After experiencing a sharp decline in February and March, Northeast Tennessee’s reported COVID-19 infections began trending upward again last month, with the region’s seven-day average of new reported cases more than doubling from May 1 to May 21 — the most recent day for which data is available from the Tennessee Department of Health.

While the increase is marginal compared to the rapid spread of infection seen in the region during the delta and omicron surges, Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said it serves as a reminder that the pandemic is not entirely over.

“We’ve seen an increase that’s very noticeable,” Swift said. “We know that that is only those who are coming into a provider for testing, so we know there’s a lot more that are testing positive on home tests, and so when we start seeing that increase it’s certainly just a reminder that COVID’s not over, that we are really back in a period of transmission, that people need to consider the things that they need to do to protect themselves.”

Northeast Tennessee was reporting a seven-day average of nearly 81 new cases per day as of May 21, more than double the average of 31 it reported in the week leading up to May 1. The seven-day case average is the highest its been since the first week of March, but remains well below the region’s peak of 746.6 during the delta surge and 1,309.4 during the omicron surge.

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Reported cases are also rising nationwide, driven by increased infections in the Northeast which began to level off this week, according to data from the New York Times. The Midwest also saw its rise in cases begin to dip this week, while infections in the West and South are rising steadily.

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Because of the prevalence of home tests, the results of which often go unreported, experts say it’s likely true case counts are significantly higher than reported totals.

“There’s various studies that for every positive test, there’s anywhere from four to 10 (positive) home tests,” Swift said. “We just have to do a really good job communicating that, yes, our reported numbers may still be lower, but we have to take into consideration what we know about the science and the data and understand that if we’re seeing an increase in testing at physicians office’s and hospitals and emergency rooms, then we know that there’s an increase in positive home tests as well.”

Hospitalizations — considered a better indicator of the pandemic than case counts at this point — are also increasing. There were 290 people hospitalized with COVID-19 statewide as of May 24, up considerably in the last month but also far below the totals seen in January and February. The Tennessee Department of Health reported 33 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Northeast Tennessee as of May 24.

That number is slightly higher than the total Ballad reported before it stopped reporting hospitalization data on April 18, data that included hospitalizations in both Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Swift said Ballad has seen an increase in hospitalizations recently, moving from around 20 to 25 people hospitalized with the virus to around 40 to 45.

“I do think that there’s a lot of credit to vaccine protection,” Swift said. “We know that it may not necessarily always prevent infection, but we continue to see that it’s keeping people out of the hospital.”

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