The highly contagious delta coronavirus variant has been reported in Northeast Tennessee, officials from both the Northeast Regional Health Office and Sullivan County Regional Health Department confirmed on Thursday.
“Oh yeah, delta variant is being found all across the state,” Dr. Stephen May, medical director for the Sullivan County Regional Health Department, said when asked if they had found the variant in Sullivan County. “We have confirmed positive lab results in Sullivan County.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the delta variant is now the predominant strain in the U.S., accounting for 51.7% of new infections (compared to 10.1% four weeks ago) — overtaking the alpha variant that spread throughout the nation earlier this year. The alpha variant, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, now accounts for just 28.7% of new infections.
Statewide there have been at least 27 reported cases of the delta variant, a likely undercount as there isn’t widespread genetic testing of virus samples. The Northeast Regional Health Office, which oversees seven of the region’s eight counties, confirmed at least one case, while May did not say how many Sullivan County has seen thus far.
The delta variant, first identified in India, is estimated to be 50% more transmissible than alpha, which was already 50% more transmissible than the original strain of COVID-19.
It’s not clear if the delta variant causes more severe illness, though early research suggests it might, particularly in those who haven’t been fully vaccinated. For those who are fully vaccinated, the vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death, but may offer decreased protection against mild illness.
“I’m extremely concerned for our unvaccinated populations,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad Health chief infection prevention officer. “To this point, I think some have felt that false sense of security that they’ve made it through without infection, but I’m really trying to get the message out any way I can that if you’ve not been vaccinated you’re more at risk now than ever before.”
Tennessee has only fully vaccinated 37.7% of its population, with about 42.2% at least partially vaccinated. Northeast Tennessee has fully vaccinated 37.4% of its population, though demand continues to fall with 34.8% fewer people getting a shot over the past two weeks compared to the previous two.
And while the region is unlikely to see the explosion in infections, hospitalizations and deaths that it saw over the winter, it’s likely the region will see an increase in infections in the coming weeks and months, particularly as students return to classrooms and large-scale events continue. May said once the virus gains a foothold in the region, it will become the dominant strain.
“With our low rates of vaccination, it certainly could set up for a cluster or outbreak within our region,” May said. “I don’t think we’re going to see anything like we saw back in December, but certainly there’s still a lot of people that are susceptible who have not been vaccinated, and it poses increased risk for them.”
May went on to say now is the time to seek the vaccine, and that once the variant starts circulating widely in the region it may be too late.
“It’s almost a little late once you have delta variant circulating widely — getting a vaccine in the middle of it, you may not be able to mount enough immunity to protect you,” May said, asking those who won’t get the vaccine to at least continue following public health guidance.
Swift said her concern for the region is “pretty high” as the variant arrives while large events will be taking place — even those held outdoors, as the delta variant may be able to spread outdoors better than other strains.
“I think people just need to understand it really is, at this point, a race between delta and vaccines,” Swift said. “I do not think we will reach numbers that we reached in December and January in this region — I don’t expect 400 patients to be in the hospital in the next month or so. I do expect numbers to go up, and what that means is those aren’t just numbers, those are lives of people in this region.
“There will be deaths, and those deaths are preventable.”