After over two months of steady improvement, key metrics used to track the Chattanooga region's COVID-19 outbreak have risen slightly over the past week.
Seven-day averages for new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Hamilton County have increased 11-12% from two weeks ago, while at the same time the amount of testing has declined and test positivity rate has increased to nearly 10%.
Hospitalizations show the starkest increase, with 72 confirmed and probable COVID-19 patients from across the region in Hamilton County hospitals as of Wednesday compared to 55 patients a week prior. Of those hospitalized patients, the number of Hamilton County residents has risen from 13 a week ago to 22 on Wednesday.
It's too soon to say if the upward trend is the beginning of another wave, but it's also likely too soon for the most recent COVID-19 data to reflect the impact of Thanksgiving holiday gatherings — which provide a prime environment for respiratory diseases to spread, especially among unvaccinated groups.
Public health officials expect COVID-19 cases to increase as the winter months draw more people to convene inside in potentially poorly ventilated spaces.
Bev Fulbright, epidemiology manager for the Hamilton County Health Department, said in an email that the department's most recent COVID-19 case reports include multiple days of test results due to the holiday.
"The Health Department reported 117 COVID-19 cases on Saturday, which included cases from Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On Monday, we reported 71 cases, which were cases from Sunday and Monday, and on Tuesday we reported 128 cases," Fulbright said.
New COVID-19 cases across Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama as a whole are on the decline. However, hospitalizations are rising in Tennessee, declining in Georgia and stable in Alabama.
Hospitalization increases remain one of the best indicators of the pandemic's severity since case counts are dependent on testing and because most people who are infected with the coronavirus don't require hospital care.
If the latest trends across the Chattanooga region hold, it will take even longer for the number of coronavirus deaths to spike.
The number of COVID-19 deaths across the region in November was the lowest in three months following the late summer surge of cases and deaths caused by the delta variant, with 142 people reported dead due to COVID-19 in a 21-county region surrounding Chattanooga.
Hamilton County reported 30 new deaths in November, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health. The county had the highest death total for the month compared to the 20 other counties in the region of Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama. The second-highest death total was in Bradley County with 24 virus-related deaths in November.
The regionwide death total was a fraction of the 351 deaths reported in September after the delta surge and 455 reported in January, the highest single-month total.
Nationally, new COVID-19 cases are relatively flat, but the force of the highly contagious delta variant — which ravaged the Southeast throughout summer and early fall — is now being felt in the Northeast and Midwest. COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise, and some health systems in places such as Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire have reached critical levels.
Unvaccinated people continue to account for the vast majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations in those states, according to The Washington Post.
The United States' first case of the new omicron variant, which has drawn worldwide concern due to its high number of mutations, was reported Wednesday in California in a traveler returning home from South Africa.
Researchers are scrambling to assess whether the new variant is more dangerous than previous strains, but not enough is known about omicron at this time.
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