Washington County reports one-third of active COVID-19 cases in northeast Tenn. region. Why?

Local Coronavirus Coverage

(TRI-CITIES) – As of Friday, Washington County reported the highest number of active COVID-19 cases in northeast Tennessee.

Even though Washington County reported a decrease in active cases on Friday (with 14 fewer active cases than reported on Thursday), the county still accounts for about a third of all active COVID cases in the region while accounting for about a quarter of the region’s population.

Data released from the Tennessee Department of Health indicated that Washington County accounts for about 33% of all the active cases in our seven-county region of the state. Washington County is reporting more than two times the number of cases as Carter County, which is reporting the second-highest number of active cases.

While Washington County is reporting a larger number of active cases than other counties, it’s also the second-largest county in our region, second only to Sullivan County in terms of size by population (according to 2019 U.S. Census data).

Once population is taken into consideration, Johnson County reports the most active COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by Carter County, placing Washington County with the third-highest active case count per capita.

Sullivan County, the county with the largest population, reports the lowest number of cases per capita at about 206 cases per 100,000 residents.

Test lags and the recovery rate

Where Washington County is reporting the highest number of active cases in the region, Sullivan County takes the cake for the most recoveries so far.

Of the 1,136 reported COVID-19 cases in Sullivan County, TDH is reporting that about 69% of those cases have recovered from the infection, while about 32% of Washington County’s cases are considered recovered.

As of data reported on Friday, Sullivan County is reporting about 22 recoveries per day, nearly twice the recoveries Washington County reports at about 13 recoveries per day. Other counties in the region report a fewer average of recoveries per day than Washington County.

Officials from both health departments gave identical methods for dictating that a patient has recovered from COVID-19, guidelines which are imposed by TDH. (Sullivan County is considered a metro health department and operates outside of the umbrella of the state health department).

Heather Mullins, the regional epidemiologist for the Sullivan County Department of Health, said that the guidelines TDH follows are derived from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC, people who test positive for the illness but never develop symptoms may discontinue isolation 10 days after a positive test.

People who have had symptoms must isolate for at least 10 days since the onset of symptoms and remain fever-free for at least 24 hours.

Mullins said that nationwide lags in COVID-19 testing posed its own host of problems for the Sullivan County Health Department. Such lags mean that in some cases, a positive COVID-19 test was reported as “new” and “recovered” on the same day by the TDH.

“If you have someone who develops symptoms on the 10th of July, they go and get tested on the 15th, and they don’t get their results until the 20th, by the time we interview a case they’ve already recovered,” Mullins explained, adding that daily data reported could reflect a “backlog” created by a lag in tests, which are in turn created by increased demand for testing.

Officials with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office, which services every other county in northeast Tennessee other than Sullivan, if contact tracers can’t get in touch with a patient, they are automatically marked as “recovered” after 21 days unless the patient dies from the disease.

Officials with the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office said that long turnaround times don’t affect the rate at which cases are marked recovered.

Increase in cases

Data indicates a heavier COVID-19 presence in Washington County than in Sullivan County throughout most of the pandemic.

Using a 14-day average of new cases per day per 100,000 residents, Washington County reported higher levels of COVID-19 than Sullivan County on all but five days in the past five months.

For two consecutive weeks (from July 27-August 9), Washington County, on average, reported close to twice as many new cases per capita per day as Sullivan County.

While both counties reported about a 66% increase in cases in that same time period, Washington County reported, on average, higher trends of new cases per day in that two-week period.

As of August 14, Sullivan County reported 30 new cases, 17 recoveries and one death for a total of 12 more active cases to add to the county’s existing 326 cases reported on Thursday.

Washington County reported nine new cases and 23 new recoveries to yield a decrease in overall active cases (14 fewer cases than reported on Thursday).

*All metrics are based on data reported by the Tennessee Department of Health on August 14, 2020.

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