2021 COVID-19 death toll in Hamilton County exceeds 2020 due to delta variant, low vaccination rate

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County health care workers check in a Hamilton County resident for a vaccination appointment at the COVID-19 vaccination site in the Tennessee Riverpark on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Updated COVID-19 mortality data from the Tennessee Department of Health reveals that September 2021 - the height of the delta surge that affected on average younger and predominantly unvaccinated residents - was the deadliest month of the pandemic for Hamilton County so far.

Though the coronavirus still claimed more residents' lives in the four months from November 2020 to February 2021, with 358 deaths occurring during that time frame, 315 Hamilton County residents died during the four months from August through November 2021, when the delta variant drove record-high hospitalizations across the region.

In September 2021, 141 Hamilton County residents were killed by the virus, according to the updated data. December 2020 is now the second-deadliest month on record, with 111 fatalities, followed by January 2021 with 108 deaths.

The updated mortality data that came in the final weeks of 2021 and into the new year were a result of a year-end audit conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health that shored up reporting inconsistencies and backlogs, according to Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey.

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

Prior to the updates, roughly 71 COVID-19 deaths had been reported in Hamilton County in September 2021, according to data tracking by the Times Free Press.

The new figures reveal that nearly as many people died during the county's delta surge as in the entire year of 2020, which saw 317 reported COVID-19 deaths in Hamilton County.

In total, COVID-19 deaths in Hamilton County increased 85% in 2021 compared to 2020, with 587 deaths reported during the second year of the coronavirus pandemic - a year that for some began with celebrating the arrival of life-saving vaccines and ended with a record-breaking case surge fueled by an even more contagious variant better able to infect those who are vaccinated on top of a return to many in-person activities with few safety precautions.

Vaccination continued to provide strong protection from hospitalization and death due to COVID-19 throughout 2021 regardless of new variants, with unvaccinated residents accounting for 87% of hospitalizations and 86% of deaths in Tennessee, according to the state's most recent COVID-19 critical indicators report.

With widespread access to vaccines, 54% of Hamilton County residents have received at least two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna shots or a single dose of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department. Nationwide, the figure is 62.6%.

(READ MORE: COVID-19 hospitalizations increase in Hamilton County as record surge of new cases continue)

Piercey, the health commissioner, told reporters in late December the fast-paced nature of health data reporting will inevitably result in lags, particularly in terms of COVID-19 deaths, which require a more complicated reporting and review process.

"The delta surge was about 10 or 12 weeks ago, with the peak of deaths in the delta surge in mid-September. So a lot of these, 70 plus percent of these, are just the normal run out of all of that reporting that is just now getting caught up," she said at the time.

The Hamilton County Health Department notes on its website that the end-of-year increase in COVID-19 deaths "resulted in these additional deaths being identified," and that the backlog largely coincided with the delta surge.

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

photo Staff photo by Troy Stolt / A Hamilton County resident waits to get vaccinated at the COVID-19 vaccination site in the Tennessee Riverpark on Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. It's been a year since COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Hamilton County.