Deaths per capita from COVID’s delta variant much higher in Northeast TN, Southwest VA

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With vaccinations and post-infection treatments like monoclonal antibodies both easily accessible, COVID-19’s delta variant has killed 676 Northeast Tennesseans and Southwest Virginians since September.

On a population-adjusted basis, those deaths exceed totals in the states of Virginia and Tennessee and the nation — in some cases by a lot.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 141,906 deaths from COVID have been reported nationwide since Sept. 1 of this year. That works out to a rate of 43 per 100,000 population.

Per capita COVID deaths in the wake of the delta variant surge have been much higher in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia than nationally or their respective states.

The national rate is higher than Virginia’s statewide rate — and Virginia’s vaccination rate is higher than the nation’s. Statewide, Virginia’s 2,946 COVID deaths since Sept. 1 equals a rate of 34 per 100,000 people.

Nearly two-thirds of Virginians — 65.9% — are fully vaccinated against COVID. The U.S. fully vaccinated rate is 60.4%.

In Tennessee, where the fully vaccinated rate is 50.9%, there have been 61 deaths per 100,000 since Sept. 1 as a total of 4,168 Tennesseans have succumbed to the virus. That rate is 42% higher than the national rate and 79% higher than Virginia’s.

Northeast Tennessee’s deaths per 100,000 have exceeded the Volunteer state’s by 31% since Sept. 1. The rate in the seven-county area is 80, representing 405 of the now 1,607 total COVID deaths the region has suffered since March 2020.

The areas with the lowest vaccination rates have the highest per capita COVID deaths since September, and vice versa.

That rate is close to double the national rate and 2.4 times Virginia’s. Northeast Tennessee’s full vaccination rate is 48.1%.

The lowest rate of fully vaccinated people is also where the COVID death rate is highest — the nine Southwest Virginia counties in News Channel 11’s viewing area.

A total of 271 people have died since Sept. 1 in the region with a population of just under 290,000 — a rate of 94 per 100,000.

That’s 18% higher than Northeast Tennessee’s death rate, more than double the U.S. rate and 2.8 times the rate in Virginia as a whole.

Only 46.3% of Southwest Virginians are fully vaccinated.

Rates climbing again in wake of case spike – official urges early testing

Weekly death numbers in Northeast Tennessee declined for several weeks in mid to late October. They were catching up with a steep drop in cases that lasted into late October, and the rolling seven-day totals ranged from a high of 23 to a low of 10 between Oct. 20 and Dec. 3.

But those figures have risen sharply in the past week-plus. A single-day total of 14 deaths Tuesday was the highest since Sept. 27, and it pushed the seven-day total to 39. But that weekly total had already risen above 30 for the three days prior to Tuesday.

With Ballad Health’s COVID hospitalization rates and number of patients in ICU and on ventilators also at their highest levels in almost two months, the prospect of a sustained period of higher deaths seems good.

COVID deaths have begun climbing again in Northeast Tennessee.

But even unvaccinated people have a strong weapon against the virus’s most severe effects in monoclonal antibody treatment — as long as they catch the virus early enough.

Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health manager with the Mount Rogers Health District in Southwest Virginia, said that makes testing extremely important.

“It is good to know about these things sooner rather than later so you can get appropriate treatments,” Forbes Hubbard said. Those treatments will also soon include antiviral medications made by Merck and Pfizer.

But in either case, she said, “you need to get it within a certain period of your exposure or your positive test, otherwise it’s not as effective.”

In the case of monoclonal antibodies, waiting too long — until oxygen saturation is below a certain point — makes a person ineligible for the treatment because it won’t work.

And even if someone starts a course of the antivirals too late, they’re likely to little good either.

“If you wait 10 days to get tested, by then you might be really sick if you’re somebody who’s at risk for moderate to severe COVID, whereas if you got tested at the beginning when the symptoms started you could have gotten the monoclonal antibodies and had a much milder case,” Forbes Hubbard said.

Forbes Hubbard’s district includes the two counties with the highest pandemic-long COVID hospitalization rates in Virginia (Washington and Smyth). Southwest Virginia’s current seven-day hospitalization rate is four times higher than the state’s, and Washington County has the highest current case rate statewide.

She urged people to err on the side of testing with the Christmas holidays approaching.

“If you’re going to be traveling and you’re going to be around large groups of people and you’ve got unvaccinated people in your family it’s a good idea to get tested before of after or both, depending on your risk factors and your likelihood of infection,” Forbes Hubbard said.

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