decrease then obviously those case volumes are going down but I just think it’s too early to definitively say one way or the other.”

Sullivan County’s May said the current situation makes adherence to public health guidelines critical if loss of life due to COVID cases among the vulnerable is going to be limited in the coming weeks.

“We still have to practice our safety measures even with vaccines starting to come out,” he said. “We’ve got to continue to socially distance, we’ve got to maintain masking, we’ve got to keep our hands washed. And with the schools coming back into session we’ve got a further risk of increased transmission and increased disease.”

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