JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – New COVID-19 cases more than doubled in News Channel 11’s Southwest Virginia viewing area this week from the previous week, but are two-thirds the rate in Northeast Tennessee.
The trend matches those during previous waves of increasing COVID cases that occurred in the spring, last winter and last summer.
“Normally after Northeast Tennessee begins to surge we do begin to see a surge in Southwest Virginia,” Mount Rogers Health District Director Dr. Karen Shelton told News Channel 11 Friday.
The overall nine-county region’s seven-day average case rate per 100,000 population is 76.7 as of Friday. That puts the region in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) “substantial transmission” zone of 50 to 99 weekly cases per 100,000.
“We are very concerned about the rise of cases in Southwest Virginia,” Shelton said. “We do know that the delta variant is present.”
The delta variant’s transmissibility leaves Shelton thinking the current surge will bring case rates higher than they rose during a short spring surge. She said those cases were mostly from the less transmissible alpha variant.
“This delta variant is more serious and more contagious than the alpha variant that we had back in March and April, so I would anticipate based on those things we’ll have faster spread, we’ll have higher numbers than we had in the spring and it may last a little longer,” Shelton said.
She certainly doesn’t expect the current surge to match that of the winter, particularly given the number of vaccinated people.
“But we are very concerned. We don’t want to go back to the place where our hospital resources are almost outstripped and people can’t get medical care for other needed issues.”
Shelton said evidence has begun showing the delta variant isn’t just more transmissible, but also more severe in its illness.
“We are seeing that our younger population who is unvaccinated is sicker. We are having more hospitalizations in the younger population than we have previously, so we are very concerned about the effects of the delta variant in our community.”
Northeast Tennessee’s rate as of Thursday was 123.2, putting it in the “high transmission” zone of 100 or above. This week the CDC recommended mask-wearing indoors for anyone, vaccinated or not, in counties with substantial or high transmission.
Four Southwest Virginia counties remain in the “moderate transmission” range of 10 to 50 — Tazewell (44.3), Russell (37.6), Lee (38.4) and Dickenson (34.9).
Wise (125.7) and Washington (107.8) are in the high range, with Scott (78.8), Buchanan (71.4) and Smyth (59.8) at substantial transmission.
Some early delta cases were brought on by travel but Shelton said the variant has now taken hold in the community. She said the region’s low overall vaccination rate heightens her concerns.
“We are very concerned because our schools are starting soon in Southwest Virginia.”
Virginia has strongly recommended masking in schools from the state level, she said.
“We are waiting to see if there will be any further guidance from the governor or Virginia Department of Health as we go forward.”
Shelton said health leaders don’t want to see concerns raised to a level that could bring economically damaging restrictions such as restaurant capacity limitations.
“We’re not looking to do that, but we would like people to be considerate regarding their masking and most of all we encourage people to get vaccinated,” she said.
“We do know that the vaccine is safe and effective and will help prevent disease and will help prevent the spread of disease, and the only way that we’re going to be able to continue our functioning in our normal lives.”
Shelton said officials in Southwest Virginia are seeing “a small increase in interest in the vaccine.” She said that’s been pronounced among youth 12 and up. Even if they’re exposed to a COVID-positive person, vaccinated people don’t have to quarantine — unlike the unvaccinated.
“We are seeing a nice increase in our school aged children who are eligible to be vaccinated and we hope that other people will continue to get this message that we do have the delta variant, your health is at risk and you should get vaccinated for your own safety.”