Health experts continue to stress importance of vaccinations during decline in demand

Local Coronavirus Coverage

TRI-CITIES, Tenn./Va. (WJHL) – Friday marks one month until the 4th of July. While many are looking forward to celebrating the holiday with fewer restrictions than the previous year, President Biden hopes to celebrate reaching his goal of 70% of the adult population having received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by that date.

While a number of states have already accomplished that feat or are nearing the 70% mark, a few states have fallen behind — including Tennessee. In fact, a majority of the states lagging in reaching this goal are located in the Southeast.

In recent months, the demand for vaccinations in Northeast Tennessee has slowed. While the vaccination numbers are continuing to rise, they are doing so very slowly.

With the end of a majority of pandemic-related restrictions, many states are returning to pre-pandemic life and regaining that sense of normalcy we were familiar with before COVID. But just because restrictions are dropping, doesn’t mean the virus is gone, so the push for vaccines is still a battle being fought on the frontlines.

News Channel 11 has been tracking the COVID-19 vaccination distribution effort across our region and has been following where our region falls in comparison to the state as a whole.

Over the past month, Northeast Tennessee has seen a 3.1% increase in people with at least one dose of the vaccine, whereas the state of Tennessee has seen an increase of 3.8%. In terms of people with at least one dose as of Wednesday, June 3rd, Tennessee as a whole reflects 39.5% of people whereas Northeast Tennessee is 38.4%– both statistics fall short in comparison to the United States 50.9%.

If Northeast Tennessee and the state continue to vaccinate at the current rate, eight weeks from now, Northeast Tennessee could jump from 38.4% to 44.6% of people with at least one dose.

That is a percentage of the entire population, but would likely put the adult percentage still well short of the Biden’s July 4th goal.

News Channel 11 reached out to the Northeast Regional Health Office regarding vaccination rates and was sent this statement:

“Tennessee is committed to vaccinating anyone ages 12 and above that is willing to receive the COVID vaccine but it is not the sole responsibility of the state government to support this vaccination effort. We have to rely on all vaccine providers and community advocates in the state to help spread the message that the vaccines are safe and effective. This is true for the Northeast region as well. It is critical that we continue to encourage individuals to receive a vaccine even as we see a decline in new cases. The COVID vaccine is our most effective tool in the continued fight to end the pandemic.”

-Kristen Spencer, Northeast Regional Health Office Spokesperson

Over in Southwest Virginia, the rates are comparable to those of Northeast Tennessee. According to the most recent data from Friday morning, Lee County remains last in the state in terms of administering first doses and the percentage of those who are fully vaccinated. As a whole, Southwest Virginia shows 39.4% with at least one dose of the vaccine, 1% higher than Northeast Tennessee.

Dr. Karen Shelton Director of the Mount Rogers and Lenowisco Health Districts recently spoke in a panel regarding vaccine confidence. When asked about the slowing vaccination rates across Southwest Virginia, she said at the current rate they’re going, they most likely won’t reach that goal until near the end of the year.

She said their demand for vaccines has rapidly decreased, moving from near 500 shots a day in recent months to now about 20 shots a day.

Dr. Shelton said her biggest concern for the unvaccinated population is current or new variants of the virus.

“If variants get into the area, they will spread so much more quickly and they’re sometimes harder to treat. So we really do want people to take it seriously that just because cases are going down, that doesn’t mean we can stop vaccinating,” she said.

Dr. Randy Wykoff, the Dean of ETSU’s College of Public Health, also expressed concerns regarding variants and another surge of the virus.

“We don’t have herd immunity, we’re going to see the virus continue to spread, as long as it spreads, it will continue to mutate, and nobody knows but it’s certainly possible that a mutation will become more lethal to more people,” Wykoff said. “It’ll be easier to spread, it might even avoid the immune system for those that are immune. So we still have to get vaccinated, that’s the most important thing,” said Wykoff.

As far as reaching the 70% one-shot goal, Dr. Stephen May, the Sullivan County Regional Medical Director, believes it’s attainable, just not by next month. “I think we’re in a position that we’re ready to accomplish it, it’s just is the public ready to accept it and receive the vaccine.”

Ballad Health continues on its mission to vaccinate the public and is doing so by hosting another family vaccine clinic Saturday. It will be held at the Unicoi County Hospital from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. and the vaccine is free and available for those 12 and up.

Although numbers across the region are low in terms of vaccination distribution, Dr. Amit Vashist, a Ballad Health senior vice president and the system’s chief clinical officer, is optimistic.

“There was a lot of vaccine hesitancy. I was actually expecting numbers to be a little less than what they are right now and I think over the past several weeks, we have picked up momentum,” said Vashist.

With more incentives and freedoms for the fully vaccinated, he believes we will see a slight increase in demands for vaccines once again and hopes strongly that is the case.

While cases have declined, the need to continue vaccinations across the region and the United States remains a priority. Without vaccination, health officials fear for the worst and the potential for another surge.

“Two of our counties, Washington and Unicoi, are above of the state average in the proportion of the population vaccinated, although the others are below the state average. It is unclear whether our current levels of vaccination would prevent a possible surge during the summer or fall,” said Dr. David Kirschke with the Northeast Regional Health Office.

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