Health Commissioner warns of incoming outbreaks

Outbreaks of COVID-19 are hinting at a comeback in Tennessee as state health officials grapple with a greater-than-expected hesitancy to get vaccinated, particularly among conservative white men in rural counties. 

After shedding 85 percent of active infections from January to mid-March, the most rapid recovery seen so far in the pandemic, the state’s infection rate is again beginning to grow. In the past week, more than 8,500 new infections were reported in Tennessee, increasing the active case count by 1,000 people in a matter of days. Key indicators such as hospitalizations and positivity rate also suggest a greater viral spread as spring starts.

The number of people hospitalized for the virus has dropped 81 percent since the state’s peak in January, a move that can largely attributed to mass vaccination efforts among long-term care facility residents and other vulnerable populations. But for the first time since vaccines have become available in the state, hospitalizations are now rising. In the past seven days, the share of patients infected with the novel coronavirus in Tennessee hospitals has increased by 160 people.

“I’m fairly certain it’s going to get worse. What I don’t know is how high the next surge might be,” Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey told lawmakers on Wednesday afternoon. “We are already starting to see — we saw a plateau for three to six weeks — now we are starting to see it tick back up ever so slightly. What I don’t know is whether that will be a blip or if that will be a pretty substantive surge.”

Piercey went on to say that, statistically speaking, she doesn’t expect a future surge to size up similarly to the winter outbreaks — that nearly topped hospital capacities and left thousands dead — because a large share of the population already has some type of immunity. Nearly 20 percent of the state population has received at least one dose of available vaccine, and another large portion has natural immunity from the mass outbreaks that enveloped the state in 2020. 

In several regions of Tennessee, Piercey and her team are struggling to grow immunity through vaccinations before a surge can take place. The number of people wanting a vaccine in rural regions has dropped so much so that half of Tennessee counties this week did not need additional doses of vaccine. The health department is having to tweak its allocations based on future demand, she said, as officials from the state’s urban cores are calling daily for extra doses. 

In order to convince people to get vaccinated, the department of health is currently conducting market research to launch an advertising campaign among targeted demographics. That is expected to be completed by May, Piercey said. 

“Some of the vaccine hesitancy we have encountered was expected. We anticipated some of it, but there has been, to be honest, some vaccine hesitancy that we did not anticipate, and we can’t readily identify reasons for that. That’s why the market research piece is so important, in all 95 counties, particularly among rural conservative and rural white men, why they are hesitant and how to address it properly.”

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