Tennessee leads the nation in COVID-19 cases per capita since the start of the pandemic — as well as new cases over the past week — placing it at the center of the current coronavirus surge in the U.S.
As of Tuesday, Tennessee averaged 160 new daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over the past week, according to a state-by-state data analysis from The New York Times. That's a 78% increase in cases over 14 days.
The Times lists Sequatchie, McMinn and Bledsoe counties among the top 10 counties in the nation, averaging the most new daily cases per capita.
Neighboring Kentucky saw the second-highest number of new daily cases per capita in the past week, with an average of 118 new daily cases per 100,000 residents in the last seven days.
By comparison, the U.S. as a whole averaged 52 new daily cases per 100,000 residents in the same time period.
In addition to Tennessee and Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia are among the top 10 states in the nation with the most cases per 100,000 residents in the past seven days, according to the analysis.
Much of Tennessee's current case surge can be attributed to a record-high number of new childhood cases. Experts blame the highly contagious delta variant, combined with low COVID-19 vaccination rates. They also cite a return to in-person activities, such as school, without protective measures, such as face masks.
The analysis states that although Tennessee leads the nation in recent cases per capita, "after weeks of explosive growth, the rate of increase in new cases has started to slow."
Though new case increases may be stabilizing for now, Tennessee hospitals are expected to face several more weeks if not more of record-breaking COVID-19 patient loads. That's because an infection can take time to progress to the point of needing acute care, and some coronavirus patients spend more than a month in the hospital recovering.
Hamilton County hospitals, which treat patients from across the Chattanooga region, saw a record-high 372 COVID-19 patients on Monday, including a record 99 patients in intensive care.
Overall COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county fell to 344 on Tuesday. However, local hospitalizations have stayed well above the 300 mark throughout September. The previous record for hospitalizations in the county was 280 on Aug. 31.
Deaths because of the coronavirus are also seeing their sharpest increase since the deadly winter surge, with Hamilton County reporting at least 69 resident fatalities since the beginning of August, including three new deaths on Tuesday.
By comparison, Hamilton County reported a total of nine COVID-19 deaths in June and eight in July.
Coronavirus deaths across the United States are rising, as well, but hospitalizations and reports of new cases are starting to level off or decline, according to The New York Times.
"Around 1,500 coronavirus deaths are being reported across the country each day, the most since winter. More than 650,000 deaths have been linked to the pandemic in the United States," the Times reported.
The South has experienced the worst of the summer surge, while the highly contagious delta variant has so far had far less impact in some areas of the country, such as the Northeast and Upper Midwest.
Some Southern states that faced significant summer surges, such as Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi, are beginning to see their outbreaks ease.
While confirmed cases are an important metric to understand where and when the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening or improving, it's important to look at them alongside other metrics, because case counts are dependent on how much testing is taking place. Confirmed cases should be viewed as an underestimate of the true disease burden, since not everyone who's infected gets tested.
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.