Region also falling behind state in vaccinations
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Northeast Tennessee has yet to break out of a weeks-long trend of COVID case and test positivity rates higher than state averages.
A look at Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) data shows that’s impacting hospitalization and death numbers, too.
Over the past 14 days, the region’s “community spread” rate — average new daily cases per 100,000 population — has been nearly 40 percent higher than the state average. The rate of 18.8 puts Northeast Tennessee well into the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “highest risk” zone for transmission in schools.
That zone begins at a spread rate of 14.3. Tennessee’s overall rate of 13.7 is in the “high risk” zone.
“We’re still a hot spot,” Sullivan County Regional Health Department (SCRHD) Medical Directory Dr. Stephen May said Wednesday. “It still gives us concern and I think we need to follow this over time to see what is the real trend.”
The gap is even wider when it comes to COVID test positivity, due to the region testing at a rate almost 20 percent less than the state. Northeast Tennessee’s 14-day average positivity percentage is 9.9% — 80 percent higher than the state average of 5.5%.
The region had seen that average decline steadily from mid-January to late February and it nearly got down to 7 percent. It shot up in late March and has held steady around 10% for several weeks.
The rate puts the region right on the border of the CDC’s “highest risk” for transmission in that category. The statewide rate is in the “moderate risk” category, but many Tennessee counties are above 10 percent and the rate is brought lower by urban counties Davidson and Shelby, where testing is much more robust.
More hospitalizations and deaths per capita
The higher numbers are translating into higher rates of hospitalization and death as well.
Over the past two weeks, TDH has reported 50 new hospitalizations in the region. That’s a rate of 9.9 per 100,000 population — 55 percent above the statewide rate of 6.4.
Sullivan County, which has the state’s third-highest 14-day test positivity rate (13.4%) has an even higher hospitalization rate during the period — 13.9 per 100,000. An average of more than three hospitalizations per day have been reported in Sullivan the past two weeks.
While death numbers are far below what was seen during the devastating winter surge, they are also occurring at a higher per capita rate than the state.
The past two weeks have seen 2.6 deaths per 100,000 population. That is more than double the state average of 1.2. More than half those deaths occurred among Sullivan County residents. Sullivan County has about 32 percent of the seven-county region’s total population.
Vaccinations moving forward at snail’s pace
SCRHD’s May said vaccination remains the key to moving past the kind of infection and illness numbers that continue to impact the region — and there the news isn’t positive.
“Getting the vaccine out is our number one priority,” May said.
Tennessee ranks 45th among the states for the percentage of population that’s received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the CDC. Northeast Tennessee outpaced the state for weeks in that category.
In early March the region was 3.6% ahead of Tennessee, with 16.6% of its people vaccinated to 13.0% for the state. That gap shrunk slowly but steadily — even as the state remained in the bottom five nationally.
Two weeks ago, Tennessee’s percentage drew equal with the region’s at 33.6% and since then the state has vaccinated another 1.9% of its population. The figure in Northeast Tennessee is 1.5%.
May said that pace was nowhere close to satisfactory.
“As a public health officer you know the answer’s going to be no, and I’m not going to be happy until we’ve got at least 80% of the population completely vaccinated,” he said.
Public health officials and vaccine partners are still trying to adjust to reaching a large segment of the population that’s either hesitant about the vaccine, indifferent, or has issues with access even though supply is abundant.
“We need to mobilize our workforce into getting the vaccine out, looking at strike team methodologies, targeted delivery to those who are at most risk and high-risk,” he said.
He said that will require making the vaccine convenient, and “widely available from multiple sources.
“We’ve got it in pharmacies, we’re getting it into some urgent cares, but it’s got to be a routine vaccination when you go to your primary care doctor’s office for any kind of visit.”
May said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will play an important role in changing strategies due to its “one and done” nature and easier storage. Trying to put the J&J complications in context — the rate is less than one in a million — May said “you have a greater chance of getting hit by lightning than you do of having a complication from the single-dose vaccine.”