JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Health officials already knew the UK variant of the COVID virus transmitted more easily. Now they’re finding it appears to make young COVID patients sick enough for hospitalization at a higher rate than the original strain.
“What we are seeing here locally is a younger population and at the same time a higher percentage of them that are requiring ICU care,” Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels told News Channel 11 Friday.
That, he said, “suggests that it is more aggressive toward a younger population, particularly in that 40 to 50 year old age range.”
COVID’s recent disproportionate spread among a younger population was already well documented. Ballad Chief Infection Control Officer Jamie Swift said the higher level of vaccine uptake among older adults — and their earlier access — helped create that gap.
So was the fact that the B1.17 strain, or so-called UK variant, has become a dominant cause of COVID regionally.
“When you have community spread, you’ve got the variant spreading and you have less people vaccinated in that age range they are driving the cases right now,” Swift said.
Runnels said the average age of COVID hospital admissions and discharges was 67.7 in November and 67.9 in December.
In April, it was 59.4.
He said Ballad clinicians, those from private practices in the region and health department officials all told hospital system leadership early in the spring that “the virus is behaving differently.”
It was a clear hint the UK variant was overtaking the original Wuhan strain, as it’s 50 percent more infective, Runnels said. Contact tracing also bore that out.
“There were more people who were contact traced who actually turned positive and ended up coming in the emergency department and hospitals than what we were seeing in the fall,” he said.
Longer pandemic, more chance of mutations both possible without greater vaccine uptake
Both Runnels and Swift wasted no opportunities to beat the drum for more vaccinations. Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have similar rates of first-dose uptake — and those are running nearly 10% below the national average.
They said two likely outcomes will result if areas like this one continue falling further behind in vaccination rates — they’ll suffer a higher proportion of cases and they’ll provide the virus a greater opportunity to mutate.
Swift said pandemics end, whether through natural immunity or through vaccine.
“The quick way to end the pandemic is to get the vaccine coverage, slow the spread that way,” she said.
“If we just let the virus continue to burn through the community it will last longer, more lives will be affected and there is that potential for change in the virus.”
Runnels said huge outbreaks like the one in India cause the highest level of concern about continued changes in the virus. But as gaps widen here, higher case rates could persist.
Northeast Tennessee has had consistently higher case rates and test positivity percentages than the state as a whole for well over a month now.
Runnels said the “peaks and valleys” that have occurred in COVID spread over the past year will likely continue until herd immunity is reached.
“That’s why we’re so in on vaccines and why they’re so important and why we continue to encourage them because the quicker we can get people immune the quicker we see those peaks and valleys of the surges go away and the more likely we are to see the death rate stay very low.”
The number of Northeast Tennesseans getting a first dose of vaccine each week has plummeted since it peaked at more than 15,000 the weeks ending March 26 and April 2.
It dropped below 10,000 the week ending April 9 and in the weeks since has fallen to 8,300, 6,414 and 3,891.
Swift said the many “vaccine partners” — including health departments, Ballad, physician groups and pharmacies — have vaccine “for anyone who wants it” and are working to make it convenient to get.
“We’re doing everything we can to make it easy for people and so that’s the encouraging part of this. Every dose that we give gets a step closer to the end.”