ABINGDON, Va. (WJHL) – Southwest Virginia is following Northeast Tennessee into a COVID surge replete with serious illness, and one public health official said the consequences were predictable.

“What we’ve been saying to the community for months is that we were concerned that if we got a surge we were going to see hospitals and our population hit really hard because we are so undervaccinated,” Mount Rogers Health District Population Health Manager Breanne Forbes-Hubbard told News Channel 11 this week.

Breanne Forbes-Hubbard

As case rates began increasing in mid to late July, Forbes-Hubbard said officials in her health district and others in Southwest Virginia — Cumberland Plateau and Lenowisco — were concerned. They knew hospitalization and death rates might be worse there than in parts of Virginia with higher vaccination rates.

Almost 57 percent of Virginians are fully vaccinated, compared to just 39 percent of Southwest Virginians. Adjusting the state rate downward to account for unmapped vaccinations still leaves it at 52.5 percent, far above the region’s level.

As the delta variant has surged, the percentage of hospitalized COVID patients who are unvaccinated has typically been 90 percent-plus.

Ballad Health was predicting high hospitalization numbers as a result, Forbes-Hubbard said.

“We really hoped it wasn’t going to be the case, some of Ballad’s modeling we hoped wasn’t going to pan out, but it really unfortunately is.”

Cases also continue surging, and though the seven-day “community spread” rate is only about 60 percent of that in Northeast Tennessee, at 369 per 100,000 population, it’s more than 50 percent higher than Virginia’s rate of 241.

“Today we saw the highest number of cases internally, more than entire month of June,” Forbes-Hubbard said of the Mount Rogers district, which includes Washington and Smyth counties in the News Channel 11 viewing area.

“It’s just an exponential rise and that is just a direct result of the fact that our population’s so undervaccinated that they’re vulnerable to this more contagious version of COVID 19.”

Forbes-Hubbard said data is showing that not only are vaccinated people “far, far less likely to be hospitalized, get seriously ill or die,” but they’re also not contracting the virus at nearly the rates of unvaccinated people.

Public health districts still pushing vaccinations, mitigation

Forbes-Hubbard said the health districts, Ballad and others have had some success with vaccine events, especially at businesses.

Businesses that support vaccination are hosting repeat clinics and she said “more and more employees are getting vaccinated.”

She also said a local community member who was hospitalized has proven an effective advocate for vaccination, and that those numbers have ticked up somewhat the past few weeks.

This graphic shows the rate of COVID-19 community spread in Virginia and Southwest Virginia on July 30 and August 27. The rate has increased much more quickly in rural Southwest Virginia, where the vaccination rate is much lower.

“I think some people are seeing some personal stories and see this hit close to home in ways that maybe they didn’t before.”

But prior to this surge, the low uptake has extended even into community outreach workers with the health department. She said some “were a little hesitant to get the vaccine, wanted to hold on, wanted to wait a little bit, see how things went.”

Several of those employees changed their minds after contracting COVID themselves, she said.

They “realized that this is definitely very serious and now are out advocating in their community for COVID vaccines and protection strategies.

“So I think sometimes when people have that close call, that person encounter with themselves or a loved one it makes them really realize how substantial this is.”

She’s hoping that will extend to eligible school-aged kids. As it has in Northeast Tennessee, the current surge has seen a higher percentage of children contracting the virus than earlier in the pandemic.

“This past week looking at our vaccine numbers we saw the biggest growth, albeit very small growth, among 12 to 15-year-olds getting their first dose and being fully vaccinated,” Forbes-Hubbard said.

In the Mount Rogers district, 25.8 percent in that age group had at least one dose and 18.7 percent were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.

She said despite the “very substantial increase in the number of pediatric cases,” she believes a statewide school mask mandate is helping control the spread in schools to at least some degree.

“This is a proven strategy in our region that’s worked, it worked last year, and it’s going to help this year too,” she said. “We expect to see more cases just because of the increased transmissibility of the delta variant, but we know that the masks are going to be protective.”

Forbes-Hubbard doesn’t have data on compliance within the schools. But she said she believes most people affiliated with school systems have “a good understanding of the reason why we have to do this and how it’s helping prevent quarantines and helping keep kids in school.”

She called the current situation in the region “frustrating and sad.”

“We all hoped that we weren’t going to be back here again as bad is it was in the winter, and we said, ‘well we have vaccines now and hopefully it will be better.’ But we’re so undervaccinated that it’s looking like it might be worse with the hospitalizations.

“It’s so frustrating and so sad that we’re here because we don’t have to be here. We didn’t have to be in this place and we don’t have to be in this place, and the power to stop it is in our community’s hands.”