Region’s average age, poor general health likely factors
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Northeast Tennesseans were older and sicker than the state norms before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived — and now those who contract the virus are being hospitalized and dying at rates well above the state average.
People from seven counties of Northeast Tennessee who contracted COVID-19 recently have been 55 percent more likely to die from it than the statewide average, Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) data show.
The disparity is even worse when it comes to hospitalizations, with Northeast Tennesseans who contract COVID more than twice as likely to wind up in the hospital than the state average.
That means that recently, 17.2 out of every 1,000 Tennesseans who contracted COVID died, but 26.6 out of every 1,000 Northeast Tennesseans did.
And though just 22.8 Tennesseans out of every thousand cases were hospitalized, the figure was 49.7 per thousand in Northeast Tennessee.
The discrepancy doesn’t surprise East Tennessee State University College of Public Health Dean Randy Wykoff.
Wykoff always has data about the region’s underlying health demographics close at hand and said the COVID mortality figures can be traced to several factors. They include the region’s average age and the higher incidences of serious disease — often called “co-morbidities.”
“Our average age is 43.6,” Wykoff said of the region. “Tennessee overall is 38.8.”
In addition, more than one in five Northeast Tennesseans is over 65 compared to one in six people statewide.
“Old age is one of the major risk factors from COVID, so even given the same number of cases we would expect more hospitalizations and deaths,” Wykoff said.
When it comes to chronic disease, Northeast Tennessee’s heart disease death rate was about a third higher than the state’s and its cancer death rate was one fourth higher. Those figures are from 2018.
Overall, the region had a death rate 17 percent higher than the state prior to COVID, Wykoff said.
“I think this is all consistent with, we are a high-risk population in terms of age, in terms of chronic disease, unfortunately,” Wykoff said.
Where’d we get the numbers?
News Channel 11 took new case data from the past six weeks and new daily hospitalizations and deaths from the past three weeks.
Northeast Tennessee had 7.8 percent of new cases for the entire six weeks – roughly equal to its 7.5 percent of the state population. That percentage was almost identical for the time period from Oct. 27 through Nov. 16 and the period of Nov. 17 through Dec. 8.
Hospitalization and death data was gathered from the later period of Nov. 17 through Dec. 8.
Between Oct. 27 and Nov. 16, there were 69,022 new cases statewide and 5,410 cases in Northeast Tennessee.
Over the next three weeks, there were 1,186 deaths statewide — 17.2 for every thousand cases. There were 144 deaths, or 26.6 per thousand cases, in Northeast Tennessee.
The 1,576 hospitalizations statewide equaled 22.8 per thousand cases, while Northeast Tennessee’s 269 hospitalizations translated to 49.7 per thousand cases.
The discrepancies aren’t much different at all for the entirety of the pandemic when it comes to deaths, though the hospitalization numbers are closer.
From March through Dec. 8 the state has recorded 12.3 deaths per 1,000 cases. Northeast Tennessee has recorded 18.3.
The hospitalization figures are 30.8 for the state per thousand cases and 45.0 for Northeast Tennessee. Hospitalization rates tended to be significantly higher earlier in the pandemic, when overall case numbers were much lower than the state averages in Northeast Tennessee.
Tale of two seasons: From less than our share of total deaths to more
When summer arrived and the pandemic’s grip took a tighter hold than it had on the region, the overall percentage of cases in Northeast Tennessee rose. As a result, the percentage of total COVID deaths coming from an area with 7.5 percent of the population has climbed steadily since August.
By the end of July, Northeast Tennessee had recorded just 2.3 percent of Tennessee’s COVID deaths. With outsized shares since, the percentage for the entire pandemic rose to 5 percent at the end of August, 6.9 percent at the end of September, and 7.3 percent at the end of October.
Wednesday, it stood at 9.5 percent.
Wykoff said the data is what it is, and in advance of a vaccine, the best things Northeast Tennesseans can do to minimize the death toll are simple and have been repeated by public health professionals for months. Wear a mask. Avoid crowds and large groups. Practice good hygiene and maintain six feet of distance if you are with others.
“I think anybody would conclude that what we’re doing isn’t working as well as we’d like,” Wykoff said.
“That’s not a political statement, it’s simply, no one wants to see the kind of numbers we’re seeing around the country, in our state and in our region.”
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