Low vax rates, large events, COVID ‘politicization’ all concern public health doctor as variant spreads into region

Local Coronavirus Coverage

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – COVID-19 case rates remain very low, but Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said several things still weigh on his mind as the Delta variant enters the region.

While still low, COVID test positivity rates nearly doubled in the seven-county Northeast Tennessee region based on a seven-day rolling average. That rate had dropped to a low of 2.5 percent the week to July 4.

In the week through Monday, the positivity percentage had jumped to 4.7 percent. Sullivan County’s rate had doubled — from 2.9 percent to 5.8 percent.

The virus’s health impacts are minimal right now, May told News Channel 11 Tuesday. Hospitals are in good shape, “but we see in the rest of the country that hospitals have become taxed once again in dealing with levels of disease.”

May said despite the still low positivity percentage, the increase “absolutely” concerns him.

“We’ve got schools coming back into session, and we’ve got lots of public activities that’s going on with large groups of people from all areas of the country, so we could be rapidly seeded with large amounts of disease circulating,” May said. “That is a concern.”

He added that low overall vaccination rates — 37.9 percent fully vaccinated in Northeast Tennessee, 39.8 percent in Sullivan County — increase the risk of serious health effects if the variant takes hold at any substantive level.

“Our vaccination rate’s only about 40 percent, and that’s abysmal in trying to turn this around,” he said.

Dr. Stephen May

Sullivan County is at 42.7 percent for people having received at least one dose. The U.S. rates are 48.0 percent fully vaccinated and 55.5 percent with at least one dose.

May said the vaccine is very effective, and that the Pfizer and Moderna “messenger RNA” vaccines have proven extremely safe.

“The J&J is also approved and has a very very rare complication, but still the risk (of contracting COVID) greatly outweighs the benefit,” he said.

See an extended interview with Dr. May below:

May says ‘politicization’ impacting vaccine campaign

The recent firing of a top Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) vaccine official, Dr. Michelle Fiscus, was allegedly linked to some state legislators’ taking umbrage at a TDH campaign promoting the vaccine to teenagers. Permitting some Tennesseans as young as 14 to get the vaccine without parents present was a particular sticking point.

But May said he believes the recent events are part of a trend that’s developed during the pandemic, one he said he opposes.

“It becomes a dangerous precedent when you allow politics to dictate a response to a well-known, now scientific disease with basic evidence that demonstrates what works,” May said.

“And we saw the tragic politicization of the disease first, then followed by political ramifications associated with masking and now I think it’s extended into the vaccination campaign. But as a physician, as a public health officer, my goal is to prevent as much disease as possible in every eligible age group that I possibly can.”

Vaccination rates for 12 to 15-year-olds are just above the state average in Sullivan County 17.3 percent to the state’s 16.9 percent. Washington County has the state’s third-highest rate at 23.3 percent, but Carter (9.8), Hawkins (8.1) and Johnson (7.7) all sit below 10 percent.

Sullivan County, Tenn. Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May is concerned about low youth COVID vaccination rates as the Delta variant reaches the area.

Kids may not usually get very sick from COVID, but May said they could act as conduits for the Delta variant.

“They’re highly social, highly mobile and with that and the infectivity of the Delta virus it’s almost inevitable it will spread through that group unless they’re vaccinated,” May said.

He said that variant is twice as infectious as the UK strain, which in turn was twice as infectious as the original Wuhan strain.

Those lower vaccination rates are likely to have a direct consequence, May said.

“We’re vulnerable to a major cluster or outbreak with increased disease because no one is really practicing safety measures much any more.”

A lot of people who are most vulnerable to more serious effects from COVID have been vaccinated, “but we’ve not prevented the circulation of disease, which still places them at risk,” May said. “The other concern is over a period of time we know that we’re going to see more variants, more changes in the disease and we really want to get on top of this before a variant figures out how to evade our vaccine.”

May said the health department and vaccination partners “keep trying to get the word out” about vaccinations. He didn’t suggest a magic bullet had appeared, and statistics certainly don’t point to one.

“As we see the delta variant move through I hope we have more interest in the vaccine and we will continue to make it as available as we possibly can. We’re continuing with our strike teams, we have vaccine available five days a week in both of our health departments in Sullivan County.”

May said he’s certainly not giving up.

“One in 574 Tennesseans have died from COVID-related illness. And it’s all preventable now,” he said.

“My goal is to get the vaccine into any arm that I can get it into. That is the story of our success.”

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