Positively revealing: Spiking positive COVID test rates an important indicator

Local Coronavirus Coverage

A chart showing increases in COVID testing positivity rates in select areas over the past month.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — It’s right there in black and white. The region’s high population-adjusted new COVID-19 case numbers are nearly matched by the rising trend in positive test results among those who are tested.

Ballad Health’s Jamie Swift

“It’s concerning that we have such high positivity rates in our region right now,” Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said Thursday as the hospital system grappled with its highest caseload of COVID-positive patients since the pandemic began.

“We know that that means there’s a lot more virus circulating than we really even know about.”

Sullivan County’s 7-day percentage of positive tests stood at 17.96 percent Thursday. That’s Northeast Tennessee’s highest rate, it’s nearly double the county’s rate of a month ago, and it’s close to double the state of Tennessee’s current rate.

According to figures provided by Johns Hopkins University, the national rate Thursday was 6.3 percent. That site showed Tennessee’s rate at 9.5 percent and Virginia’s at 6.1 percent.

The rate for Ballad’s 21-county market area Thursday was 14.4 percent.

The numbers aren’t much better in Northeast Tennessee’s other six counties than they are in Sullivan, and only Johnson County has seen its rate decline over the past month.

Swift and the head of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health both told News Channel 11 Thursday that combined with other available data, the positivity rates point to a community spread that threatens to spiral out of control.

“If you don’t change how you test over time and your numbers are going up, which they are now, and that is supported by increased hospitalizations, then what you conclude is we are seeing a rise in the pandemic in our area at this time,” Randy Wykoff, dean of ETSU’s College of Public Health, said.

ETSU College of Public Health Dean Randy Wykoff

Wykoff cautioned against reading too much into positivity rates in isolation. But he said their current levels certainly show there’s not sufficient knowledge to back away from the kind of testing participation that’s been in place.

That’s particularly true as the world waits on a vaccine, even if that means the raw case numbers rise as public health officials and others tackle important mitigation tasks like contact tracing.

“That’s really the best we have right now,” Wykoff said. “If you combine testing, contact tracing, quarantine isolation with great attention to wearing masks, avoiding crowds, social distancing that’s – those are the best tools that we have. So certainly the more testing we do the better off we’ll be.”

Swift said the near doubling in positivity rates puts the lie to any argument that increases in average new daily cases are simply the result of more testing. And she too called for continued high testing rates, if not even increases.

“If we have that many people testing positive we know that there’s people that are asymptomatic that are not getting tested that are probably spreading the disease,” Swift said.

“It’s concerning that in this region that it’s taken off like it has, and so every indicator is telling everybody in our region look COVID is here, COVID is actively and rapidly spreading, we have to adjust our behavior to get through this section of this pandemic.”

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