Johnson County schools hit hard as county’s COVID-19 case rate hits highest mark in state

Local Coronavirus Coverage

(WJHL) — New COVID-19 cases have spiked in Johnson County recently to the highest rate in the state — and it’s showing in the county’s school system.

Friday, the county’s rolling seven-day average of 484 new cases per 100,000 put it far above any of Tennessee’s 94 other counties and nearly five times above the state rate.

A surge of new COVID cases has sent Johnson County’s community spread rate to the highest level among Tennessee’s 95 counties.

While most area school systems’ “COVID dashboards” show small fractions of their students in quarantine, it’s a different story at Johnson County.

Also Friday, 16.1% of the system’s 2,033 students were absent due to COVID-related factors. That included 271 in quarantine, many of whom Superintendent Mischelle Simcox said would return after the weekend, and 57 “active cases.”

Nearly half of those out for quarantine and more than half the cases were at Johnson County Middle School, where 110 were quarantined and 31 active.

“We have seen an increase at the middle school, but it has been an increase over time,” Simcox wrote in an email response to News Channel 11.

“The results were just reported at the same time,” Simcox wrote. “We do contact trace and have seen several positive cases come from students who are on quarantine. These cases are not affecting school system capacity and a majority of them are set to come back on Monday.”

The numbers certainly represent a surge compared with other area school systems, many of which had major COVID outbreaks in August.

With roughly four times the enrollment, Johnson City schools had 28 positive cases and 29 quarantines Friday — only 0.7% of its enrollment. Carter County, which does not report quarantines, showed four active cases.

Kingsport showed one new student case and three new staff cases for the week of Nov. 1-5, while Sullivan County showed 12 new students cases over the same period. Neither reported quarantines.

Simcox said Johnson County “fogs” its buildings daily as part of its mitigation measures. She also wrote of intense cleaning protocols throughout the day, the presence of air filtration systems in every unit, and extra custodians who are helping with cleaning.

County has region’s lowest vaccination rates

Johnson County has one of the state’s lowest COVID vaccination rates and the lowest in Northeast Tennessee’s seven-county region. Just 34% of Johnson Countians have at least one dose, with Carter County second lowest at 35.4% and the region at 50.2% in that category.

That disparity also holds true for the 12- to 15-year-old and 16- to 20-year-old age groups.

With only 18.7% of its 12- to 15-year-olds at least partially vaccinated, the county is at less than half the rates of Washington (46.0%) and Sullivan (37.9%) counties. It’s also well behind Unicoi (32.7%) and Greene (29.7%) counties.

The state rate is also almost exactly double Johnson County’s rate, at 37.6%.

In the older adolescent age group of 16-20, the county is at 29.6%. That’s almost as much as the rates in Hawkins and Carter counties but still far below Washington, Sullivan and Unicoi, all in the mid-40s. The state rate in that age group is 43.3%.

The county has ranked either first or second for community spread — new weekly cases per 100,000 — for the past 10 days. Its rate more than doubled from Oct. 20, when it stood at 170 and was ranked 36th among Tennessee’s 95 counties.

As of Friday, five of Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties ranked in the top 16 for community spread and the region itself had a rate more than 50% higher than Tennessee’s. The other counties were far below Johnson, though, with Greene fifth-highest statewide but at 220.

Washington County ranked 12th but had a rate less than a third of Johnson’s, at 146.

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