By most metrics, the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia is at its worst ever, as numbers of new infections and hospitalizations surge locally and nationwide.
On Monday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 83 new infections and 98 total hospitalizations, with 27 of those people in the intensive care unit. After a streak of six days with at least 100 new cases a day, the county is averaging 133 new cases a day in the past week, a record that surpasses the worst numbers during the July surge.
The county is also averaging a 10.5% positivity rate on new tests in the past week, a rate higher than what the county averaged at any point in October.
The health department said Monday that 21- to 30-year-olds make up 25% of new cases and that areas such as Hixson, Ooltewah, East Brainerd and Soddy-Daisy are among the places seeing the highest case counts lately.
On Sunday, the nation reported 126,000 positive cases and more than 1,000 deaths, marking the fourth straight day of more than 100,000 new cases as the nation surpassed 10 million cases on Monday.
In Tennessee, the state reported more than 8,500 new cases between Saturday and Sunday, then announced 5,919 new infections on Monday. The Tennessee Department of Health issued a statement Monday saying the large number of new cases was due to a backlog that was cleared in its tracking system during a recent upgrade.
The department reported 1,543 people now hospitalized with the virus, part of a weeks-long increase.
Health officials in northeastern Tennessee said there are not enough nurses to fight COVID-19 inside its hospital system. More than 900 patients were admitted to area hospitals in the past eight weeks, said Ballad Health Chief Administrative Officer Eric Deaton. The health system wants to hire 350 registered nurses to meet local needs.
Rachel Harris, senior vice president and chief nursing executive at Erlanger Health System, said in a statement that Erlanger has the capacity and staff to meet the changing needs of the virus locally.
So far, the recent surge in new cases has not caused a major spike in deaths, as typically follows several weeks after a surge. August was the deadliest month for the virus in Hamilton County, killing 27 people, after the mid-summer surge.
The current spike may not be as deadly given that doctors have a better understanding of how to treat the disease and many of the latest infections are with children and young adults, groups less likely to develop serious or deadly cases.
Local officials, as well as leaders from the White House COVID-19 Task Force, have urged people to change their Thanksgiving plans in the face of the worsening pandemic. People are encouraged to celebrate with members of their household but minimize exposure with others. Hamilton County, among other area counties such as Walker and Whitfield counties in Georgia, is considered in the "red zone" for the spread of the virus, according to White House reports.
The White House task force has previously noted Georgia was not testing enough to understand the spread of the virus.
Whitfield, Gordon and Murray counties ranked among the top 10 counties in Georgia for highest growth rates of confirmed cases. The entire northwest region of the state — which includes Dade, Walker, Catoosa, Whitfield, Murray, Gordon and Chattooga counties — is considered a high transmission area, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Catoosa County is the biggest driver of new hospitalizations of non-Hamilton County residents, said Blaine Kelley, Erlanger Health System public relations manager.
Logan Boss, risk communicator for the Northwest Health District of the Georgia Department of Public Health, said indoor gatherings and student gatherings outside of school are key drivers of transmission in the area.
Chattooga County, Georgia, posted a 14.7% positivity rate in the past two weeks, Boss said. Walker and Dade counties followed, both with positivity rates of 11.4% in the past two weeks.
Despite grim projections of how the virus's impact could worsen in the winter, there is hope for treatments. On Monday, Pfizer said initial data on its coronavirus vaccine suggests the shots are 90% effective at preventing COVID-19. The data comes from a small sample size, but the early results drew praise from leading medical experts.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
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