NORTHEAST TENN. (WJHL) – Data from the Tennessee Department of Health indicates that the demand for COVID-19 testing has more than doubled since this time last year.
Scenes of cars lining up at area health departments, passengers eager to find out if they have the novel coronavirus, have become the norm to public healthcare workers.
“Well, at the present time we’re being challenged,” said Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May.
May explained that the health department in the region’s largest county is facing an overload on three fronts: COVID-19 testing, vaccinations, and contact tracing.
“We’re seeing lots of COVID testing, particularly in school-aged kids and young adults getting tested, we’ve also had some increase in our vaccination rates to go with that. So we’re actually operating on two different fronts and then our third front of course is disease contact tracing and investigation,” he said.
The department offers COVID-19 testing Monday-Friday at both its Blountville and Kingsport locations.
The health department will begin providing COVID-19 booster doses to those who qualify sometime around Sept. 20, May said.
“We are ramping up in preparation to meet the need,” he said.
A look at COVID-19 testing numbers in Northeast Tennessee
In the Summer of 2020, specifically between July 26 and Sept. 6, the COVID-19 testing rates remained fairly even. The number of tests never rising or falling much higher or lower than 1,000 daily tests.
Last winter as the number of daily tests rose toward the peak of just over 2,600 daily tests, it was coming from an average of around 1,400, and it dropped quickly from the peak.
As for this summer, the number of daily tests has risen to a peak that it’s yet to come off of. It rose from less than 584 to over 2,000 daily tests in just three weeks and has hung about there. That’s a 260% increase over three weeks. Last winter there was a 78% increase over two weeks and then a quick drop back.
“We do encourage everyone that has symptoms, or anyone that wants to – get tested about five days after they’ve had an exposure. To do so, and then follow the appropriate recommendations for isolation or quarantine,” said Dr. David Kirschke, director of the Northeast Regional Health Office.
He added that some at-home tests are possibly not being reported to the state.
“We would get home test results if the person reports that to the health department. Sometimes they’ll just report it to the school or to their work. There are some fancy at-home tests which actually hook up to your cell phone, and they report through the lab – the company will report electronically to the state. But I would suspect many of that home tests are not getting reported in the numbers,” he said.
A broader look at testing in the region
Ballad Health, the region’s largest hospital system, also reported an increase in COVID-19 testing recently compared to earlier in the pandemic.
This week a year ago, that would be between Aug. 30 and Sept. 5, Ballad Health reported a total of 1,551 COVID-19 tests.
At the peak of hospitalizations during the last surge in the region – that was from Jan. 3 to Jan. 9, the system reported conducting 3,267 tests.
Last week, from Aug. 29 till Sept. 4, Ballad reported giving 9,004 total COVID-19 tests.
For those getting tested, COVID testing results seem to be taking between two to four days for the regular PCR tests at area health departments. Both doctors told News Channel 11 that the number one defense against catastrophic COVID-19 numbers is the vaccine, but still encouraged mask-wearing, social distancing, and avoiding large crowds.
“Well, it still comes back to community response and community responsibility. You can mandate a lot of things but unless people are willing to follow them, and live by, and show the appropriate courtesy to their fellow man. That really makes it a challenge as far as a masked mandate but I think it’s a societal responsibility,” said Dr. May.
May added that the region currently has a COVID-19 transmission rate of over 20%. He said that number should be below 5%.