Vaccinations remain the best tool to fight COVID-19 as cases surge across the state, Tennessee Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Monday. More than 90 percent of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Tennessee are among the unvaccinated, and 90 percent of hospitalizations are, Piercey told reporters.
“The vaccine is the single best tool we have to fight COVID-19,” Piercey said.
Driven by the delta variant, cases in Tennessee have surged from a few hundred per day about a month ago to an average of almost 1,900 per day. Following the increase in cases, hospitalizations have risen from a few hundred at one time to more than 1,000 now. They haven’t been that high since February, after the winter peak in December and January, Piercey said.
“That is clearly the wrong direction,” she said.
She said the vast majority of those who are in the hospital, 90 percent, are unvaccinated. The unvaccinated make up even higher percentages of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in Tennessee: more than 93 percent of new cases and 95 percent of deaths.
Piercey said there has been a sharp uptick in cases during the past several weeks and a 204 percent increase in just the past week. Tennessee currently has a seven-day average of 1,871 new COVID-19 cases per day, and the statewide positivity rate is more than 13 percent, which is high.
Piercey said there are cases all over the state, and they are mostly the delta variant, which is reported to be more transmissible and affecting more younger people. The spread of the delta variant mirrors what is happening across the United States, and it could account for 80 percent or more of new cases in Tennessee, Piercey said.
The spread of the new variant started in Memphis and Shelby County, which are close to Arkansas and Missouri. Missouri has had a significant surge in cases, especially in areas with low vaccination rates. Now, there is no area of Tennessee that is immune to the delta variant, Piercey said.
She said there are no signs that the upward trajectory in cases could slow. It’s possible there could be a slowdown based on what has happened in other countries with the delta variant, but there is no guarantee, Piercey said.
As the number of cases have gone up, vaccinations have also increased. Piercey said they have risen 22 percent in Tennessee, from 62,000 per week to 76,000 per week. She said 94 of 95 counties in the state are seeing more vaccinations week-over-week. Vaccinations appear to have gone up in Anderson County.
Still, only about 43 percent of Anderson County residents are fully vaccinated and, on average, about 40 percent of Tennessee residents are.
Piercey addressed what are known as “breakthrough infections,” infections among people who have been vaccinated. She said there have only been 1,600 breakthrough cases among 2.7 million vaccinated Tennesseans. That’s compared to about a much higher rate of 900,000 COVID-19 cases among the roughly 6.8 million Tennessee residents since the pandemic began March 5, 2020.
“Breakthrough infections are rare, and when they do happen, they’re generally not serious and rather mild,” Piercey said. “Vaccination is the single best tool we have to prevent COVID-19 both in ourselves and in our community…If you’re vaccinated, you are almost never going to be in the hospital or to die if you get infected unless you have one of those high-risk conditions.”
Piercey said 80 percent of breakthrough infections in Tennessee affect people 65 years old and older. Piercey said older people and immunocompromised residents might want to take additional precautions.
She said the filling of the hospitals is different than it was in February. Hospitals are having significant workforce and staffing issues and are also facing unusual summer conditions of having patients, especially children, with RSV and the flu.
With some parents and school staff members asking for face masks in schools, Piercey said face mask decisions are up to local school boards. She said the “day of big government mandates is over” across the country. Every employer, person, and community can make its own decision, Piercey said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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