Experts: Further increase in Omicron COVID cases, low vax rates could mean increased deaths | WJHL


JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The delayed arrival of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the Tri-Cities area likely means the region will see a large number of reported deaths from these cases in the coming weeks, experts told News Channel 11.

Omicron reached the Tri-Cities region within weeks of invading urban areas in Tennessee and Virginia. The large number of cases these areas experienced from late December to late January has recently skyrocketed reported COVID deaths across the state, particularly in Virginia.

The high number of deaths reported in Virginia came weeks after case rates began dropping sharply across the state. This is a consequence of deaths being a ‘lagging indicator’ and taking longer to register.

Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health officer for the Mount Rogers Health District, said while the percentage of COVID cases that end up very sick or die appears to be lower than it was during the Delta variant, that has been little comfort given case rates more than double Delta levels.

“I’m still optimistic that maybe things will go better than we think,” Forbes Hubbard said. “But when you have such a large increase in total cases, you’re going to see more hospitalizations and more deaths just from the sheer increase.”

This has certainly been the case in Virginia as a whole, where the death rate from COVID last week is higher than it has been at almost any time during the pandemic. It has increased more than sixfold in the past 10 days, and while deaths reported on any given day may be from a period of time, Forbes Hubbard said the statewide numbers would be tied to the recent thrust of Omicron.

Higher death reports are just starting to hit in southwest Virginia, where cases rose later and are falling slower than they did after the statewide peak . And the high number of deaths in other parts of the state have occurred in areas with higher vaccination rates than southwest Virginia.

“We mostly have unvaccinated people who get really sick and are hospitalized and they continue to be at risk for serious consequences,” Forbes said. “So we will probably continue to see a higher number of deaths than we would like.”

Tennessee’s COVID-19 death rate since September 2021 is almost double that of Virginia, while its rate of fully vaccinated people is 20% lower.

A statewide comparison of population-adjusted death rates and statewide vaccination rates in Virginia and Tennessee may offer a clue. Since Sept. 1, when all adults had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, Tennessee’s COVID death rate per 100,000 is just over double Virginia’s, from 107 to 51. But the percentage of fully immunized people in Virginia is 20 points higher than in Tennessee.

Staggering numbers of cases raise concern

Northern Virginia has seen a rapid decline in cases, but Forbes said it expects a “small prolonged surge” in southwestern Virginia.

“Our cases seem to be a little lower than they were, but they’re still very high,” Forbes Hubbard said. “So we don’t know if we’ve peaked yet, but we’re definitely in this plateau/slow continued growth phase.”

Cases certainly took longer to peak in the Southwest than they did statewide, and Forbes Hubbard also attributes that to low vaccination coverage. Virginia’s rate has been steadily declining for nearly four weeks now, including a 38% drop last week compared to just a 17% drop in the region over the past week.

“I think it’s partly due to the low vaccination coverage,” she said. “I don’t know if we’re going to have that big drop we’ve all been hoping for.”

Ballad Health announced on Tuesday that 454 COVID-19 patients were receiving treatment at its facilities after announcing the record number of new coronavirus patients hospitalized on Monday.

“You’re going to have with the denominator this (much) bigger is obviously going to have hospitalizations,” Jamie Swift, head of infection control at Ballad Health, said of the Omicron variant.

Swift added that the hospital system is already experiencing high death rates and anticipates a higher death rate to come. Although Omicron infects a large number of vaccinated people, it is rarely those who die from it.

“Vaccinated people, these people can usually enter [and] come back very quickly and a bit faster turnover and discharge than we’ve seen with Delta,” Swift said. “Unfortunately, we still have these mostly unvaccinated people who end up in intensive care who end up on ventilators and we are still reporting COVID deaths daily.”

In northeast Tennessee, the vaccination rate is lower than the state, which is lower than the national average. Like Forbes, another public health expert said, this puts the region at higher risk of higher case numbers but even higher death rates during an outbreak of a highly transmissible but lesser strain. deadly.

From Jan. 1 to Jan. 29, Northeast Tennessee’s population-adjusted COVID death rate was 57% higher than the state — more than 31 per 100,000 in the region, compared to less than 20 statewide.

“Generally, omicron death rates haven’t been as high as they were during Delta,” said Dr. David Kirschke, Northeast Tennessee Regional Medical Director. “But again, you know that not being vaccinated puts you at higher risk because the vast majority of people who die from Omicron are unvaccinated people,”

“Really, the best way to protect yourself from infection, hospitalizations and death is to get vaccinated and be up to date on your vaccine, which means getting your booster shot,” Kirschke said.

He added that he believed, based on what the public health community had observed after previous surges, that northeast Tennessee would specifically see a longer Omicron surge, and therefore a rate of higher mortality.

“We did that even after the last surge with Delta, our area, you know, our rates kind of went down slower than anywhere else and we started going up, having like another surge again,” said said Kirschke, referring to the high levels of cases after Delta’s initial surge.

For much of November and early December, Northeast Tennessee’s case and death rates were higher than the state as Delta managed a resurgence after bottoming out in late October.

Southwest Virginia had a 75% higher COVID rate than the state on December 14, entering the Omicron surge. Now it is proving slower to decline after Omicron’s peak.

“So there’s really nothing good to say about low vaccination rates, unfortunately,” Kirschke said.

“With so many people unvaccinated, there’s a potential, you know, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but there could be a potential that it doesn’t diminish that quickly.”

He said there is not much good news to share when populations have low vaccination coverage, which was echoed by other officials.

“We have a lot more tools in the toolbox, we are much better prepared to reduce transmission than two years ago, which is fair across the board. But like, again, it’s so transmissible, it eludes our efforts to contain and mitigate it,” Forbes Hubbard said.


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