Doctors say region’s low vaccination rate could mean comparatively more hospitalizations as cases rise

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Covid-19 cases are rising in Northeast Tennessee and a public health doctor and Ballad Health’s chief physician executive anticipate further increases — and said preventable illness and hospitalization from infection could be worse here due to vaccination rates.

“We are seeing increased trends all across the nation with the arrival of the Delta variant, looking at increased hospitalizations once again, looking at increased case rates and complications associated with the COVID 19 infections,” Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said of the situation in pockets of the nation.

He and Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels have one overriding message as COVID-19 case and test positivity rates tick back upward – hospitalizations and deaths are almost completely limited to unvaccinated people.

Test positivity rates jumped along with cases starting in early July.

“97 percent of the patients that have been hospitalized in the last month in Ballad facilities have been unvaccinated, as well as 95 percent of our deaths in the hospital since March,” Runnels said.

The region trails the nation in fully vaccinated people and the gap has been growing. If cases continue rising Runnels said that could play out in the proportion of COVID cases that turn serious.

“Based on evidence we have with the effectiveness of the vaccines that there’s a potential that hospitalizations could be much higher here with a lower vaccination rate,” he said.

The highly contagious Delta variant is present locally. Combined with low vaccination rates and a more relaxed attitude about prevention that’s taken hold nationwide, May said he’s concerned.

“We’re vulnerable to a major cluster or outbreak with increased disease because no one is really practicing safety measures much any more,” May said.

New case numbers remain very low relative to the huge winter surge. In fact, they’re significantly below the first trough coming out of that surge, which occurred in late February.

But the past week has seen the biggest 7-day jump in weeks. And the percentage of Northeast Tennesseans testing positive nearly doubled last week from the week before.

New Northeast Tennessee COVID cases jumped by more than 70 percent the past week compared to the prior week. Area doctors say low regional vaccination rates leave the area vulnerable to disproportionate hospitalizations compared to places with higher vaccination levels.

“Hospitalizations are a lagging indicator and you see the new cases and the increased positivity rate first followed by hospitalizations, so it is something that we continue to keep an eye on,” Runnels said.

A higher portion of hospitalizations are among young patients than in the winter – but Runnels said that’s more likely due to lower vaccination rates and more socialization and potential exposure than to anything particular about the variant.

“There’s not a lot of data suggesting that it’s more severe on a case-by-case basis with its effect on the patient,” he said of the variant.

If you’re not vaccinated — Runnels has a piece of advice.

“The most important thing that we can say is to consider vaccination,” he said. “If you have questions or concerns there’s information on the CDC website and you can also seek information from your health care professional that you know.”

Runnels said even when a vaccinated person gets what’s called a breakthrough case, “vaccines continue to be very, very effective and have been shown to be very effective — and safe — at preventing serious illness related to COVID-19 including hospitalization and death.”

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