Johnson County COVID-19

A woman exits a grocery store in Mountain City, Tenn., wearing a face covering on Friday, Aug. 7, 2020. In the background, a man wearing a face covering around his neck walks past a sign reminding shoppers that face coverings are required at the store. 

It was a brutal three months in Northeast Tennessee: Between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31, COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths soared to record highs, infecting more than 32,000 and killing 636.

Now, local health experts are cautiously optimistic we’ve seen the worst of the pandemic — that after nearly a year of battling the virus, this is the beginning of the end.

Though the curve of new cases has fluctuated wildly from month to month over the past 11 months, this time feels different. Over the past seven weeks, the region’s seven-day average of new cases has experience a steep and rapid decline — tumbling from 456.2 on Jan. 7 to 83.6 as of Saturday, bringing Northeast Tennessee more in line with averages reported in early October.

Of course, in October, the virus was still spreading rapidly, with more than 5,900 infections and 76 deaths reported. February has already seen more deaths (114) than October, though the region reported the fewest new infections since July this month.

Northeast Tennessee’s test positivity rate, though trending down, also remains above the 5% standard, with more than 8% of tests coming back positive over the past week.

There’s also the threat of more transmissible, and potentially more deadly, variant strains of the virus that experts worry could trigger another surge if people relax their guard. Variants discovered in California and New York are already spreading at a torrid pace, while the U.K. variant is expected to become the dominant strain in the United States by the end of next month.

“We are seeing a downward trend in cases and hospitalization in the region and statewide, which would indicate we are on the down slope of this wave of the pandemic,” said Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office. “However, with only about 10% of our state population currently vaccinated and with the emergence of COVID-19 variants in Tennessee, it is possible we could experience another wave.”

And while the vaccines offer hope, it’s still unknown how effective they will be against the emerging variants.

“I think we can hope (we’re near the end),” said Jamie Swift, Ballad’s chief infection prevention officer. “It’s certainly too early for me to say that we’re out of the woods. There’s a lot of unknowns, we need to see what’s going to happen with the variant strains, we need to see how quickly we can get vaccine distributed and have more vaccine coverage and we need to see how that vaccine protection holds up against any variant strains that may be circulating.”

Swift said the region “still has a long way to go” and that the region “went from really, really bad, to just bad — we haven’t gone from bad to good or bad to it’s over.”

“There’s a lot of unknowns, and we know people are getting very excited and feeling like, ‘oh my gosh, it’s over,’ and I want to celebrate our wins, I want to celebrate that things are looking better right now, but I could not sit here and say this is over,” Swift said.

Perhaps the greatest barrier to returning to some sense of normalcy, however, is whether people can remain committed to mask-wearing and social distancing. The worst might be behind us, but another surge could quickly materialize if people do not remain vigilant against the virus — allowing it to regain a foothold and costing the lives of even more people.

So close to the finish line, experts caution, it’s important not to celebrate victory too early.

“Let’s be cautiously optimistic and optimistically cautious,” said East Tennessee State University College of Public Health Dean Dr. Randy Wykoff. “Let’s keep focused on what we need to do.”

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