The uptick of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Hamilton County over the past two weeks is nearly identical to last summer's uptick, despite more than 40% of county residents being fully vaccinated.
The trend in Southeast Tennessee is playing out across the nation and has the attention of researchers like Jeremy Kamil, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Louisiana State University in Shreveport.
"That's very concerning considering the amount of vaccine that's been given and the fact that we are now in the summer," Kamil said. "What's ironic is that we are looking at a peak that's very similar to where we were 365 days ago."
Nearly all of the mitigation measures in place in 2020 are gone — mandated face coverings, limited occupancy for indoor settings, expanded unemployment benefits to aid those who lost their jobs — so people are congregating more freely. At the same time, large-scale events like music festivals, indoor dining and sporting events are back, many with full capacity.
Communities across the U.S. are contending with the delta variant of COVID-19, a mutation that is highly contagious and may cause more severe illness than the original strain, according to internal documents from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made public Thursday by The Washington Post.
On Friday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 134 new infections and 83 people hospitalized with the virus. The county is averaging 113 new cases a day in the past week. A year ago, the county was averaging 107 new cases a day over a seven-day period and reported 90 people in the hospital on July 30.
Speaking during a recent Erlanger Board of Trustees meeting, Dr. Jay Sizemore, an infectious disease specialist at Erlanger Medical Center, said it is frustrating to see trends move in the wrong direction right as the possibility of removing some mitigation measures was near.
"We are now feeling the effects of the delta variant both in Chattanooga and at our hospital — significant increases in cases over the last two weeks," Sizemore said. "We were essentially down to a handful of cases — less than five — in the hospital, and that's more than quadrupled over the last two weeks."
The increase in numbers is concerning for researchers like Kamil because, across the country, there is less of an emphasis on testing.
"The fact that people are sick enough that they're going to get a coronavirus test, and we're seeing as many cases now as we did a year ago, despite the vaccine, that's a little bit alarming," he said.
Before this week, the county was averaging fewer COVID-19 tests each day than at any other point in the pandemic after testing became widely available. During the first week of July, the county averaged fewer than 300 new tests a day. At the same time last year, the county was averaging more than 1,000 new tests a day, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.
As of Wednesday, the county was averaging a positivity rate of nearly 21% on new tests in the past seven days. At the start of the month, when the county was testing nearly half as many people as the end of the month, the average positivity rate on a given day was around 4%, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Health.
The delta variant may still infect people who are fully vaccinated, known as breakthrough cases, and those vaccinated individuals could still pass along the virus to others, which is why public health organizations from the CDC to the Hamilton County Health Department have renewed calls for universal masking indoors and in large groups of people.
However, health officials have emphasized the rare breakthrough cases are not a reason to avoid getting vaccinated. The available vaccines nearly ensure anyone who is fully vaccinated and later exposed to COVID-19 will not face serious illness or death.
As of Thursday, 43% of Hamilton County residents are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.
Mary Lambert, director of Chattanooga's Office of Community Health, said vaccines are being offered in a variety of venues, from the downtown library on Monday afternoons to neighborhood block parties on weekends, and a variety of times to ensure everyone has access. The process is slow and includes getting accurate, evidence-based information out to the public, she said.
"Offering these sites wherever we can, even if we only get three or five individuals vaccinated, that's still three or five more individuals than were vaccinated before," Lambert said. "It's slower progress than we'd like to see, but it's still progress. Our challenge is what else can we do to continue that progress and increase the numbers who get the right information and make the decision to have the vaccination."
Until the area can get to 70% of the population fully vaccinated, mitigation efforts like physical distancing, wearing masks and washing hands will continue to be important, Lambert said. On Wednesday, the Hamilton County Health Department announced it was recommending masks for all individuals regardless of vaccination status when indoors. The city closed all its community centers on Tuesday after outbreaks at several facilities.
The renewed outbreak of cases and trends moving in the wrong direction is undoing much of the progress the nation made in the early parts of 2021. People are not getting vaccinated and not taking the virus seriously at a time when the U.S. was so close to essentially ending the pandemic, Kamil said.
"It's like a fire, dying, and we're throwing tinder and kindling on it," he said. "It's just as the pandemic is starting to smolder, we're pouring gasoline on it. It doesn't make sense to have people indoors, crowding, at large events. You're tempting fate."
Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.
Contact Wyatt Massey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.