Without mask mandate for a month, is COVID-19 worse in Hamilton County?

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey urges members of the community to get vaccinated at the grand opening for the new Save-A-Lot at 2300 Dodson Ave. on Sunday, April 25, 2021.

Hamilton County has gone without a mask mandate for a month now, and COVID-19 cases continue to trend down, thanks in large part to the availability of highly effective vaccines.

The county averaged 27 new COVID-19 cases per day over the past week, as of Friday, compared to an average of 49 cases per day in the week the mask mandate was lifted on April 28.

However, the number of coronavirus patients hospitalized in the county has hovered around the same levels as the weeks in late June 2020, leading up to when the mask mandate was implemented on July 10.

As of Friday, there were 35 confirmed coronavirus patients in Hamilton County hospitals and three COVID-19 patients awaiting test results.

Dr. Carlos Baleeiro, pulmonologist and medical director of critical care at CHI Memorial Hospital, said that he's still treating patients with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit, but those patients are much younger than they were earlier in the pandemic. Those same patients have also not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

"Every new ICU admission we've had has been somebody who has not had any of the immunizations," Baleeiro said. "The very first waves, we saw a lot of people over the age of 60, 65, in their 70s and 80s, who would come in very sick. We're now seeing people in their 40s, and sometimes a few even younger than that."

He can't say for sure why COVID-19 ICU patients these days are so much younger, but he suspects that it's because many more older adults have been vaccinated, and younger people are also more likely to think they don't need to be vaccinated and engage in riskier behaviors.

Vaccination rates in Hamilton County are highest among ages 71-80, with at least 79.4% of that population receiving at least one dose, followed by those age 81 and up, with at least 72.4% having received at least one dose, according to the latest data from the Hamilton County Health Department. By comparison, only 42.1% of Hamilton County residents age 31-40 and 32.9% of those age 21-30 are vaccinated.

In addition, Baleeiro said even nursing home residents who haven't been vaccinated are more likely than the general population to have acquired immunity to COVID-19 through previous infection, since their close quarters living environment makes them much more susceptible to coronavirus infection.

"So we're seeing a shift in demographics to the people who were not in the first waves of vaccination or may have some vaccination hesitancy, and we're seeing much younger people in the ICU," Baleeiro said.

Of those who are hospitalized, the majority of patients - 21 out of 37 - continue to come from outlying counties. Those surrounding counties never implemented mask mandates and most have lower vaccination rates than Hamilton County.

Meigs County is the only county in the Southeast Tennessee region that has a higher vaccination rate than Hamilton County. As of Friday, 42.6% of Meigs County residents had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, compared to 36.4% of Hamilton County residents.

Grundy County has the lowest vaccination rate in the region, with 19.4% of its population receiving at least one dose of vaccine and 16.6% of the population being fully vaccinated, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

The number of new people seeking COVID-19 vaccinations has tapered off significantly in recent weeks.

As of Friday, an average of 701 doses were administered in Hamilton County in the past week, compared to an average of 5,025 doses the week of April 11.

Despite the decline, Hamilton County's vaccination rate is still higher than the state as a whole.

The most recent data shows 41.2% of Hamilton County residents have received at least one dose of vaccine and 36.4% have been fully vaccinated, according to the Hamilton County Health Department.

Statewide, 39.1% of residents have received at least one dose and 33.2% of residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.