Tenn. (WJHL) – Amid growing concerns surrounding the new Omicron variant, Tennessee Commissioner of Health, Dr. Lisa Piercey, held a media briefing for the first time in a few weeks to provide a status update on the virus across Tennessee.

Dr. Piercey said in the past two to three weeks, health officials have tracked a slight increase statewide, but especially here in our region where she said there seems to be an apparent cluster when it comes to new cases and most new hospitalizations.

“The vaccination rates in Northeast Tennessee are not the lowest in the state; it’s not that that’s where the predominance of unvaccinated people are, it’s just right now where most of the new hospitalizations are,” said Piercey.

In her opening remarks, Piercey said statewide there has been “a very slight increase in both cases and hospitalizations over the last two or three weeks.”

Northeast Tennessee’s new COVID case rate has risen 93% the past 3 weeks and is more than double Tennessee’s average.

Through Monday, Tennessee’s case rate — the seven-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 — had increased 64% from 119 Nov. 12 to 195.

Northeast Tennessee’s rate had grown even faster during the same period, jumping 93% from 193 to 373 — nearly twice the state average.

Nov. 12 was the date Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee signed the new COVID law passed during a late October special session of the Tennessee legislature.

Piercey said TDH officials had theorized about potential causes for the wide gap, including an earlier onset of cold weather “or some other factor.” She said even Northeast Tennessee’s numbers weren’t of particular concern.

“We haven’t really identified any trends and again not particularly worried about it at this point, but we are watching that,” Piercey said.

While vaccinations have widely slowed the spread, cases are still popping up. Piercey spoke specifically on what this increase means for hospitals in Northeast Tennessee.

She said the region accounts for most of an overall rise statewide from around 700 people hospitalized for COVID a few weeks ago to about 820 Monday.

Ballad Health reported yet another increase in COVID hospitalized patients Monday to a census not seen since early October. That number rose to 230 over the weekend, which is a 70% increase from Nov. 15, when it was 135.

“Their overall relative burden is so much lower right now than it was back in August and September that there aren’t any additional resources required right now,” Piercey said.

Ballad Health has seen a 70% increase in patients hospitalized for COVID since mid-November.

Piercey said The Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) is currently in the process of securing a second round of hospital staffing assistance grants to help health care workers, should we see yet another significant spike this winter.

However, the focus on the virus is currently shifting towards the Omicron variant, a variant she said health officials, including herself, are still learning about.

“It has a lot of mutations, 45 or 50 mutations from what we considered our common variant or the most recent variant, which is Delta,” said Piercey.

As far as how contagious and the severity of symptoms under this new variant, that’s also still being researched.

“Those are things that we’re going to be learning over the next several weeks as the Omicron variant takes a bigger hold in the United States and it will inevitably come to Tennessee probably in the next few weeks, it’s really hard to predict,” she said.

Piercey said they’re currently tracking current and new variants through what’s called ‘Routine Variant Surveillance.’

“We take a portion of the positive samples that we get here in Tennessee and we send those for genetic sequencing. It’s been standard throughout the pandemic and we do some of that here in labs in the state, and we also send some samples to the CDC and they do surveillance sequencing for us and tell us if we have identified a new variant,” said Piercey.

Dr. Piercy also told News Channel 11 that full vaccination remains the greatest defense against the virus and its variants. She’s also reminding the public to get their flu shots, predicting a more normal flu season this year than the last.

“Last year, because of all of the things we were doing, we essentially didn’t have a flu season last year,” she said. “That’s going to be different this year. We’re already starting to see it pop up in different areas of the country, we’re having a few cases trickle in here in Tennessee. We do expect much more of a normal flu season this year.”

She said the latest numbers show 21.6% of Tennesseans have gotten a flu shot, which is less than the number on this date in 2019 and 2020.

Piercey said it is completely safe to get both the booster and the flu shot on the same day. The COVID shot is approved for children ages 5 and up and the flu shot for those as young as 6 months of age.

In her Monday media briefing, Dr. Piercey also touched on the COVID oral anti-viral medications coming out, specifically touching on two, the one produced by Merck and the other by Pfizer.

She noted the two medications are both in the pipeline and that she anticipates one, if not both to be introduced publicly in the coming weeks. Piercey said the purpose of these medications is to reduce the likelihood or prevent overall hospitalization.

Both medications are 5-day courses that consist of nearly 30 to 40 pills.