Region’s new COVID cases dropping, vaccination rates outpace state – hospitalizations, deaths still elevated

Local Coronavirus Coverage

As vaccinations slowly roll out, Northeast Tennessee has seen a steep decline in its 14-day average of new daily COVID cases.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Anita Sewell is anxious to rejoin her church family and begin enjoying working out and playing Scrabble at the senior center, but the 81-year-old Johnson Citian is taking no chances until she gets a COVID vaccination.

Sewell isn’t sure how long she’ll be waiting after she called the Washington County Health Department a week ago to check on getting vaccinated. She said her doctor’s office told her that was the best option for her.

“They said I’m in a line of about 6,000 people and it might be three weeks, and we still don’t know about having the product,” Sewell said in a Zoom interview from the home she’s rarely left since last spring.

Anita Sewell, left, with a friend (before COVID) at Grandview Christian Church.

Sewell’s experience shows that despite outpacing the state in vaccinations administered, Northeast Tennessee remains far from meeting demand.

And while new case rates have dropped sharply the past month to less than half their level when they peaked Dec. 20, they remain around the national average. Hospitalization and death rates — both lagging indicators — haven’t yet followed suit in the region.

Vaccination rates very strong, but it’s all relative

Reports from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) and the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) show the News Channel 11 viewing area continues to outperform those respective states in the percentage of population vaccinated so far.

Through Jan. 18, Northeast Tennessee had seen 7.20 percent of its population get at least the first dose of vaccine across seven counties. That was more than 60 percent above Tennessee’s statewide rate of 4.46 percent.

Washington County actually ranked third among Tennessee’s 95 counties at 9.35 percent and Sullivan ninth at 8.12 percent, while no other county of more than 100,000 people was in the top 25.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), meanwhile, reported Tennessee ranked 21st among the states for first dose administered.

In an eight-county, two-city region of Southwest Virginia, first dose vaccination rates are even further ahead of the state average, though from a lower baseline.

Across eight counties and two cities, the vaccination rate is 5.64 percent. That’s more than 70 percent higher than the statewide rate of 3.29 percent.

Virginia ranked 37th among the states in the CDC’s Thursday report on first doses.

Sore arms sorely needed

The head start in the vaccination race is a bright spot in a region that’s experienced COVID deaths in outsized proportion to its share of each state’s population.

The 14-day trend of new daily reported deaths and hospitalizations have stayed at elevated rates the past two months. Southwest Virginia’s death trend rate, in fact, reached its all time high Wednesday and then exceeded that Thursday.

Recent trends in new cases, though, offer a glimpse of hope provided they’re not the result of too little testing.

Tennessee’s 14-day trend of average new daily cases has plummeted since reaching its high Dec. 20, when it equaled 119 new cases per 100,000 per day.

Thursday, it was at 55 new cases per 100,000. That’s its lowest point since Nov. 18.

While one expert wondered last week whether that could be due to lowered testing totals — and positivity percentages had reached their highest point yet, over 27 percent, in the week ending Jan. 3 — those positivity rates dropped sharply in the week to Jan. 17.

Though still high, the rate of 17.5 percent was the lowest since the week ending Nov. 15.

The new case trend in Southwest Virginia isn’t as good. The 14-day case rate shot up there beginning Dec. 4. It peaked Dec. 17, declined slightly, then rose again to hit a new high equivalent to 84 new daily cases per 100,000 on Jan. 9.

It has declined since then but at 61 new daily cases per 100,000 is currently higher than Northeast Tennessee’s rate.

Positivity percentages were well above 20 percent in Southwest Virginia through the holidays but also have fallen off into the teens.

Lagging indicators still causing suffering

Science is showing that hospitalizations lag new cases by an average of about 10 days. Deaths lag new cases by a range of around 20 to 25 days.

As a result, relief from higher death rates from the case decline that began just before Christmas wouldn’t be expected in Northeast Tennessee before around January 10. So far, there hasn’t been a steady decline in the death rate.

Rather, it’s stayed mostly in a range between 6 and 8 since early December. Thursday, a recent decline from more than 8 to 5.36 — the lowest level since Dec. 3 — was erased as 20 reported deaths pushed the average back up to 6.36.

Southwest Virginia’s trend has been following the spike of cases that appears to have finally ended in early January. The region’s 14-day death rate trend has climbed steadily through January.

It started the month just below 3 reported deaths per day. Thursday, it reached a new high of 4.86 deaths per day, a climb of about 60 percent since the month began.

Southwest Virginia’s 14-day trend of new daily hospitalizations marched steadily upward through most of December. It declined slightly in late December but then surged further, reaching a high of 13.14 Jan. 16.

It’s fallen back to 10.71 new hospitalizations per day since then, but that is still double the rate the region was at following Thanksgiving.

Northeast Tennessee’s hospitalization rate is much lower — but it has begun to creep back upward the past two weeks.

That rate fell all the way from a high of 15.57 new hospitalizations per day Nov. 26 to a low of 4.43 Jan. 6. Those numbers actually didn’t seem to accurately reflect the steady rise in new case rate through mid-December.

And in the past week, even as case rates have fallen, hospitalization numbers have headed back upward, reaching 7.21 Sunday and again on Thursday.

With people in Anita Sewell’s age range suffering the worst outcomes when they contract COVID, she said she’s content to stay socially distanced until she gets vaccinated.

She said her church family and one of her children and their spouse have kept her from feeling too isolated. But she’s definitely hoping the call back from the health department comes sooner rather than later.

“Once I feel safe it’ll be wonderful to go back to church, it’ll be wonderful to go to the senior center, to exercise and play Scrabble with my friends,” she said.

Using all seven tiles in one Scrabble turn, in addition to being impressive, gets players a 50-point bonus. V-A-C-C-I-N-E.

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