Hamilton County reports COVID-19 spike while testing numbers remain lower than previous months

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse practitioner Anna Smartt, left, talks to students Isabella Puncochar and Matthew Stocks about how to self-administer the nasal swab at the testing center at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.

Health experts are warning the rise in COVID-19 cases, likely driven by the omicron variant, may represent an undercount of the actual spread of the virus as at-home testing becomes more prevalent or people avoid traditional testing locations.

On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 948 new COVID-19 cases, a single-day record. The county is averaging 311 new cases a day in the past week, a sharp increase from the start of the month when the county averaged 56 new cases a day. The increase in cases is occurring most sharply among unvaccinated residents, according to state data.

The county reported 124 hospitalizations with the virus on Wednesday, the highest single-day total since mid-October.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said in a news briefing last week the case counts will likely continue to rise, but people should look at trends in the data rather than specific data points since at-home tests are largely not reported to the state.

"We don't really know what the case burden is because there is a substantial portion of at-home testing now that is unreported," Piercey said. "That is going to continue, and probably increase in the future, which is another reason that daily reporting of numbers is really not that relevant anymore."

As of Monday, Hamilton County was averaging 730 new tests a day, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health. During the late-summer delta surge, the county averaged more than 1,000 new tests a day and during the surge last winter the county averaged more than 2,200 new tests a day.

Holden Young, communications manager for the Hamilton County Health Department, said in an email at-home tests have complicated data collection but some individuals who test positive with an at-home test are still reaching out to the county's COVID-19 hotline for help.

"It would be best if the health department accurately knew how many tests are being done and how many of those are positive, but it is more important that people know their results and can isolate as recommended," Young said.

The county health department is still providing free at-home PCR tests from its headquarters on East 3rd Street but is currently out of the rapid antigen test kits, mirroring the nationwide supply issues for the test kits.

(READ MORE: Tennessee faces omicron surge with 'extremely scarce' supply of antibodies, other COVID-19 treatments)

Nationwide, areas with the greatest number of new COVID-19 cases are largely clustered in the Northeast and upper Midwest. The record for total number of new infections reported on a single day in the United States was broken this week, with 441,278 reported, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC data estimates the omicron variant accounts for 59% of new cases in the United States.

Health experts are still working to determine whether the omicron variant causes more severe illness than the original coronavirus or the delta variant, which caused a surge in cases and deaths in late summer.

The initial evidence out of South Africa, where the omicron variant was first detected, looks to show the variant has more mild outcomes, said Jeffrey Shaman, professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University, during a Dec. 17 expert panel hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The critical issue is whether the infection hospitalization rate and the infection fatality rate are lower for omicron than they were for the other variants," Shaman said. "If so, that works to our benefit. However, because it's so transmissible and capable of apparently infecting people who've been vaccinated or previously infected, we may see a real spike in cases very rapidly over the next four to six weeks in the U.S., just as they've seen in South Africa and they're now seeing in the U.K. and other places."

(READ MORE: Tennessee nears 21,000 COVID-19 deaths after state review finds 2,700 additional fatalities)

Having a large population of unvaccinated individuals means a greater likelihood that some of those people could get very sick or die from the virus, Piercey said.

States in the Southeast trail the national average of vaccinations per capita. Tennessee ranks 40th in doses administered per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data.

"Even if this is a milder variant, when you have a lot of unvaccinated people and a very highly transmissible variant, you're still going to have some individuals with very severe disease," Piercey said. "There have been reports that omicron may be four, five, up to 10 times more transmissible or contagious than delta. We really don't know the real number yet, but we know it is an order of magnitude more contagious and therefore will infect many, many more people."

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this report.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.