Why are COVID-19 cases rising again in Northeast Tennessee? Health experts explain | WJHL

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – More Northeast Tennesseans are being vaccinated against COVID-19 every day. So why is the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests still pushing upwards in Northeast Tennessee?

“In Tennessee, just over 20 percent of our population has received one dose. A lot of estimates for herd immunity are 60 or 70 percent of the population being immune. So, we still have a long way to go,” said Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office.

After falling for several months, Northeast Tennessee’s 14-day average of new daily COVID cases began rising again in early March and is up more than 70 percent since March 8.

Vaccinations aside, health officials list other reasons for the case rise. That includes spring break travel and the return of larger gatherings, leading to transmission especially among younger age groups.

“You’ve got the combination of younger age groups that are more likely to meet in social circumstances, more likely to be in large crowds, more likely to go on spring break. And also less likely to have been vaccinated. So that’s a risky combination,” said ETSU College of Public Health Dean Randy Wykoff.

The numbers reversed themselves in early March after a long decline that started in late December. The peak then was over 600 new daily cases — reached Dec. 20.

That figure plummeted through January, then dropped more slowly but still steadily into early March. Vaccinations were going in arms and people began to feel hopeful about the trend.

But after hitting a low of 71.79 on March 11, the 14-day average of new daily cases has steadily risen. It was 103.79 Wednesday — a 44% increase in less than three weeks.

The test positivity percentage — an indicator of unchecked community spread when it’s above a certain percentage — has also ticked up sharply the past month.

Regionally it was 7.5% on March 1 and 12.4% Monday. The rise in Washington County has been even more severe, up from 7.2% Feb. 28 to 18.2% Wednesday.

That rate was the state’s second-highest, while Carter County’s 14.8% ranked fifth among the 95 counties and Sullivan County’s 14.3% was seventh.

The percentage of people tested who do have the virus is also up significantly from a low point around the first of March.

Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift says many new cases are among younger populations.

“We’re really seeing new cases really between that 40 to 69 age group, is a significant chunk of the new cases. Certainly the 10 to 20,” she said.

Swift said it’s now especially important for younger adults and teenagers to be vaccinated.

“Healthy teenagers, healthy young adults, who may not think that they really need vaccine, but I think the data is showing that it’s really important that we get this group of people vaccinated,” Swift said.

The region’s 14-day average of new daily hospitalizations began ticking back upward recently as well. After bottoming out just below two March 11, it had risen by about two-thirds to stand at 3.36 Monday.

Health officials are adamant the pandemic isn’t over.

“So we still need to keep wearing masks, we still need to avoid crowds. But that doesn’t mean all of our businesses have to be shut down. At the same time, it doesn’t mean we can go back to everything being normal the way it was,” said Wykoff.

Health officials also point to more transmissible COVID-19 variants as a cause for the case rise.

“We know they’re here. We know they’re spreading in this region,” said Swift.

Kirschke said the California and Brazil variants have been detected in the state. So far, one case of the United Kingdom variant has been officially confirmed in Northeast Tennessee.

“Our best tools for us to get back to normal are vaccinations and currently following those public health recommendations to decrease transmission,” said Kirschke.

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