JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The COVID-19 “community spread” rate has dropped much more slowly in Northeast Tennessee than the state as a whole the past two weeks — and is 54% higher than the state rate currently.
New case rates, Ballad Health hospitalization numbers and COVID test positivity percentages all have stalled over the past week and are almost identical to what they were a week ago after having fallen steadily since the wave peaked in mid-September.
The region’s test positivity rate is 70% higher than the state’s and its seven-day population-adjusted rate of deaths is about 70% higher than the state’s.
Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Dr. Stephen May said the region has “trended higher” than the state through much of the pandemic in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
But he said a recent stall in the case and hospitalization declines as the region emerges from the worst of the delta variant surge concerns him.
“We know that it’s becoming endemic within the community and that’s why it’s so important that we continue to push our vaccinations.”
The rolling seven-day average of new cases per 100,000 population has declined 9% statewide over the past week, falling from 110 to 101. In Northeast Tennessee, the rate has increased from 154 to 157 over the same period.
Masking, distancing now mostly ‘courtesy measures’
May said while most people in most locations have the option to mask or not mask, current rates aren’t down to the level public health officials say is advisable for ditching the masks and social distancing in public.
“Certainly when we get our cases down below 5% positivity rate and we can get our (7-day) case numbers down to less than (70) per 100,000, I think that’s a good time to consider relaxing,” May said.
The weekly test positivity percentage in Northeast Tennessee Friday was 10.4%. That means both the recommended numbers are less than half the current regional figures.
While stressing vaccination as the primary key to better COVID numbers, “we know that that works,” May said of masking and distancing.
“There’s no doubt about it. We also know that these mitigation measures are also effective for almost any of the respiratory diseases. We’re heading into the respiratory season.
“We anticipate possibly a flu rebound this year since there was zero flu last year and so these are good safety and what I’m gonna call courtesy measures that we need to exercise for those who are at most risk.”
Half again as bad – or more
Johnson County has the state’s highest current spread rate, at 484. Greene’s rate of 220 ranks fifth-highest among Tennessee’s 95 counties and Washington, Sullivan and Hawkins counties rank 12th, 15th and 16th respectively.
In most all metrics, the region now posts significantly worse numbers than the state.
Over the past week, the region’s COVID test positivity rate of 10.4%. The state rate is 6.0%, which is nearing the 5% or below threshold that public health experts says signals a better handle on community spread.
The elevated case rates are continuing to impact COVID deaths on a population-adjusted basis as well.
While the region’s death numbers have dropped recently, the seven-day rate of deaths per 100,000 is 4.0 in Northeast Tennessee compared to 2.3 statewide.
Since Aug. 1, 409 Northeast Tennesseans have died of COVID-19 — more than a quarter of the pandemic total of 1,507.
All waves end and this one will
Even if vaccination rates stay low and other mitigation measures are practiced by fewer people, May said the delta wave is on a downward trajectory.
“I think we will continue to decline and improve but it’s really important that we go ahead and get now our children vaccinated, those 5 to 11 as soon as we can, and continue with our vaccination campaign,” May said.
And he said both those factors — vaccination rates and mitigation measures — will influence the angle of that trajectory.
“But the danger lies in protection against a new variant and reducing those case rates to keep that variant from emerging,” May said. “That’s the biggest danger that we deal with now.”
No variants of concern have gained much traction as the delta surge has waned – yet.
“I think delta really had the best infectious advantage and as such has moved quite readily through the community, however, we do know the vaccines are fairly protective against infection and highly effective against preventing hospitalization and death.”
May said he’s excited about the new vaccine eligibility for 5-to-11 year-olds. But he believes the region could have ridden through the delta wave with far less damage than it’s endured.
“It’s discouraging as a physician and public health official in that much of this last wave could have been prevented with higher vaccination rates and better safety activities.”