Washington County, reporting four new novel coronavirus-related (COVID-19) deaths, surpassed 200 virus-related fatalities on Friday — the second county in the region after Sullivan County eclipsed that mark earlier this month.

Since Nov. 23, Wash-ington County’s death toll has nearly doubled. Its 203 deaths rank eighth in the state, behind Shelby (1,168), Davidson (688), Knox (432) Hamilton (337), Rutherford (294), Sumner (232) and Sullivan (213) counties.

In the last seven days, both Sullivan and Washington counties reported six new deaths, the most in the region. Carter, Johnson and Unicoi counties each reported three fatalities in the last week. Region-wide that total is 41.

A total of 809 Northeast Tennesseans have been reported dead due to the virus since March, nearly 70% of which have been reported since Nov. 1. One-hundred and fifty-nine deaths have been reported this month.

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State health commissioner: Variant ‘doesn’t change anything ... we’re doing’

Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, in a call with reporters Friday, said the arrival of the more contagious U.K. COVID-19 variant (B-117) “doesn’t change anything that we’re doing,” but urged people to continue taking precautions against the virus.

“I don’t want to downplay what could happen, but it doesn’t change anything that we’re doing,” Piercey said. “We need to continue reminding people that the same things that prevented them from getting the current strain are the same things that will prevent them from getting the new strain.”

On Thursday, the TDH confirmed the diagnosis of the first two cases of the variant in the state, which were confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Piercey said “we have identified that in Tennessee even with specimens that were several weeks old.”

The variant was first diagnosed in Britain last September, and was confirmed in the U.S. in Colorado on Dec. 29, with CDC models predicting it will become the dominant strain in the U.S. by March.

Though the variant does not appear to be inherently more deadly, it is about 50% more transmissible than its predecessors.

Tennessee’s vaccine shipments falling short of projections

Tennessee’s first-dose vaccine shipments have fallen short of initial Operation Warp Speed projections, Piercey said Friday, with shipments hovering around 80,000 doses — about 10,000 lower than what the state expected to receive. In addition, the state won’t see an increase in its allotment next week, as was expected.

“I’m hopeful that that’s just like a week delay, and that we’ll start seeing something for the first week of February,” Piercey said.

Piercey also said the state has the ability to operate mass vaccination sites which could increase vaccinations in the state by five times in a matter of days, and doubling that in a matter of weeks. But without vaccine supply, the state’s hands are tied.

“We have the workforce, we have the space — we just don’t have the product,” Piercey said. “Everybody’s wanting to help, and I appreciate it, but all I need is just vaccine from the federal government.”

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