SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The community spread rate of the novel coronavirus in Tennessee surpassed the national average, with Northeast Tennessee’s case counts even worse.

Two months ago, the state’s case rate per 100,000 people for the entire length of the pandemic ranked fifth nationally at 13,000. Since the Delta variant surge emerged, Tennessee entered the lead with more than 16,000, passing North Dakota for the highest case rate in the United States.

Meanwhile, Tennessee has had the nation’s highest seven-day rate throughout the month of September.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that Tennessee’s case rates were fairly similar to the country’s average when looking at the seven-day rolling average of new cases per 100,000 people in mid-July. Tennessee, and more specifically, Northeast Tennessee, have since moved far ahead of the current national rate.

The CDC reported that Tennessee was not always so far ahead, but the Delta surge, matched with a low vaccination uptake, was a recipe for disaster. The graph below shows the number of new cases per 100,000 since the very beginning of the pandemic for both the state of Tennessee and the U.S.

Source: CDC

One local health expert called the news “tragic,” while one local lawmaker dubbed it “sad.” Both agreed it was preventable.

Sullivan County Regional Health Director Dr. Stephen May told News Channel 11 that there are several reasons why Tennessee, and especially the Tri-Cities region, is facing a deluge of COVID cases.

“One, with vaccine. We’ve had a very poor uptake of vaccine – we’re not the worst in the country on vaccine uptake, but certainly, we’re in the bottom 10% in vaccine uptake. The second was the premature lifting of a lot of our safety measures. So that includes developing a lackadaisical attitude towards wearing masks, and where all the politicization, and social revolt, or civil disability has come in regarding this is really tragic because it’s one of the key tools that we had to prevent spread particularly this Delta variant,” he explained.

A third variable, he mentioned, was the high infectability of the Delta variant.

“The ability to make young people sick has also changed the course of this pandemic. Before, with the first wave, we didn’t have to deal that much with the children and we felt safe with our children. Well now we’re seeing that it is infecting our children. Lots of children with hospitalizations, and with that, the children continue to be the reservoir that infects a lot of those who are at high risk,” May said.

May also said the vaccine is safer than most childhood vaccinations which people are required to have upon entry into public school in the U.S.

“Look at the real numbers and get a vaccine. They’re safe. We’ve given them out to well over 150 million different people, they’re safer than even the childhood vaccines that we give to our children. So now’s the time, and take care of your neighbor,” he said.

In reaction to the news, state Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) said he is disappointed.

“It’s disappointing and for most people, it’s our own fault, because we have few people getting the vaccinations. More people need to get vaccinated, it’s frankly that easy,” he said.

Lundberg told News Channel 11 that he would not support any kind of COVID-19 mandate – vaccine, mask, or otherwise.

“I really support common sense and common sense says, virtually every expert out there says the right thing to do is this vaccination, it prevents COVID or severely lessens it, dramatically, get a vaccine, and you know you wish you could mandate some common sense. Unfortunately, you can’t,” he said.

However, the Republican said he does encourage people to get vaccinated.

Speaking from experience, Lundberg said vaccinations work. He said because of his vaccination, he did not end up on a ventilator like so many others.

“I contracted COVID 11 days after my second shot, I was one of those breakthrough cases, but it was incredibly mild, I wouldn’t have even gone and gotten tested. My biggest complaint was, I spent more than two weeks at home and felt fine. That was the irritating part, but that’s a good thing. There are so many people, again we talk about 84 people right now today on a ventilator at a Ballad hospital. And the majority of them are not vaccinated. That’s just, that’s sad.”

Both Lundberg and May told News Channel 11 that those who remain unvaccinated should put politics aside and focus on science.

“I think those abysmal numbers are due to vaccinations, or lack thereof, and I hope people will take the step to go out and get a vaccination because you can do that people can do that today they can do it right now. They are out there, they’re available they’re at no cost. And I don’t see any reason why someone shouldn’t be,” Lundberg said.

May agreed, but he added that mitigation efforts, such as masking, keeping a social distance and staying home, have been ignored, even though the cases are at the highest they’ve ever been.

“Last December, we didn’t have good treatments. We didn’t have the vaccine. We learned from last December that mitigation efforts work. And so now we have the tools in our toolkit is just that. As a general rule, we have not deployed or implemented those tools very well,” he said.

Vaccines are the only hope our region has of digging itself out of the hole that this pandemic has become, May said. He warned the low vaccination rates could prove tragic in the future due to COVID-19’s rapid mutation rate.

“We know that 99% of deaths that are occurring right now, could have been prevented vaccine. We know that we could reduce our ICU census by greater than 90% if we have a vaccinated population. And the other unwritten thing that may or may not occur we don’t know yet – it occurred with Delta – they also developed a better strain. Well, we have to worry well, could there be development with these high numbers of replication, statistically, could we develop a strain that’s even smarter than our vaccine and or more infectious than even what we’ve got then. So therein lies the tragedy, both now and in the future,” May said.

Lundberg said that the hospitalization rates reported by the region’s largest hospital system were worrisome, prompting him to plead with his constituents to get the vaccine not only to protect themselves and their families but healthcare workers also.

“They can do that for themselves, they can do it for their family, they can do it for the thousands of healthcare workers that we’ve got, who are working literally tirelessly to do this, you know, and keep that in mind, I hope people will because when Ballad has 391 people who are patients for COVID-19, that is 391 who they don’t have time to deal with broken bones, who have potentially other injuries that are really severe, they just don’t have the capacity to deal with some of those. So think about those people as well,” he urged.

“I would like to be number one and a lot of things in Tennessee. This is not one of them,” Lundberg told News Channel 11.