JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — New COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue a steady rise in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, but so far data show fewer of those cases are leading to hospitalizations — and even fewer to severe illness and death.

The latest data from Ballad Health show the hospital system had 86 inpatients with COVID-19 Friday. That total is up 35% from 63 inpatients June 21 — part of a steady upward trajectory that began in mid-May.

The number of COVID hospital inpatients in Ballad Health hospitals has tripled since late April but remains low relative to much of the past year. (WJHL photo)

The inpatient COVID census is triple its total at April 22, when 29 patients were hospitalized with COVID, but remains far lower than it had been from August 2021 through mid-March 2022.

The BA2 strain of COVID’s Omicron variant proved to cause less severe illness, even among people who were hospitalized. That appears to be borne out in the number of Ballad COVID patients in intensive care (ICU).

Even as hospitalization numbers have risen close to in tandem with official case numbers, the percentage of hospitalized patients in ICU has been lower than during previous waves.

For example, 103 out 396 hospitalized Ballad COVID patients were in ICU on Sept. 17, 2021 in the midst of the Delta variant wave — more than one in four. On Feb. 8, when Ballad COVID hospitalizations were at their all-time peak of 454, 92 of those patients — more than one in five — were in ICU,

The portion of hospitalized COVID patients who end up in ICU is lower during the recent wave than it has been in previous ones. (WJHL photo)

So far this late spring and early summer, ICU patients as a percent of the total haven’t reached more than one in seven. And Friday, the six patients in ICU represented just one out of every 14 hospitalized.

Case numbers — all relative and not as useful as before

Dr. Randy Wykoff, the dean of East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health, has stressed throughout the pandemic how hospitalization and death numbers are more reliable indicators of COVID’s impact than case numbers are.

That has become even more evident since the massive Omicron wave last winter and the widespread availability of at home tests. Whatever numbers show up on state health websites like the Tennessee Department of Health’s (TDH) undercount the true number of cases, as many people test at home and don’t report results, either positive or negative, to the government.

Washington County, Tenn.’s COVID-19 case rate has steadily increased the past two-and-a-half months. (WJHL photo)

Those realities aside, TDH data show a clear and steady rise in case rates and test positivity that began in mid-April and has yet to reach its peak. Using Washington County as an example, the reported seven-day rate of new cases per 100,000 population increased sixfold in the two-and-a-half months from April 23 to July 9.

That rate was 39, among its lowest since early summer 2021, on April 23. It more than tripled from then to May 28, when it was 136.

The rate of growth slowed over the next three weeks, increasing by 24% from May 28 to June 18. But over the last three weeks (June 18-July 9), the case rate increased by 40%.

Even after more than two months of increases, the seven-county Northeast Tennessee case rate of around 235 is still lower than it has been through most of the past year. The only periods it has been lower (officially) are mid-October to mid-November 2021, its lowest point after the Delta surge, and mid-July to early August 2021, when it was climbing rapidly as the Delta surge took hold.

The percent of tests that are positive, meanwhile, has gone from 8.2% in late April to 19.0% in late May, 24.7% June 18 and 31.1% for the seven days from July 3-9. The last week saw a big jump from the previous one, though, with Washington County increasing from 21.9% to 31.1%. Sullivan, Hawkins and Greene counties also saw significant jumps in test positivity the past week.

Test positivity percentages in the region have nearly quadrupled since late April and are higher than at any point other than the peak of the Omicron variant in January and February. (WJHL photo)

Those positivity percentages are among the highest ever experienced — exceeded only during the height of the Omicron surge between early January and late February of this year.

People are still dying of COVID

COVID-19 death statistics can be tricky to interpret. It is often at least a couple weeks after a death that it gets recorded and published by TDH.

Nonetheless, the data of the past few months show a couple things: Some people are still dying from COVID (or when they have COVID), and the percent of COVID-positive people who die appears to be among the lowest it’s been yet.

In the 11 weeks since April 23, a total of 34 new COVID-19 deaths have been reported across the seven counties. Sullivan County has had the most at 11, followed by Hawkins County’s eight, Carter County’s six and Washington County’s five. Greene County has reported three more COVID deaths, Johnson County one and Unicoi County zero during that entire 77 days.

To put those numbers in context, there was not a single 7-day period in January and February of this year that didn’t have at least 31 deaths recorded. The same was true from mid-August through mid-October. Even at the low point of deaths before Delta, in May and June of 2021, 35 deaths were reported over nine weeks, a higher rate than the past 11 weeks.

Over the course of the pandemic, Northeast Tennessee counties of over 50,000 people continue to have some of the highest COVID death rates per capita in the state.

Carter County (606 COVID deaths per 100,000) and Hawkins County (583) are one-two among Tennessee’s 18 counties with populations between 50,000 and 100,000. Greene County (549) ranks fourth in that category.

Of the 13 Tennessee counties with more than 100,000 people, Sullivan and Washington rank highest and second-highest in COVID death rates. Sullivan’s 735 deaths equal 464 per 100,000, and Washington County’s 504 deaths work out to 390 per 100,000.

The United States average is 306 deaths per 100,000, and Tennessee’s rate of 392 is the sixth-highest in the nation.

The official COVID death total for Northeast Tennessee is now 2,483. Tennessee’s total is 26,772 and the United States has now reached 1,018,578 official COVID deaths.