KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — As local COVID-19 cases increase at an accelerated rate, Dr. James Shamiyeh, senior vice president and chief operating officer of UT Medical Center, says now is the time to rethink how the public can protect itself from getting the virus.

Shamiyeh said during his weekly video update on Thursday that UT has 77 patients currently with COVID-19. Across the East Tennessee region, including hospitals in Anderson, Claiborne, Union, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Cocke, Sevier, Knox, Blount, Monroe, Loudon, Roane, Morgan, Scott and Campbell counties, hospitalizations have increased from 217 two weeks ago to 314 as of Jan. 4.

Of the COVID-19 patients admitted to UT Medical Center since Nov. 22 73% have been unvaccinated, 2.9% started a two-dose series but did not finish, 20% completed a primary series but had not been boosted, and 4.4% had been boosted.

Shamiyeh said “a lot” of the UT COVID-19 patients had other underlying health conditions, or co-morbidities, but noted the vast majority are unvaccinated and the percentage of those who’ve been boosted are quite low.

He also said that breakthrough cases, a person who tests positive for COVID-19 at least two weeks after becoming fully vaccinated including a booster shot, are not considered vaccine failures.

“Vaccination, and particularly boosters, provide protection against severe illness,” Shamiyeh said.

Shamiyeh’s numbers coincided with those provided by the Knox County Health Department on Friday. The county health department said 1,003 people were confirmed positive on Jan. 7, a record for single-day new cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

“So clearly the COVID-19 situation has changed over the last several weeks,” Shamiyeh said. “Omicron is new, and in many ways it is different and we’re still learning about it. So we’ll be watching case rates and hospitalization rates over the next two weeks so we can determine to what extent the hospital system may experience strain.”

The percent of positive tests has seen an “abrupt increase in the last seven days.” If more total people are infected that could still lead to a significant number of hospitalizations. That includes hospital staff as well which could put a strain on staffing and lead to longer wait times at area hospitals.

Shamiyeh also noted that home tests won’t show up in testing data.

Hospitalizations are already increasing. As of Thursday, Jan. 6, 343 people are being treated in Knoxville-area hospitals.

“Chances are we all know at least one person right now who has COVID-19,” Shamiyeh said.

Shamiyeh continued to express the importance of the COVID-19 and flu vaccines. UT is treating 35 people for the flu after seeing nearly none during the 2020-21 flu season.