Health experts warn of potential threat of a new COVID-19 variant reaching the Tri-Cities region within 4-6 weeks

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Local health experts offered News Channel 11 a projected timeline for the twice-as-infectious Delta COVID-19 variant to reach the region.

Doctors across the Tri-Cities region are asking those who are unvaccinated to get the shot because they foresee a wave of the new COVID-19 Delta variant that could overrun hospitals again.

“We actually have a number of events coming together that could create a potential for a perfect storm,” said Dr. Stephen May of the Sullivan County Regional Health Department. “First, we’ve got the Delta variant, which is twice as infectious as the Alpha variant or United Kingdom strain. And we’ve only got about 40% of our population vaccinated, which is a critical piece to that infectious number that we can potentially see.”

May warned late-summer activities could boost the potential spread of the new variant.

“We have school starting back on August 2. We have a race coming up. We’ve also got Fun Fest and Rhythm and Roots with large gatherings of people, and of course, we’re not seeing a lot of the safety precautions that we had in the past, being observed. So the potential for spread is quite great. We also recognize that the delta variant is twice as infectious, or easily transmitted as compared to the United Kingdom strain which was twice as infectious in character as compared to the native Wuhan strain,” May said.

May explained that there are only two mechanisms to achieve herd immunity.

“One is widespread random disease and we’ve seen what that did back in December, and I hope we never forget about the levels of illness and death that we were experiencing. Then we also learned, at that time, what it takes to control the disease we know, respiratory viruses can be controlled using appropriate distancing and masking. So, we know what works and now we’ve got the other tool in our toolbox which is the vaccination piece, which also brings us much more quickly to the herd immunity time status,” he said.

He added that he believes the Delta variant will spread through our area within 4 to 6 weeks.

“I anticipate that we will see Delta variant move through our region. I don’t think we’ll see the numbers of illness that we saw from back in December, basically because a large portion of the population did have the disease, and 40% of our population has at least received the vaccine, great news is the vaccine works on all of the areas, thus far,” May said.

Dr. Amit Vashist of Ballad Health told News Channel 11 that the hospital system will plan ahead as much as possible in anticipation of the potential wave.

“I think at Ballad health and as several other health systems across the country we have been through waves, some health systems went to two or three plates and balance. We went through at least a couple of waves, where our hospital census rose very high to a level where our resources got stretched, and then we were able to take care of anyone and everyone who got admitted to the hospital but it did take a toll on us as healthcare caregivers, nursing staff, in terms of resource utilization and of course, unfortunately, when people get hospitalized with COVID-19 Some of those cases get serious and unfortunately many of those people die,” Vashist explained.

He added that the severity of the illness surrounding the new Delta variant seems to be worse than with the other strains.

“Delta variant of course, as folks know, or have seen is one of the most contagious and severe variants of the Coronavirus COVID-19 virus, which basically means that it is easily, much more easily transmissible from one person to another, and if they get it, chances of getting a severe illness, which may result in a hospitalization, increase correspondingly. However, what we also know is that the vaccine – especially the mRNA vaccines – work against the variants, and vaccines offer us one of our only hopes to get out of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Vashist said.

He added that he urges the local unvaccinated population to get the shot.

“So, our area has not had the most robust uptake of vaccinations. And I think, on behalf of valid health and as a practicing physician my appeal is to anyone and everyone is to take the media and seriously take the pandemic seriously. And if you haven’t had immunization for COVID-19 Please go ahead and schedule,” he said.

Vashist explained how the Delta variant “mutated” and what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

“I think with viruses like COVID-19, and several others, there is a natural tendency for the virus as it goes from one human body to another to constantly change or what we call ‘mutate.’ So I think what is happening is very natural, but here is what we as a community can do: If the virus does not have a body that is vulnerable, it will not be able to go in there and infect and change the data itself. Mutation by itself is a natural consequence of viruses going from one human body to another. But vaccinated human body does not provide a vehicle for viruses to reproduce. So that’s why we keep on harping on getting people vaccinated as soon as we can,” he said.

The Tennessee Department of Health reports that as of July 24, the state had 27 cases of the Delta variant. Local doctors see that number rising soon.

“Looking at the surrounding states, looking at some states that have high rates of transmission, and they all want to say, we are not protected by a little imaginary border drawn on a map,” Dr. May said.

As the summer draws to a close, Dr. Vashist had some advice to those looking to enjoy the seasonal activities.

“I think this is summertime people are planning activities traveling, picnics, and then the schools are going to open, so we would advise anybody and everybody who’s planning to travel that at all public places, you know, please keep on wearing your masks. It’s very important with your own planes and airports, all those places. Please also refer to CDC guidelines about particular places if they are virus hotspots, so do your planning beforehand,” he said.

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