Southwest VA public health leader concerned, not surprised at recent uptick in COVID cases

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Like they did last fall, Southwest Virginia’s COVID case rates have risen several weeks after an uptick in neighboring Northeast Tennessee.

New variant, earlier spike in Northeast Tennessee both seen as factors in rise

MARION, Va. (WJHL) – When COVID case rates reversed and started rising in Northeast Tennessee in early March, the numbers stayed flat across the state line in Southwest Virginia.

Dr. Karen Shelton wasn’t harboring any illusions, though. The director of the Mount Rogers Health District had seen the same thing happen in the late fall — the rural region’s numbers staying relatively low as Northeast Tennessee’s increased.

“Tennessee was open faster than Virginia for many different steps along the way and when Tennessee’s cases began ramping up, generally speaking after three to four weeks, sometimes six we would see this mirrored in Virginia’s cases,” Shelton said Monday.

The conversation occurred after a reprise of the fall. Tennessee’s case rates had started rising around March 8. Southwest Virginia’s, after bumping along at a significantly lower rate than Northeast Tennessee’s began ticking upward 20 days later.

Since March 27, the “community spread” rate for eight Southwest Virginia counties in the News Channel 11 viewing area — a seven-day average of new daily cases per 100,000 population — has risen 57 percent, from 11.5 to 18. It reached 18.9 Saturday.

Dr. Karen Shelton

“We’re stable from last week but it is up every week since the end of March, and we know even this week we’ve had effects of spring break, we are seeing more outbreaks in the schools, we have had some outbreaks in churches as a district throughout,” Shelton said.

Shelton said the uptick in Tennessee almost certainly isn’t the sole cause. She said the new, more transmissible UK variant is also a factor, as are some larger-than-recommended gatherings in Southwest Virginia that have contributed to some outbreaks.

“We do know and are concerned (about) this increase in transmissibility particularly with having a little bit more of those teenagers and that 20 year old group becoming positive,” Shelton said.

But the frequent border-crossing by people from both states — to work, shop, visit and play — is hard for Shelton to overlook. For one thing, she said, the patterns tend to show a rise earlier in the counties closer to Tennessee.

Data studied by News Channel 11 seem to bear that out. As of Saturday, the community spread rate in Southwest Virginia was significantly higher in the border counties of Smyth, Washington and Scott than in Wise, Russell, Lee, Dickenson and Buchanan counties, which are further from Northeast Tennessee’s urban centers.

A recent rise in cases has impacted Southwest Virginia counties bordering Northeast Tennessee’s Tri-Cities — Washington, Smyth and Scott — much more severely than counties further from Kingsport, Bristol and Johnson City.

Those averages were 25.6 in Smyth, 29.2 in Washington and 25.2 in Scott counties.

The next-highest rate, in Russell County, was just 14.0. Lee, Wise and Buchanan all stood between 10 and 12 and Dickenson’s rate was just 5.0.

“We have a lot of people here that work in Tennessee and a lot of people in Tennessee that work in Southwest Virginia and we know that (are) going back and forth,” Shelton said.

“And quite honestly Tennessee has a lot more opening even right now as far as their ability to gather and do things, and we know that a lot of people from Virginia go to Tennessee just to do things.”

Younger age group getting sick doesn’t guarantee less impact

For most of the pandemic, Shelton said the age group posting the highest case rate has been people in their 50s. That’s changed recently, with a disproportionate share of cases being seen in teenagers in young adults.

Despite the lower rates of hospitalization among that age group so far, Shelton’s not convinced this mini-wave — if it stays small in numbers compared to the fall and winter surge — will be without some tragic results.

“We can hope, but we’ll have to watch and see,” she said.

“I know when we look at the Ballad Health System numbers we were down in the 60s just a few weeks ago and now we’re over 120.

“That’s not good news, and I think they are seeing a shift to younger people in the hospital and that’s very concerning.”

She said that the new variants have so far not been proven to have more severe health consequences than the original COVID strain. Even if that holds, though, she said the scenario now is grimmer than it was a month ago.

“If you have more people getting COVID than you had before there’s gonna be consequences and whether or not the severity bears out we will have to see. I don’t think we can take anything for granted.”

“I know that youth feel that they’re invincible, but I don’t think that they should feel that COVID is nothing, and to be trifled with, and I think we should all take all the precautions we can to keep ourselves safe.”

Shelton said she very much understands people’s yearning to get past the constant vigilance about COVID. And she doesn’t shy from discussing the downsides of a more vigilant approach like that deployed by Virginia.

“We also have to look at the effects of isolation,” she said.

“We know that our drug overdose deaths are up. We know that suicides are a concern. We know that children not being in school full time is a concern for learning. We know people economically have been devastated by not having full time work.”

When the pandemic is largely in the rear view mirror, Shelton said she’s convinced no one will be standing in a position where it’s legitimate to do much finger-pointing.

“There’s a lot of pros and cons to this whole thing,” she said.

“No one’s gonna come out smelling like roses after this. It’s a difficult year and difficult times to come. I think we just need to make the best of it, work together as best we can, try to uplift each other, try to respect each other in what we do — and the simple measures that we can do that have far-reaching consequences are what we need to concentrate on.”

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